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REVIEW – Mouchette (1967)

May 1, 2013

mouchtteFilmJuice have my review of Robert Bresson’s Art House classic Mouchette.

Set in a part of the French countryside that is so poor that modern technology like cars and mopeds seem entirely out of place, Mouchette tells of an impoverished young girl who is born to an alcoholic father and a terminally ill mother. Expected to not only fend for herself but also for her parents, the young girl puts up with an almost impossible amount of teasing and brutality until she eventually snaps, wanders off into a nearby forest and winds up being raped by a local poacher. Trained to accept all the hardship that life has to give and never offer a word of complaint, the girl refuses to press charges against her assailant and instead throws herself into a river.

Bresson made Mouchette in the immediate aftermath of the much better known and more widely admired Au Hasard Balthazar, which I also reviewed. As with Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins, the extreme proximity of the two films means that Mouchette can be seen almost as a response to au Hasard Balthazar. As I explain in my review, the big difference between Bresson’s two films is that while both films feature a young woman who is beaten down and destroyed by the world, Au Hasard Balthazar seems a lot more human and emotionally vibrant because the donkey serves as a sort of emotional lightening rod allowing us to connect to the suffering of the main character.  Unfortunately, because Mouchette lacks a comparable lightening rod, the film seems bleak to the point of outright nihilism:

It is here that a comparison with Au Hasard Balthazar becomes really useful: Both films are about young women who are born into worlds of unrelenting cruelty that crush their spirits and drive them to suicide. However, while Au Hasard Balthazar uses a combination of donkey and Christian symbolism to make this suffering seem meaningful, the lack of wider context for Mouchette’s suffering makes her travails seem not just pointless but downright exploitative too.  Was there really no other way for Bresson to explore the corruption of the world than to make yet another film in which a young girl is raped by a local thug? And if you are going to make a film in which a fourteen year-old girl covers up her own rape, is it really acceptable to present these events with no social or psychological context whatsoever?

Another useful thing about re-visiting classic films is that it allows you to re-examine their value in light of contemporary values. Indeed, when Bresson made Mouchette and Au Hasard Balthazar, the predominance of male critics and male filmmakers was such that nobody really called into question the idea that rape was simply a part of everyday life and that making two back-to-back films that conclude with the rape of an under-aged protagonist might be considered a little bit creepy. The cover for Au Hasard Balthazar features a quote from Jean-Luc Goddard in which he states that:

This film really is the world in an hour and a half.

Cute line, but I am starting to find it deeply problematic that an entire generation of male filmmakers evidently thought it was okay to use rape as a sort of signifier for the horrible nature of the world. Aside from being deeply exploitative, this effectively serves to reinforce the view that rape is just a normal feature of life rather than a grotesque and intolerable moral transgression. Feminist thinkers even have a name for the vision of the world contained in Mouchette and Au Hasard Balthazar: Rape Culture. It’s one thing to make a film that casually reduces rape to the status of genre trope… it’s quite another to make two films in a row that use precisely this device. Au Hasard Balthazar‘s humanity and experimental use of symbolism are so striking that I believe it will remain a part of the European Art House canon for years to come. Mouchette, on the other hand, is a film that needs to be removed from its pedestal as a matter of urgency.

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