Sunday, April 22, 2012

On Robert Bresson's Mouchette (and how it can make you feel really bad about life) *possibly with "spoilers"*

I just watched Robert Bresson’s Mouchette (1967) and my initial response was something along the lines of, “What the fuck, humanity? What the fuck?”

God, and I said my next blog post was going to be cheerful! A lie, I see now, although I didn’t know it at the time.

Mouchette is like Precious, except with French people, and a sense of restraint (I’m assuming; I haven’t seen Precious, although my understanding is that it’s a Grand Guignol festival of horrors and degradation and that the titular Precious suffers more than even the most put-upon of Dickens characters). 

But back to Mouchette.  Who is Mouchette and what are her problems? Mouchette lives in a small, rural-ish backwater in France circa-196…5, let’s say.  Her mother is dying of cancer.  Her father may or may not be a lush, but he’s certainly an asshole and he slaps her around for flirting with a boy while driving the bumper cars at a visiting carnival.  One of Mouchette’s problems is that she’s an adolescent (fourteen, maybe fifteen, I don’t know) and, as a matter of course, it seems, everyone thinks she’s a debauched slut and they tell her so.  In fact, right after her mother dies, her father calls her a hussy, apropos of nothing.  So she has all these problems.  Her classmates at school bully and mock her and so do her teachers.  It reminded me of the line in the John Lennon song, “Working Class Hero,” where he says, “They hurt you at home / and they hit you at school,” although this trend seems to be reversed in Mouchette’s case.  They don’t hit her at school, they just treat her like shit.

But this kind of treatment in a French school is to be expected.  French schools are awful, according to every French movie I’ve ever seen that had a school setting.  This movie was released in 1967.  1968 saw the student uprisings in Paris, which came to nothing, of course, but at least the students let it be known that they were pissed.  One must always be cautious when it comes to revolutions; even those that seem to be the most justified and the most necessary can yield terrible results. As a contemporary example, let’s take a look at Libya, where certain revolutionary militias persecuted and imprisoned black Africans and ethnically cleansed entire towns of Touaregs and other darkly complected Libyans (hm, Microsoft Word seems not to recognize “complected” as a word.  But it’s in Shakespeare, so I don’t see why I can’t use it.  Besides, Microsoft Word also doesn’t recognize “Touareg.”) And speaking of Touaregs, the Touaregs who left Mali to fight for Gaddafi subsequently returned to Mali, armed with shiny new weapons, and launched an uprising which precipitated a coup which overthrew Mali’s twenty-year-old democratic government.  So the overthrow of a tyrant in Libya has led to the overthrow of a democratic government in Mali.  At best, the changes of government balance each other out on some moral scale of “barely acceptable situations.” But that’s only if Libya becomes a democracy, and if the people who murdered the captured and disarmed Kaddafi and then put his body on public display are any indicators of what’s to come, then it probably won’t.

So revolution is a tricky business at best and it often just makes things worse.  Mouchette engages in small-scale acts of rebellion against her tormenters, but she doesn’t get anything out of it.  And I won’t reveal the ending of the movie, but you won’t be surprised to learn that Mouchette is doomed.  This isn’t an American movie.  This isn’t Precious.  Mariah Carey will not show up at the end and do whatever it is she does in Precious.  And that’s probably for the best.  We don’t need to sugarcoat this kind of situation.  Mouchette can either be doomed or she can go Straw Dogs, but she’s a small, teenage girl in the rural 1960’s France.  She is in no position to go Straw Dogs on anyone. (And again, if she did, if she followed the “revolutionary” path of Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs, would she be happy in the long term? Probably not.  Probably she’d still be fucked).

This movie was kind of soul-crushing, but it didn’t destroy me, which is nice, I suppose.  If you want to be destroyed, watch Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff (1954).  The critic Anthony Lane stated, “I have seen Sansho only once, a decade ago, emerging from the theater a broken man.” A detailed examination of Sansho the Bailiff can wait for another blog post, but I do want to quote the famous line from it which should serve as a warning and a moral prescription to everyone: “Without mercy, man is a beast.” So remember that before you set about torturing the Mouchettes in your life.

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