Robert Bresson distills the superficial portrait of the archetypal gamin in order to derive the indelibly bleak and caustic cinematic image of Mouchette. Hardly the hapless waif or endearing pixie, Mouchette (Nadine Nortier) is all too human: a slovenly, unremarkable, and asocial adolescent neglected by a terminally ill mother (Maria Cardinal) and an abusive, alcoholic father (Paul Hebert). She hides behind a ravine after school, throwing dirt at other children. She jumps into a puddle in her church clothes on her reluctant way to mass. She purposely tracks mud at a neighbor’s rug, after the elderly woman offers to donate clothing for her mother’s funeral. But there are also subtly poignant moments of humanity: an abbreviated encounter with a boy at a carnival; concealing her mother’s alcohol consumption by adding water to a bottle of gin; attending to the helpless game poacher, Arsene (Jean-Claude Guilbert), who has suffered a seizure. Drawn into complicity by Arsene’s seeming kindness, she stays at his house during a rainstorm, and is violated. Returning home, her attempts to recount the painful episode are truncated by her mother’s incessant instructions and, eventually, her death. In the morning, attempting to escape the misery of the situation, she leaves the house on an errand, only to find the same cruelty beyond its walls.
Bresson’s use of spare and minimal camera work serves a greater purpose than to merely provide a signature style. From the extreme close-ups of the opening scene, showing only Arsene and Mathieu’s (Jean Vimenet) eyes, to the headless shots of people in the bar, Bresson creates a metaphor for the fractured soul. Mouchette is profoundly alone, incomprehensibly searching for connection and acceptance, but is answered with betrayal and violence. Note the analogy of the two animal sequences in the film: illustrating the struggle to live, the crushing of the spirit, and the inevitable surrender to its fate. In essence, we are Mouchette – foundering and incomplete – seeking redemption from the misery of existence, incapable of articulating the pain – resigned to our own private hell.
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