In Frederic Bonnaud's essay on Journal d'un cure de campagne (Dary of a Country Priest, 1951), he calls the character of Seraphita (a young girl who torments the eponymous priest) "scary" and "a mistake," her conversion scene being "too literal and obvious" and I suppose she is; I don't mind taking Mr. Bonnaud's word for it. What I do see myself, however, is not so much an obviousness as a kind of inconclusiveness--we have some hint of a conversion of this "monster" (as she's described), but not the whys and wherefores of her transformation. The titular priest is cracked open and thoroughly examined, the other character are mostly types meant to give an unyieldingly hostile face to the town (for the Countess--the one notable exception--Bresson hands over to us a swiftly and masterfully executed sketch of her soul). Seraphita arouses our curiosity as an entity with intelligence and awareness enough not to buy the town's line of thinking; Bresson leaves her in a lurch, swaying towards the priest, but without anything conclusive coming out of her conversion. Could Bresson's taking on a second Bernanos novel be his way of returning to what he'd left unexplored the last time?
Bill Mousoulis in his Senses of Cinema essay considers Mouchette a "reworking of some aspects" of Bresson's arguably most highly regarded film, Au Hasard, Balthazar, and points out the many similarities. Granted, but considering the chronology, wouldn't it be just as plausible to say Bresson very possibly took inspiration from Bernanos' novel to make Balthazar, later deciding to adapt the source novel itself to the big screen as well? Either way, one might say Bresson was unsatisfied with his earlier incarnations of the girl, and felt he had to tackle the character full-on.
Watching the film, one can't help but be reminded of yet another film--Jean Renoir's La Regle du Jeu (Rules of the Game, 1939). The similarities are striking--a poacher and gamekeeper after the same girl; a rabbit hunt summing up the filmmaker's view of the world. More on this later.
Film critic Tony Rayns in his mostly excellent commentary for the Criterion DVD of the film tells us that the film is about the disappearance of a human being from human society--what's left when one is gone? He points out that absence is a recurring motif in the film, what with Mouchette's mother in the opening images crying out in despair about her coming death, Arsene the poacher describing his epileptic fits as like a kind of blanking out, and later the daughter herself deliberately walking away from human society. I'd add further that absence is a great theme or method in Bresson's filmmaking too--no melodrama, no acting in the conventional sense, all extraneous details wiped out. Rayns says he doesn't think Bresson is a minimalist but that his films feel minimalist, and I agree--Bresson pares away much if not everything that doesn't conform to his idea of "cinematography" (real filmmaking, according to Bresson, as opposed to "cinema" which he considers a mere reproduction of dramatic theater), instead packing his work with enough strange details (strange to you, not Bresson, for whom it presumably made perfect sense) to keep the viewer endlessly fascinated, if he knows how to look.
Mouchette is a sad little thing. Rayns mentions that in Bernanos' novel she's even more repulsive, with plain face and bad skin; he believes Bresson captured her attitude but otherwise cast one of his beautiful waifs in the role--something I can't quite agree with, because attitude (I think) goes a long way towards determining one's attractiveness or lack of (one of the documentaries on the film shows Nadine Nortier in between takes; she smiles often, and when she does she's radiant). Ms. Nortier's Mouchette is a peasant lump: a toad, practically, with pigtails, hand-me-down clothes, an awkward, almost amphibious gait (you can imagine she's more graceful in water; when someone shoves a table aside under which she's hiding, you expect reptilian legs to be folded under her, ready to leap). She has no friends, her mother is in bed, chronically sick, and her father and older brother are too busy smuggling liquor to pay her any attention. She jumps into mud puddles on the way to church, she tosses clods of dirt at her classmates; when someone calls out her name (at the film's beginning, in effect introducing her), she pointedly ignores the caller and continues plodding her way into school.
