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No one is more adept at showcasing tortured souls on film than Robert Bresson. Recently given the masterwork treatment by Criterion, Mouchette never veers from the consistent formulas of the erudite French director’s other work. Soul-searching trials of humanity are his métier, and that is exactly what Mouchette provides. In an attempt to eliminate the performative qualities of acting, Bresson almost exclusively employed non-actors. At its best, this technique rendered the characters more humane and vulnerable to their environment. But when it doesn’t work, the result is a confused performance and an even more confused audience.

<i>Courtesy of the Criterion Collection</i>
Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

In the opening scene, rabbits become entangled in man-made traps placed in an open field. When the title character is introduced, the scenario of the film’s opening is symbolic of her struggle as well. For most of his career, Bresson took multiple years between films. However, Mouchette was made only one year after his masterpiece, Au Hasard, Balthazar, and the lack of preparation is evident in the final result. Both films feature leading females (girls, actually) that endure sexual assault, family death, and the confines and judgments of the residents of a small town. But where Balthazar excels in posing existential questions and utilizing the format of a religious fable, Mouchette fails by merely telling the (familiar) story of a troubled young girl.

Mouchette may be the only film of Bresson’s where there is a joyous scene. The title character plays on bumper cars in a circus to the sounds of French pop music, flirting with a young man in the process. This scene is undoubtedly an attempt at aligning the audience with the troubled young girl. Its effect is merely an awkward attempt at characterization.

Unlike other Criterion releases, Mouchette is rather light on the special features. Two relatively similar short documentaries chronicle the process of making a film with Bresson, and feature short interviews with his actors. The real gem of this DVD is the original theatrical trailer, made by none other than Jean-Luc Godard. Until recently, Godard denied having any involvement with the trailer. If the pairing sounds a little off, it is. The French New Wave style of Godard was an awkward mix with the barren spiritual themes of Bresson. In a style reminiscent of Masculin-Feminine, the trailer oscillates between abrupt cuts of the film interspersed with sardonic renderings of the plot: even the film’s rape is a comedic target.

The happy scene in the middle of Mouchette could almost be taken from one of Godard’s releases from the same time period. With its miscasting of the leading character and the film’s tonal problems, Mouchette suffers from a lack of inspiration and the retreading of familiar themes. But the Godard-penned trailer makes this DVD one worthy of renting.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2007

All Issues