on 11 July 2005
Robert Bresson (1901-1999) began directing in 1934 and made 13 feature films between 1943-1983, the first two during the German Occupation of France. He achieved great critical acclaim, is widely cited by many of the world's leading film makers as one of their major influences, yet his films never achieved great box office popularity. Described as 'uncompromising', Bresson was not prepared to listen to the marketing people or to sacrifice control over his own art - he made the films he wanted to make, not the ones which would earn money.
Bresson is a director who strives for visual impact - the majority of his films were shot in black and white and he probably demonstrates greater visual control in this medium than in his later, colour films. And the visual element can be emphatic - his films are often sparse in their use of dialogue while Bresson makes exaggerated use of natural sound effects (wind, rain, footsteps, creaking boards).
And Bresson uses unknown or amateur actors - no big names, no easy familiarity with the faces on the screen. Bresson wanted his audience to concentrate on the story and its emotions, even if his style might make these enigmatic, if not cryptic. He began as a painter, and often referred to his actors as 'models' - they were there to provide visual images. And his models were stripped of emotion - he didn't want them to portray emotion as a public show, but to exhibit something more transcendent.
Heavily influenced by a Catholic vision of predestination, Bresson avoids concerted effort to explore the psychology of his characters. In many of his films the characters simply accept their fate - they know they are destined to suffer and battle against an illusion of free will. Bresson's pessimism is evident, but he expressed a conviction that he saw the influence of god more clearly and potently in poverty and suffering. The struggle to resolve the conflict between freewill and destiny is, for Bresson, the essential route to spiritual fulfilment.
"Au Hasard, Balthazar" (1966) and "Mouchette" (1967) - Bresson's last black and white films - are the only ones he ever made in successive years. They are often linked together critically as the high water mark of his cinematographic skill. Themes spill over from the earlier to the later film, as if Bresson felt he needed to resolve issues of teenage alienation and the bleak future which faces a reject waif.
"Mouchette" was banned in places because of its bleak vision, but achieved immense critical acclaim in the 60's and 70's. However, its popularity waned in the 80's, and it has become largely an overlooked classic. It is the tale of a day in the life of a young girl, rejected by and rejecting her school, used as a domestic drudge to look after her sickly mother and new baby, physically abused by her ne'er-do-well father and elder brother. Mouchette is destined never to be happy, destined never to be able to express herself but merely be the tool of others. She needs love, she needs recognition and acceptance, but she remains an outcast.
At best, she can find time to be alone, to be away from adults and their constant demands and criticisms. She has few moments of play - when a boy smiles at her, her father quickly intervenes. Alone, confused, Mouchette's life is one downward spiral, enlivened only by the odd moment when she can get one over on the adults. She finds escape in play.
An evidently bleak film, you are left wondering whether Mouchette is doomed or whether she is able, at the last, to assert control and be decisive about her life. Does she triumph at the end by taking control of her life? Or is this symbolic of spiritual weakness, of her failure to accept the fate god has marked out for her?
An intense cinematographic experience, "Mouchette" is hardly a conventional narrative. It benefits from being watched several times, giving you an opportunity to absorb the intense visual experience Bresson creates. A stunning film, though perhaps showing some sense of age, "Mouchette" deserves to be seen by a much wider public.