Mouchette has a crappy home life and actively hates everyone at school, throwing clumps of mud at them every day after classes. Her dad shoves her around, prevents her from having any fun, and her mom is dying, leaving Mouchette to take care of the baby. Meanwhile trapper Arsene and groundskeeper Mathieu have a Rules of the Game rivalry going on, also a romantic rivalry for the local barkeep. Mouchette sulks silently, preoccupied with sex and death, is raped by Arsene during a rainstorm, has a series of unsympathetic encounters with the townspeople after her mother dies, then drowns herself.

Bresson: “It can’t be summarized. If it could, it’d be awful.”

Pay close attention to the words of a song sung at Mouchette’s school and you can detect references to the overall theme of the film:

Opens pre-credits on Mouchette’s mom crying alone, before we know who she is, “What will become of them without me?” Tony Rayns in the commentary says the movie is about the disappearance of a person from human society. Sound effects from footsteps and futzing about with props are prominent, like in Rivette movies, although sometimes looped audio (and even visuals in the final shot) is noticeable. Camera focuses on hands and bodies, moving away from downturned faces. It’s a short movie, setting up all the players and conflicts efficiently in its first ten minutes with spare dialogue. Adapted from the same novelist as Diary of a Country Priest.

Godard made the trailer, in which a voiceover says it’s “about the rape of a young girl – in short, a film that is christian and sadistic.”

Repetition:

RB: “Adolescents are more flexible than adults. They’re interesting because of their mystery, their inner force. What I find interesting is thrusting a child, a young girl, into a situation that’s terribly mean, even nasty, and seeing how she reacts.”

R. Polito:

Shooting on Mouchette started soon after Bresson finished Au hasard Balthazar, and Mouchette seems a combination of the suffering Marie and the donkey, Balthazar, much as the hunting (rabbits) and poaching (partridges) episodes once again analogue human and animal misfortunes.

I’ve been watching Bresson’s earliest films in order, culminating in this extras-packed blu-ray of A Man Escaped. When I first started watching Bresson films (Au Hazard Balthazar, Lancelot of the Lake, The Devil Probably) I couldn’t figure out his style or why he was so acclaimed. Then I saw A Man Escaped and Pickpocket and loved them, but couldn’t say exactly why. Now I’m slowly figuring that out, though I still don’t really get Bresson’s worldview or what he means when he talks about his kind of cinema. He create subtle effects through careful modulation of elements that are usually more expressive: framing, editing and especially acting. This could lead to boredom, but he’s also using high-tension scenarios in A Man Escaped and Pickpocket, and the constant fear of getting caught clashes in interesting ways with the flat affect of the performance, plus this movie’s nonstop (sometimes redundant) narration provides the inner thoughts that the lead character’s blank expression hides. There are only brief bursts of music (I learned in the extras that Bresson plays Mozart whenever the lead character meets with someone who might aid his escape). All the movie’s tension and repression pays off after the final escape as Fontaine and his late-recruited cellmate Jost walk into the freedom of the night fog and the Mozart rises, the transcendence that Bresson was aiming for.

K. Elmore:

Bresson and André Devigny, the real-life former prisoner of war on whose experiences A Man Escaped was based, had differing ideas of what type of actor should be cast in the role of Fontaine. Feeling that the character must look physically capable of making the escape, Devigny presented Bresson with a young paratrooper and military triathlete. Bresson, however, was interested in making a “very psychological, very internal” film, as Devigny puts it, and chose the philosophy student François Leterrier, who, though he didn’t resemble Devigny in build, had very expressive eyes.

T. Pipolo:

The economy, purity, and rigor of Bresson’s aesthetic are directly related to his vision of the world, a complex perspective that carefully balances a belief in free will against the notion of preexistent design. For example, while A Man Escaped seems to be clearly mobilized by the protagonist’s will to be free, at the same time, Bresson said his aim was to “show the miracle [of] an invisible hand over the prison, directing what happens.” Thus, the propulsive trajectory of Bresson’s narratives — a result of the removal of excess and the refinement of technique — serves his overriding theme that human lives follow an implacable course. This is also apparent in such later masterpieces as Au hasard Balthazar (1966), Mouchette (1967), Lancelot of the Lake (1974), and L’argent (1983), despite their widely different subjects and increasingly cynical view of a world in which spiritual redemption seems to have vanished.

Elmore again:

Bresson put [assistant Louis] Malle in charge of Fontaine’s spoons, rope, hooks, and other escape implements, saying “Since you come from documentary, you take care of the props.”

