The opening scene to Mouchette, Robert Bresson's 1967 drama, finds a young man tying little loops of wire to branches and then setting them low to the ground so that when birds run past their heads get trapped in the loops. The film watches them get caught, flaying about, unable to set themselves free. This works as a metaphor for every character in the film. Set in a small village in the French countryside, all of the story's inhabitants seem caught in their own traps. There are few scenes of joy and happiness but many of despair and loneliness.
Our protagonist is Mouchette (Nadine Nourtier), a pubescent young girl whose alcoholic father pushes her around and calls her names like "slut" and whose mother lies dying in bed inside their grubby little house. She must tend to the baby in the house for her mother is incapable and her father doesn't seem to care if it lives or dies.
At school, the other children take turns ignoring her and calling her names like "rat face." She in turn hides in a ditch and throws mud at them when school is out. One day, a little carnival comes to town and Mouchette has enough money to ride the bumper cars. A young boy playfully bumps into her multiple times and she bumps him back. It is fun. It is the only time we see her smile. But the moment she gets out of the car her father slaps her across the cheek because she was flirting with that boy. When her mother dies (and that isn't the spoiler you think it is), a woman in a shop makes her some tea and gives her some croissants, but when she sees that Mouchette's blouse is slightly unbuttoned and she has a scratch on her chest, the woman calls her a slut and kicks her out.
That scratch came from the night before when a man takes her inside his cabin, promising shelter from the storm, and then promptly rapes her. Mouchette takes that, as she takes all abuses, in stride. When one of the few kindly people in town asks her about it, she says that the man is her lover.
Robert Bresson films all of this in his usual minimalist style. He shoots it almost like a documentary. His camera is detached. There is no swelling music to tell us how to feel. There are no melodramatic speeches. The characters keep their emotions close to the vest. Mouchette's face is often impassive, so when her tears finally do come, it is heartbreaking. Her performance is masterful. I watch her sad life and weep for all the children in similar situations.
I watched Mouchette on a lazy Saturday. Earlier that day, I watched Henri-Georges Clouzot's incredibly intense The Wages of Fear, followed by George Miller's slam-bam action-packed Mad Max: Fury Road. These films pumped me up. I was primed for something exciting. For something to keep my blood pumping. I almost didn't put in Mouchette knowing it would be much slower, more intellectual than action filled. But I knew I needed to write this review, so I slid it into the Blu-ray player. I figured I'd watch maybe twenty minutes of it then put something else on and finish Mouchette later, or even the next day. After twenty minutes played I decided to give it another ten, then another ten then the film was over. I couldn't stop watching. There aren't any scenes of action. This isn't what you would call a high-octane or even low-octane film. There isn't any octane to speak of, yet it is mesmerizing just the same It is beautiful and sad. The emotion is low-key but powerful just the same.
The Criterion Collection has given Mouchette a new 4K restoration and it looks wonderful. Extras include an audio commentary from 2006 by film scholar, critic, and festival programmer Tony Rayns. There is also a documentary from 1967 featuring Robert Bresson on the set of Mouchette, and a segment from a French television series featuring on the set interviews. The original theatrical trailer was filmed by Jean-Luc Goddard and it is something to see. One can't help but wonder what people thought of the film after watching that trailer, which makes the film seem a much different thing than it actually is. As usual, there is also a nice essay on the film inside the booklet.
Mouchette is a film worth watching, pondering over, and then watching again. It is full of riches.