Like much of 1960s culture, the cinema of the French New Wave can be understood as a reaction against the collective insanity of the Second World War. Trapped between disgust at anything resembling collective morality and a desire to take a principled stand against social injustice, directors from this period were prone to strip-mining their feelings of alienation in search of some basis for moral judgement. Made immediately after his equally well-regarded Au Hasard Balthazar, Robert Bresson’s Mouchette explores many of the same themes of suffering and freedom but without the luxury of religious symbolism.
The film tells the story of a fourteen year-old girl (Nadine Nortier) who is born into absolute rural poverty. Daughter to a drunken father (Paul Hebert) and a terminally ill mother (Marie Cardinal), Mouchette looks after both her parents and her infant brother without a word of complaint. Sent to school in dirty clothes and ill-fitting clogs, Mouchette is mocked by her classmates who are more interested in showing their underwear to boys and jumping on the back ofmotorbikes. Wounded by yet another fusillade of teasing, Mouchette wanders off into the woods where she witnesses a drunken brawl between a poacher and a local gamekeeper. Now completely lost, she runs still deeper into the woods only to wind up in the home of the poacher who seduces her with cheap gin and then sends her home to witness the last breath of her ailing mother. Harassed by the townsfolk who criticise and humiliate her under the pretence of sympathy, Mouchette calmly wraps herself up in a shroud and throws herself into a river.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Mouchette is its absolute psychological impenetrability. Made with amateur actors, the film contains little in the way of dialogue and almost nothing that might allow us to divine the characters’ inner feelings or motivations. Nortier’s Mouchette is particularly uncanny as she wears the same scowl of indifference all throughout the film. Indeed, it is not in the least bit clear whether Mouchette’s suicide is a response to her rape, the death of her mother, the cruelty of the townspeople or the fact that some nearby hunters shot some wild rabbits.
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?
When viewed alongside the far more enjoyable and intricately-made Au Hasard Balthazar, Mouchette serves as a powerful reminder of the extent to which religious faith can serve to justify and legitimise needless suffering. However, when approached strictly on its own terms, Mouchette seems just as bleak, nihilistic and misogynistic as your typical un-reconstructed horror film. In fact, the only difference between Mouchette and the characters in Saw is that the sinister genius torturing Mouchette is the universe itself.