Pipolo again:

Bresson’s method of creating character was not through the actor’s performance but through the actions performed — an approach that emphasized the external world and concrete reality. It is what a fictional figure does that creates character; his inner self is revealed by his outward actions and how he performs them. In short, action is character.

The Cineastes episode opens with long, uncommented section of Bresson films, then bursts of quickly-edited Bresson speaking philosophically, hating on filmed theater and escapism, finally settling down on an interview where he is hoping that filmmakers younger than himself can create the poetic “cinematograph” that he dreams of. It’s all very quotable, but he needs to use more examples so we’ll understand what he’s on about. Bresson also discusses his ideas for a cancelled film on Genesis. Listening to his theories, I started to wonder if Straub/Huillet were up to the same thing, but research (including my own post on Class Relations) says not exactly.

Bresson: “People say I was Rene Clair’s assistant. I never was. If I had been, I wouldn’t mind saying so.”

Functions of Film Sound is only about the sound of A Man Escaped. I’m amazed that he required 50 takes of some shots and still post-synched the whole thing – you’d think all the takes are required to get the vocal delivery just right, but that was just for the visual delivery – dialogue took another pile of takes a few weeks or months later.

Elmore:

All of the dialogue in the film was rerecorded in a studio. Bresson would say the line to the actor, and he would repeat it back to him, usually no fewer than forty to sixty times. Then Bresson edited together the best take of each word to re-create the line of dialogue.

The Essence of Forms opens with lead actor Francois Leterrier’s disclaimer that Bresson would not approve of any of this, then he gives stories and analysis of Bresson and his methods. “He never gave directions about interiority.”

Cinematographer Pierre Lhomme: “We saw several films together. He never liked them. He’d quiver in his seat, muttering ‘How can they do such things?’ It didn’t seem bad to me.”

The Road to Bresson: The filmmakers use the Story of Film technique of shooting their documentary footage in the style that their subject might use. This one quotes Bresson’s book and redundantly (in blu-ray terms) excerpts the Cineastes episode (however it also makes the point that Bresson used redundancy in his films). Good feature, and it was made after L’Argent so it covers a wider range of work than the others. I liked Paul Schrader’s explanation of transcendental film style, summarizing the book he wrote on Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer. Happy ending: for his final film, Bresson received a Cannes award alongside Tarkovsky, presented by Orson Welles.

Bresson gets a laugh at the press conference.
Q: “Why do you make films that frustrate viewers?”
RB: “What viewer are you talking about?”

New priest arrives hopeful at his first parish, is immediately eyed suspiciously by a powerful man having an affair with his kid’s governess. Every day will be a new disappointment for this young priest until his eventual death. A neighboring priest tells him: “A true priest is never loved. The church doesn’t care a whit whether you’re loved, my son. Be respected, obeyed. Keep order all day long, knowing full well disorder will win out tomorrow.”

Adulterous couple:

But he’s hardly respected or obeyed – people think him a meddler and a drunk, as he stumbles around dying slowly from undiagnosed stomach cancer, tormented by students and threatened by their parents. He manages to reach one woman, but she dies the next day and his meeting with her is misunderstood by others. Finally he goes off to see a doctor, and soon dies at the house of a former colleague.

The priest gets bad news:

Young terror Serafita, who does the priest a kindness towards the end:

I thought of Winter Light when the priest gives a daily mass for only one attendant – the commentary mentions it too. Surprised to hear that Bresson was agnostic.

The local count is the one having the affair (with Nicole Maurey of Day of the Triffids). The priest wants to help the count’s daughter Chantal, whom he believes to be sadly neglected, and wife, who is a shut-in mourning the death of her son. He tries to convince the family not to send Chantal away for good, and convince the countess to open up – semi-successfully too, as the governess is sent away instead after the countess’s death.

Priest vs. Chantal:

More grimly serious than Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, sharing sympathetic doomed clergy as main character with Les Anges du Peche, and more austere than either of them. Won some awards in Venice, while top prize went to Rashomon. Based on a novel by Georges Bernanos (Mouchette, Under the Sun of Satan). Lead priest Claude Laydu later played Franz Schubert in a biopic.

