Friday, April 21, 2006

Hope Is Dead

(Robert Bresson, France, 1967, 35mm, 78 mins.)


I want to concentrate, constantly, absolutely, on one face, the face of this little girl,
to see her reactions... And I will choose, yes, the most awkward little girl there is,
and try to draw from her everything that she will not suspect I am drawing from her.

-- Robert Bresson to Jean-Luc Godard


That makes Bresson sound like a master manipulator. Maybe he was. At any rate, he pulls it off -- or rather the little girl pulls it off -- and I don't see how anyone could fail to be moved by her performance, regardless as to their feelings about the film.

Fourteen years old, Mouchette (Nadine Nortier) has the countenance of one much older. Her eyes are dark, lips full, nose long, hair unruly. She is not unattractive,
but nor is she beautiful. This being a Bresson film she is, however, miserable.

She has reason. Mouchette's mother (Maria Cardinal) is dying. Her father
(Paul Hebert) spends all his time drinking and bootlegging, so it's up to her
to take care of Mother and the infant child. She also works at the local tavern.
At school, nobody likes Mouchette, not even the teacher. During a singing
exercise -- "Hope is dead" is the key line -- she shoves the girl to the front of
the class and holds her head down, inches from the piano keys, forcing her
to hit the notes. Fine singing voice aside, there's one she can't get. Every time,
she's off-key. The teacher pushes her back in line. The other girls snicker.
Later, Mouchette hides in a ditch and flings mud at her classmates. Has she
been mistreated? Without a doubt. Are her actions justified? Possibly, but why
would anyone want to be friends with someone who would throw mud at them?
Adapted from the novel by George Bernanos (Diary of a Country Priest) and released
a year after Au Hasard Balthazar, Mouchette follows a similar trajectory. Balthazar, a donkey, is abused for years until he finally falls to the ground and expires. He's the ultimate mute protagonist. He suffers, we suffer. Death marks the end of his misery.
Mouchette is also abused, but she can fight back. And does. This makes the
movie as compelling as it is discomfiting. She says and does some perfectly
dreadful things -- just because we know why doesn't make it any easier to take.
It's the crux of Mouchette's dilemma. Hers is a horrible existence. When
life hands her lemons, she makes more. As other unfortunate events befall
her, Mouchette does everything within her power to make each one worse.
On the other hand, she's also a sensitive caretaker. She may not be ab-
le to fend for herself, but she takes good care of her mother and younger
brother. When the village poacher, Arsène (Jean-Claude Guilbert, Au Has-
ard Balthazar
), has an epileptic fit, she cradles his head as he foams at the
mouth. When he stops thrashing about, she wipes his face with tenderness.
Is she rewarded for her efforts? Not quite. Once recovered, Arsène
thanks Mouchette for her kindness by raping the girl. The next day,
her mother dies. And that's when things start to get really bad.
But let's backtrack for a second. Earlier in the film, Mouchette is driving a bumper car, flirtatiously crashing into -- and being crashed into by -- a handsome young man in a dark suit. She's smiling the whole time. She looks her age. And she's beautiful.
Afterwards, the boy walks away from her, but keeps looking back. Clearly, he
wants her to follow. She does. Things are starting to look up. This being Bresson,
the moment can't possibly last. It doesn't. All of a sudden, her drunken father swoops in like a bat, smacks her across the cheek, and drags her back to the tavern.
The boy is gone, the smile is gone -- the beauty is gone. From that point forward, Mouchette has no place to go but down. So down it goes. It's as if Antoine Doinel stepped off the ride in The 400 Blows, walked towards the sea and, well, you know.
Mouchette goes all the way. Some have described the ending as "spiritual,"
others as "tragic." For me, it came as a relief. Up until that point, Nortier,
a one-shot actress, made me feel every bump, bruise, slight, and slan-
der. I'm not sure whether I should be grateful or resentful, but it ranks
as one of the most remarkable child performances I've ever seen.
Bresson quote from Joseph Cunneen's Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in
. Mouchette plays the Northwest Film Forum April 28 - May 4, Fri.-Thurs.,
at 7 and 9pm (no shows April 29). The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave-
nue between Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill. For more information, please
click here. You can also call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-
5380 for show times. Images from Horses Think and Sounds, Images.

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