Before Mouchette takes her leave of the world, though, she needs to know just what she's leaving, and the film sets about this task with blunt efficiency. She's watching her classmates sit on a railing when they suddenly flip upside-down, flashing their underwear. She's passing a doorway when a boy inside calls out to her; when she stops to look he drops his pants. She's mute witness to a sexual farce played out between the aforementioned gamekeeper Mathieu (Jean Vimenet) and poacher Arsene (Jean-Claude Gilbert, perhaps the only actor to have appeared in two Bresson films (he never likes to repeat casting)) over Luisa, the barmaid (Marine Trichet). She even manages to have her own dalliance--at a fair she climbs into a dodgem and (perversely, as is her nature) zooms away backwards; a young man crashes into her from behind, the collisions (again, perversely), being his way of showing interest.
Like the priest in Bernanos' other novel she's shunned by much of the town or held in contempt; like the priest she has a crucial encounter with another soul that Bresson shoots in a style markedly different from the rest of the film.
The sequence starts off with Mouchette looking at the moon, a tiny orb surrounded by huge storm clouds--she's lost in the forest, apparently. Through the brush she sees Mathieu approach Arsene, confronting him about Luisa. One falls on top of the other and they struggle; Mathieu bites Arsene's hand, and blood gushes out (one can't help but think of the blood from a deflowering). Afterwards, they have a (post-coital?) drink together, become friends. If, as Rayns suggests, Bresson abandons the skewed but otherwise realist look he uses for most of the film to evoke a dreamlike quality in this passage (the moon and passing clouds, the unreal howl of wind), we may be looking at the fight through Mouchette's half-hysterical eyes, already primed by previous incidents to see everything and anything as vivid, suggestive, sexually charged.
Mouchette sees no more; she's found by Arsene and brought to a shelter. Arsene notes the shrieking wind (Bresson, who orchestrates sound effects much as if they were a music score, uses what I think is his single most memorable effect here) and calls the storm outside "a cyclone." He explains that he believes he's killed Mathieu and wants her to be his alibi; he outlines an elaborate story for her to follow, going so far as to scatter the ash in the shelter (to show that he hadn't been there), and start a fire in his own house (to show that he had been home all night).
Arsene is a proven playboy (I can't see the appeal myself--but I'm hardly an expert); it isn't his meager charms that capture Mouchette, though, but his helplessness--he has a grand mal seizure, and Mouchette (much like Seraphita when her priest collapses) has to watch over him, singing a song she willfully sang off-key at school, this time note-perfect. More than sexual attraction, I think tenderness is a dangerous emotion--it can inspire the kind of foolish actions and heedless decisions that can change a life, and Mouchette is irrevocably changed.
The rest of the film shows the town's reaction to this new Mouchette. She comes home to her mother in bed, her father and older brother out (smuggling, presumably), her baby sister crying; she offers the raging cyclone as an excuse, and her mother responds "what cyclone?"--putting Mouchette's experiences the previous night into doubt. Her mother asks her to warm some milk for the baby; Rayns points out that her futile gesture of warming a bottle of milk on her breast (her father had taken the matches with him and she can't start a fire) is a sign of her inability to take over the family as surrogate mother, but the way Bresson lights and frames her (in half-profile, half in shadow) she's also suddenly a beautiful Madonna lovingly (if ineffectively) nursing her child. Her sad experience has made her bloom into a woman, Bresson seems to be telling us--the corniest of notions, but Bresson presents this in such a straightforward manner it's easier to accept here than in almost any other film I can think of.
The mother dies that night; the father prays by her bed; Mouchette goes out to fetch more milk for the baby. The townspeople greet her in a kinder tone, offering condolence for her mother, but it's a hypocritical kindness--seeing a long scratch in her bosom, a shopkeeper calls Mouchette a 'slut;' an old woman offering Mouchette a muslin dress informs her that she has evil in her eyes; the boy who earlier flashed Mouchette calls to her again (this time she ignores him--possibly because she's seen bigger). People are more aware of her, ostensibly because of her mother's passing, but you can't help but wonder if it isn't also because Mouchette herself has changed. She has more presence now, more awareness of herself and of the world; she's made contact with another person--her conversation with Arsene is the longest, most intimate encounter she's had in the film, probably in her entire life--sworn loyalty to him, is bound to him beyond mere reason or social convention. She's a relatively stronger entity, not to be ignored or taken so lightly, and the townspeople have responded accordingly.