R. Humanick in Slant:

Bresson sees spiritual disorder as a disease, not unlike the stomach cancer we suspect is—and is ultimately confirmed to be—plaguing our titular character. Likely to fall ill at the slightest exertion, he has taken to a diet consisting entirely of stale bread soaked with wine. This leads the unnaturally suspicious townsfolk to suspect alcoholism, and in a heartbreaking revelation, we learn that the priest was in fact born to alcoholic parents (“pickled from birth,” as someone tactlessly puts it). Wine drinking is seen less as a habit to be abhorred, however, than as a routine not unlike holy communion, although Laydu’s fasting during shooting adds immeasurably to the priest’s sickly appearance and the accruing tone of his death rattle, and there remains a subtextual suggestion that our physical and spiritual limitations are naturally entwined.

F. Bonnaud for Criterion:

So Robert Bresson’s film is above all the story of a failure, of a man who is completely incapable of leaving an impression on the world. It is the story of defeat, of a faint trace of spirit left behind and then erased all too quickly. It is a story about someone who tries his best to throw things off balance, and whose best efforts are finally squelched by the weighty order of things.

“Is there nothing more to life than carrying the burden of one’s past mistakes?”

Helene (the great Maria Casares of Orpheus) is engaged to Jean (Paul Bernard of some Jean Gremillon films), who misses their anniversary so she has dinner with Jacques instead, shortly before breaking up with Jean. It seems from the conversation to be a mutual agreement to part ways, but for her facial expressions and closing line (“I’ll have my revenge”).

Helene looks up old friend Agnes, a former dancer who has sunken to prostitution, with her awful mother living off her, and offers to help them out, puts them in an apartment where they can escape the men who hound Agnes, who now wants to see no one. But Helene manages to slyly hook her up with her recent ex Jean, and he falls for Agnes immediately but she takes some work.

“cabaret dancer” must be movie-code for prostitute:

Jean manages to get the reluctant Agnes (Elina Labourdette, later of Lola) to agree to marry him, and immediately after the wedding Helene reveals her plot: “You’ve married a tramp, now you must face the consequences,” an awful blow to a classy rich fellow. But scandal is no use – it’s assumed at the end that the couple ends up happy while Helene is bitter and alone.

Adapted by Jean Cocteau (the year before his own Beauty and the Beast) from a novel by Diderot (1700’s author of source novel for Rivette’s The Nun).

Like Rivette, Bresson started his feature career with a nun movie. This is an interesting one in light of his later movies about crime and punishment. On prison trips, young nun Anne-Marie (Renee Faure, lovestruck globemaker’s daughter in L’assassinat du Père Noël) becomes obsessed with Therese (Jany Holt, the prostitute in Renoir’s Lower Depths), trying to get her to join the convent – which she does after her release, but not before shooting a man to death as revenge for her imprisonment.

So, Anne-Marie gets ever more intense towards the woman she thinks she has saved, and Therese is extremely moody, never fitting in at the convent since she’s really using it to hide from her latest crime.

Senses:

For her disruption of convent life Anne-Marie is expelled, but secretly returns nightly to pray at the tomb of her order’s founder. When she becomes deathly ill, she is discovered and readmitted to the fold; and, upon her death, Thérèse undergoes a change of heart, delivering herself to the police and to her just punishment. .. This route to Anne-Marie’s saintly fulfilment and Thérèse’s transformation passes through continually ambiguous terrain, in which will, destiny, and chance become indistinguishable, and in which saintliness and criminality not only work side by side but mingle.

Head nun Sylvie was in Le Corbeau the same year, and one of the others – I get them confused – was Marie-Hélène Dasté, Jean Dasté’s wife and a stage actress for playwright/novelist Giraudoux, who adapted the story for this film.

Public Affairs (1934)

Princess defies king, flies to nearby Crogandy to marry their clown chancellor, who gets a few funny bits in this visually indistinct, silly-ass comedy. A pretty good extended contagious-yawn joke leads to a plane crash, then everyone in town falls asleep (probably not a Paris qui dort reference). We follow the chancellor from a statue unveilling to a firehouse demonstration to the launch of a ship, with Marcel Dalio (the marquis in Rules of the Game and Frenchy in To Have and Have Not) playing most of the movie’s roles besides the romantic leads.

Katy didn’t see this one.

Fifth Bresson movie I’ve seen, and the one that tips the scales. I guess I like Bresson now. That’s so predictable of me.

IMDB says: “Michel takes up picking pockets as a hobby, and is arrested almost immediately, giving him the chance to reflect on the morality of crime. After his release, though, his mother dies, and he rejects the support of friends Jeanne and Jacques in favour of returning to pickpocketing (after taking lessons from an expert), because he realises that it’s the only way he can express himself.”

Good ending, with Michel in prison. A prequel to A Man Escaped? No, but I can dream. Felt really good to watch… but don’t know what to say. More later perhaps.