REVIEW – Mouchette (1967)

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.

REVIEW – Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

BalthazarFilmJuice have my review of Robert Bresson’s art house classic Au Hasard Balthazar.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been lucky enough to review some of the great classics of European Art House film as they’ve been re-issued on DVD and Blu-ray. Aside from introducing me to some genuinely great films and directors, this process has also motivated me to fill some of the gaps in my cinematic expertise and Au Hasard Balthazar was definitely one of those gaps. The reason I never got round to watching it is that, while I had heard great things about the film, I knew it was basically an extended religious metaphor based on a donkey and this struck me as so totally ridiculous that I decided not to bother checking it out. Having now finally gotten round to watching the bloody thing, my view remains that Au Hasard Balthazar is an entirely ridiculous film but the ridiculousness sort of works…

Set in the French countryside, the film tells the story of a sickly young girl who grows up into a confused young woman. Trapped between a distant father and an abusive quasi-boyfriend, the young woman is ground down beneath the heels of the patriarchy until she eventually just gives up and dies. The fascinating thing about this plot is that while neither Bresson’s script nor the amateur actors offer any real insight into why anyone does anything, the presence of a donkey who suffers just as the young woman suffers somehow makes the film incredibly moving. Even more fascinating is the fact that while the donkey effectively suffers ‘for’ the young woman in the same way as Jesus died ‘for’ our sins, the peculiar metaphysics of this relationship seems designed to flush out people’s attitudes towards God:

While the link between Marie and Balthazar works astonishingly well, the link between Balthazar and Christ seems like a metaphor too far. Indeed, while the donkey helps us sympathise with the impassive and often incomprehensibly self-destructive Marie, the religious symbolism only serves to lend this suffering some sort of dignified legitimacy, as though the donkey somehow died for our sins. The beautiful thing about this failure is that a case could be made for seeing it as intentional. After all, what is the point of religious belief if not a palliative sense that all the world’s suffering serves some greater purpose? And what greater signifier of atheism than the feeling that such ontological apologism serves only to distract us from the sufferings of real people?

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to review Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins. These films were originally made almost on top of each other and used not only many of the same actors but also many of the same themes, by reviewing the two films at the same time, I was able to tease out the connections between those two films and see how a director approached a similar question from two very different perspective.  My review of Au Hasard Balthazar is similar to my review of Le Beau Serge in that, as well as reviewing Au Hasard Balthazar, I reviewed Mouchette… which explored many of the same themes as Au Hasard Balthazar but from a rather different perspective.