And then we come to the rabbit hunt. Rayns thinks Bresson stretches things a bit by asking us to believe that Mouchette, who grew up in a rural town, has never seen a hunt before, or at least acts as if she has never seen one. I submit that, in effect, she hasn't--not since her encounter with Arsene and her mother's death. These two tectonic changes may have created in her a sensitivity towards death, made her look at death with fresh eyes. It may seem odd that her mother's passing leaves her relatively unmoved while the rabbits' utterly shakes her up, but coming home from Arsene's the shock may not have completely worn off; the rabbits' deaths, on the other hand, may have been the straw that broke the already strained camel's back.
Renoir may have read the Bernanos book while making his 1939 film and borrowed details for his dark comedy, choosing to use the hunt as his defining image. Seeing Renoir's borrowings from Bernanos' novel echoed in Bresson's film of the same is a strange experience; one can't help but wonder if Bresson, remembering Renoir's and recognizing it for what it was, decided to reinforce the echo, to evoke Renoir's cutting patterns (as in Renoir, the scene contains some of the swiftest editing in the film) but magnify the horror (Bresson includes one painfully extended shot of a rabbit blasted in the rear, getting up, struggling feebly, collapsing, again and again). This is Mouchette's apocalypse, the film's--or God's, if you like--revelation to her of what this world is really about; surely any response she can have to this would be equally extreme.
In footage of the making of the film, Bresson talked of not having too many preconceived ideas, of wanting to be surprised, of taking advantage of the spontaneous; yet when we see him direct he worries over the smallest detail of an actor's movements, how the light would strike their hands or faces, how different objects--a table, a hanged coat--would reveal or obscure them. Presumably Bresson meant he needed to be at the place and time of making, to let the actual sets, occupied by his 'models' (what he calls his actors) determine how he's going to shoot a scene.
I wonder what on-the-spot stimulus, then, inspired him to create the film's final image. Rayns points out how stylized Mouchette's drop into the water is--the splash hardly seems loud enough, and you don't see a body. More, Bresson for some reason repeats the final image over and over again, an effect so subtle I only noticed it by accident. Bresson's films often show the mark of the Surrealists (I'm thinking of the arrows shot into the ground in Lancelot du Lac (1974), or the crowd staring into the café long after the arrested party has been escorted out in L'Argent (1983), or even the momentary frozen poses people sometimes struck in Pickpocket (1959)). Could this be that one odd touch he likes to put in his films? A suggestion--what with the waves moving out, freezing, moving backwards, freezing, then moving out again--that Mouchette's soul doesn't really end, that an eternity exists out there somewhere?
Bresson has insisted many times he's not interested in 'recording theater," in doing pictures that don't have qualities unique to film, that merely combine elements from other arts. If there's a medium that Bresson's films come closest to resembling--or, conversely, a medium that comes closest to approximating the spirit of his works--I submit it would be poetry. In his films images carry more than their weight of narrative meaning, sequences are spare, elegantly wrought, and connections are not always made through logic or linear thinking; in his films extensive use is made of repetition, rhythm, visual rhyme, even a kind of alliteration (Bresson seems able to link (or at least inspire one to link) the mud caking Mouchette's boots to the holy water at the church entrance to the rainstorm pounding on Mouchette's body to the liquor she drinks at Arsene's to the drops of cold milk hanging from the baby's lips to the tears on Mouchette's face (wiped away by the diaper she picks up to replace the baby's soiled ones) to the pool that ultimately receives Mouchette's body--moisture in its many forms, following, enabling, shaping, accepting the girl's direction in life and ultimate fate). A case can be made, I think, for Bresson being the poet of cinema, and Mouchette being his elegy for a young girl who suffered, rebelled, found peace.