Thursday, June 7, 2007

Mouchette: Bresson's Suffering Humanity

From Job onwards, the portrayal of noble suffering in a narrative setting has proved problematic. Such a portrayal demands an excessive authorial contrivance as the writer heaps an endless string of indiginities on a character whose otherworldly humility makes it difficult to elicit the audience's sympathy. The audience understandably wants something of the human in their characters and not pure saint. At least Job (and Christ for that matter) registers the odd complaint. In the worst instances of this narrative strain, as in Flaubert's unjustly celebrated story "Un Coeur Simple", the character is all too willing to take on her suffering and this pure resignation, while it may admirably illustrate so-called Christian values, makes the character difficult for audiences to accept. In Flaubert's story, for example, there is nothing in Felicité's character to engage the reader and Flaubert's deliberate stacking of the deck against her seems like the unfair manipulations of a god-like author. It is only Flaubert's flawless prose that gives the story any interest.

In the cinematic world, Robert Bresson has become the poet of suffering humanity. In his 1966 film Au Hasard Balthasar, the director gives us two noble sufferers, the donkey of the title and his owner Marie, who both endure constant cruelty throughout their lives, but persevere with a pure heart. Bresson's masterful mise-en-scène and his refusal to sentimentalize the material allows the picture to rise above its unpromising premise. In Bresson's followup picture Mouchette, he covers similar territory, but complicates the situation by making his sufferer less explicitly "good" than in the previous film, a strategy that works both for and against the director. The main character, the eponymous Mouchette, is less content with her suffering. A tormented schoolgirl, she fights back against her jeering schoolmates by pelting them with fruit. When her mother dies, she refuses the comfort of an old woman, dismissing her rudely. Ultimately, though, the character of Mouchette is inscrutable. Played by Nadine Nortier in adherence to Bresson's characteristic rules for his actors which prohibit any emotion and demand the lines of the script be simply read, the actress is unable to cope with the contradictory elements of Mouchette's character. As long as the character is little more than a noble simpleton, like Marie in the earlier film, this approach works fine, but for the feistier Mouchette, it feels like deliberate obscurantism. For all Bresson's crystal clear images, he seems content to leave his lead character a muddle. As the indignities pile up, the audience is no more moved by the suffering of the inscrutable Mouchette than they were by that of the all too obvious Marie.

Jonathan Rosenbaum has written of the misplaced critical focus on Bresson's spirituality, an approach taken most famously by Paul Schrader in his book The Transcendental Style in Film. What is most important in Bresson, he argued, is his insistent physicality, and indeed the director's portrayal of the raw brutality of his environment is his strength, a strength especially evident in the astonishing images that are Mouchette's chief virtue. From the mud-caked ground which dirties Mouchette's boots to the brawl between poacher and game warden, the physicality of Bresson's world remains its most salient fact. Two scenes in particular are worthy of mention as among the director's finest. Early in the film, a poacher sets a trap in the woods by attaching a wire loop to a branch. Soon a pheasant finds himself trapped, his neck in the loop. Bresson's camera lingers on the bird as it struggles to disentangle itself, its insistent flop alternating with lack of motion as it appears the bird has died, only to start the struggle again. Eventually, the game warden comes and frees the bird and it flies off. Whatever interpretations one chooses to impose on the bird (and its parallels with suffering Mouchette are obvious) it is the sheer power of the image that matters, an image so powerful as to render interpretation irrelevant. Bresson's other great scene involves Mouchette's ride on a bumper car at a fair, the one moment in the film where she seems to enjoy herself, even providing the film's only smile. Everything about the scene contrasts with the rest of the picture. The scene is comprised of a number of quick cuts, differing from the long takes the director favors in the rest of the film. The scene's focus on action and physical contact (the collisions of the bumper cars), though finding its parallels in two later scenes, is much more immediate in its impact on the viewer. And finally, not just Mouchette but all the townspeople seem to be enjoying a moment of happiness, the only such moment Bresson grants his characters. It is these scenes, allied to Bresson's deliberate and near perfect mise-en-scène, that provide the film with its impact. The theme of suffering humanity has become a tired one and one that often rings false, reliant as it is on author manipulations and unbelievably saintlike characters. Although Mouchette is certainly not a saint, the plot manipulations are everywhere present and only Bresson's visual mastery can compensate for a poor central character and a shopworn conception.

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