Mouchette Review

Despite a relatively small output (fourteen films over a career spanning half a century), Robert Bresson is regarded by many directors as one of the finest but also a true outsider in the history of French cinema. His heartfelt and sincere Christian faith made him anachronistic for an intellectual scene lapping up the bleak Existentialism of the Rive Gauche or the moral relativism of the 1960s but, beyond this, his rigorous rejection of traditional film made him a pioneer of a new and unique type of filmmaking.

Many of these aspects come to the fore in Mouchette, one of his most famous films though the debate still rages on amongst his fans whether it is his best or not - Godard prefers Au Hazard Balthazar but Bergman is a strong proponent of the present. His second adaptation of the author Georges Bernanos (another anachronistic iconoclast), Mouchette takes realism to another level. In an isolated village in the French countryside, a young girl suffers endlessly at the hands of everyone around her. Her classmates despise her, refusing to even acknowledge her presence and her teacher humiliates her on a daily basis. Meanwhile at home, her mother lays dying whilst her husband drinks himself cross-eyed on some bootlegged gin and beats her up. Mouchette performs all the household duties without ever complaining. Yet Mouchette herself is a complete anti-heroine - she tries to get even on every occasion and bites back sometimes without even being bitten. It is quite amazing that, despite being in many ways despicable, the spectator forms a strong bond with her. Bresson obviously was not interested in an idealisation of the lead character - warts and all, Mouchette is a realistic study of humanity, the schizophrenic ability we have to behave atrociously one minute and be perfectly altruistic the next.

Newcomers to Bresson will probably find this effort incredibly dry and almost nonsensical. It is a break from traditional filmmaking as plotting was not really something Bresson worried much with and the viewer is made to almost become a psychoanalyst, judge and jury, trying to discern what each character is feeling, where they are coming from and what makes them behave in a certain way. Nothing is forced upon you and yet it remains a work of heartbreaking beauty, lucid up to the point of agony and should be seen by any aspiring director or film fan. It may not make its impact on first viewing but Mouchette (and much of Bresson's work) is proof that cinema can be pure art whilst still remaining watchable. From Dogma 95 to Lukas Moodysson's Lilya-4-Ever, passing by Bruno Dumont's L'Humanité or Iran's Jafar Panahi, Bresson has left his print on many aspects of cutting edge cinema but most of his films are currently unavailable in any format. At last, his works are starting to appear on DVD - let us hope this shall continue...

The DVD:
Be certain to not read the sleeve notes before watching the film as it contains huge spoilers...

The image:
Well I'm impressed. Frankly, I'd have been glad to own Mouchette on DVD regardless of the image quality (within reason) but the quality of the image is much, much better than I dared expect. Some minor flecks appear from time to time and natural grain is visible on close inspection but globally, it's very, very good. The blacks tend to be quite solid and the image contrast seems to be correct. Filmed in 1.66:1, the original aspect ratio is respected (something that apparently wasn't the case in the Japanese release) and has been transferred anamorphically. Given the films short running length (under 80 minutes) and the lack of extras, the entire DVD fits on one layer.

The subtitles:
Dialogue is incredibly sparse in the film, but the translation tends to be correct but doesn't translate everything. Sometimes they summarise which in this case doesn't really affect the understanding of the film. They also choose not to subtitle basic French words or people's names when used in isolation which should not pose many problems but should really have been subtitled. Though player generated, the subtitles cannot be turned off even with players that usually allow it. Something they should avoid especially given their target market.

The sound:
I noticed one dropout but globally it stands up very well. Music is rare in Bresson but the odd occurrences are surprisingly punchy. Naturally it is mono de rigeur and the original French soundtrack only.

The extras:
Not much really - a basic filmography of Bresson and a picture gallery made up of screengrabs from the film. Not even a trailer which would have been interesting - I would love to know how they managed to sell this film to filmgoing audiences!

Well it's rare enough to note: the UK has beaten France at releasing this and a fine job it is too. So there's no extras but this is not the type of film that really should be overly explained - ever since its release people have taken something completely different from it and that's what makes it stand up to the test of time almost forty years after it was made. Unless Criterion come up with a better version this is the only one out there at the minute.

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