Mouchette (1967) dir. Robert Bresson
Starring: Nadine Nortier, Jean-Claude Guilbert, Paul Hebert, Marie Cardinal, Jean Vimenet
By Greg Klymkiw
Thank heaven for little girls
for little girls get bigger every day!
Thank heaven for little girls
they grow up in the most delightful way!
Those little eyes so helpless and appealing
one day will flash and send you crashin' thru the ceilin'
Thank heaven for little girls
thank heaven for them all,
no matter where no matter who
for without them, what would little boys do?
Thank heaven... thank heaven...
Thank heaven for little girls!
Lyrics from the Vincente Minnelli/Arthur Freed
1958 MGM film musical Gigi,
Sung by Maurice Chevalier
with Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
and Music by Frederic Lowe
I detailed my knee-jerk assessment of French cinema whilst reviewing Pickpocket, citing a general Gallic preponderance towards dipsy-doodle whimsy, unbearably overwrought comedy, lavishly dull costume drama and pretension (mostly via Godard). I pointed to the salient exception to the rule - crime pictures and thrillers. With Mouchette, another exception to my gross generalization is cinema dealing with childhood - not the magic, per se, but the devastation and dashed dreams.
The typical anchors for this are Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows (wherein the young Antoine Doinel experiences the hypocrisies inherent in adults around him) and Louis Malle's heartbreaking Au Revoir Les Enfants (wherein a young boy loses his best friend to extermination in Auschwitz).
Perhaps only Russian cinema paints a bleaker portrait of childhood than the French (Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood is especially traumatic), but when it comes to presenting horrendous tales of the FEMALE experience in childhood, the French have EVERYONE beat all to hell. Films that spring immediately to mind are Rene Clement's Forbidden Games (wherein a little girl is orphaned in wartime, finds a family and friend she loves and eventually loses it to be swallowed up in the faceless hordes of the displaced), Jacques Doillon's Ponette (wherein a four-year-old girl tries desperately to come to terms with the death of her mother) and the Francis Mankiewicz masterpiece of French-Canadian cinema Les Bons Debarras (which focuses on a twelve-year-old-girl amidst the poverty of backwoods pur laine white trash).
The indisputable winner in the utterly depressing portrait of young womanhood in French (and perhaps all) Cinema is none other than - you guessed it - Robert Bresson's Mouchette.
And it's a great film!
Detailing the life of fourteen-year-old Mouchette (Nadine Nortier), Bresson pulls out all the stops and the movie bursts the despair-o-meter right off the charts. Set in a small provincial village, the title character is clearly out-of-step with everyone who lives there. Not that this is a bad thing since everyone in the town represents the lowest order of humanity. Her father (Paul Hebert) is a mean, abusive drunk. Her mother (Marie Cardinal) is dying and barely hides her contempt for Mouchette, fearing she'll lose a nursemaid to herself and her baby.
Mouchette has no friends at school - the prissy girlies are rotten, cliquish and so mean to her that she delights in hiding in a ditch and hurling balls of dirt at them. Her teachers hate her - probably because she's smarter than they are - and pays scant attention to their lazy, uninspired dronings. She receives further physical abuse at the hands of these crones.
Even more horrendous is a sequence where Mouchette becomes lost in the woods during a rainstorm and witnesses a violent dispute between a poacher (Jean-Claude Guilbert) and a warden (Jean Vimenet) - one which, ironically, has nothing to do with poaching, but the two mens' idiotic romantic rivalry for the town's homely barmaid. The poacher, thinking he's killed the warden, discovers Mouchette, lures her into his shelter to convince her into providing an alibi, has a violent epileptic seizure, is nursed back to consciousness by the little girl and once he's up to snuff, he rapes her.
Bresson presents a world completely lacking in happiness or compassion. He presents it unflinchingly and with his trademark simplicity, the effect of this narrative is pure devastation. One sequence involves Mouchette find a tiny oasis from the drudgery of life when a carnival comes to town. She manages to get enough money to try the bumper cars and in a freewheeling few minutes of joy, she experiences complete abandon. She not only gets out her frustrations behind the wheel of the bumper car, but catches the eye of a sweet young man. When she follows him to a shooting gallery and is on the verge of perhaps making a friend, her father charges into the scene, strikes her brutally, calls her a slut and drags her back to the outdoor cafe where he sits and boozes.
Bresson presents no easy answers or explanations for this horrid world. It is displayed for all its ugly worth. One hopes (against hope, I'm afraid) that there will be some escape for poor little Mouchette. Alas, escape proves to be a solution of finality and we're left with nothing but the feeling that we live in a world of darkness and ignorance.
Frankly, I believe we do. Those who would benefit from a film like Mouchette will never see it. Those of us who do, live in a rarified world. We are a minority in a sea of humanity, fouled and polluted by ignorance and stupidity. Our title character has it worst than most of us. She is an individual and has no desire to graze, sheep-like, amongst the rest - AND, she's a woman.
Mouchette is a tragedy - one in which childhood is just a brief, painful rite of passage where innocence is blackened upon birth. The Hollywood perception of France (and by extension, the world) which is presented in the MGM musical Gigi, delivers the sentiment via everyone's favourite stereotypical Frenchman Maurice Chevalier when he sings the famous Lerner/Lowe song "Thank Heaven For Little Girls". He croons, in his blithe bon-vivance, that little girls, their "ittle eyes so helpless and appealing", "grow up in the most delightful way".
For Mouchette, and frankly, for all humanity, nothing could be further from the truth.
"Mouchette" is part of the TIFF Cinemtheque's major retrospective organized and curated by the legendary programmer James Quandt. Aptly titled "The Poetry of Precision: The Films of Robert Bresson", this and every other Bresson film is unspooling at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and over a dozen cinemas across North America. "Mouchette" is also available on a stunning Criterion Collection DVD. This is definitely worth owning, but only AFTER or in TANDEM with seeing the picture ON A BIG SCREEN - ON FILM. "Mouchette" is screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox Saturday February 11 at 7:00 PM and Wednesday February 29 06:30 PM. To order tickets and read Quandt's fabulous program notes, visit the TIFF website HERE. To read my opening tribute to Bresson and this series, feel free to visit The Robert Bresson Man-Cave™ HERE. I am reviewing ever film Bresson ever made. In case you missed it, my review of "A Man Escaped" is HERE and my review of Pickpocket is HERE.