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February 12, 2007

Mouchette and Au Hasard Bresson

mouchette.jpg A year or two ago, I was doing research for a comprehensive essay on the dialectics of two of my favorite filmmakers, Bresson and Bergman (a project that, as with most of my attempts at academic discourse, went mysteriously unfinished), which lead me to John Simon's infamous interview with Bergman, in which the director said this of Bresson's work: "Oh, Mouchette! I loved it, I loved it! But Balthazar was so boring, I slept through it."

Bergman, as anyone who's read anything by or about him might know, can be incredibly (and, in this case, humorously) pompous, and severe to a fault. That right there is a trait that separates him from Bresson, who maintains through his sparse form a sort of effervescence that, for all the misfortune in his films, buoys them past the mire of tragic expungence; there's none of the trenchant "dear diary" sensibilities that Bergman, god love him, revels in. Both filmmakers are, with qualifications, self-professed aetheists; but only one of them is comfortable with it, and it shows. And maybe I should get back to that essay, after all, because I'm degressing from the topic at hand, which is that Criterion has finally followed up their magnificent treatment of the Bresson picture Bergman hated with an equally outstanding release of the one he loved. Together, I'm pretty certain they comprise his finest work.

Mouchette was made a year after Au Hasard Balthazar and is commonly viewed as a sister film. In both, the relationship between humans and animals serves the same symbolic purposes - only the predominant perspective is switched - and Mouchette herself seems an extrapolation on Balthazar's Marie. Bresson has a gift for finding the dignity in the denizens and outcasts of society, and despite his famous austerity, he intimates a very evident, very sincere, very tender sense of compassion towards Mouchette, and towards the donkey, and to a certain extent his pickpockets and escaped convicts. Compassion, compounded with rigorous form, results, I think, in the grace which is so often mentioned in discussions of Bresson's films.

A quick and easy example is the last sequence of Mouchette; a shot entirely unsympathetic in composition but transformed through the gradual strains of music on the soundtrack (this instance is especially notable not just because Bresson so rarely used any sort of musical score, but because this shot has been optically extended to fit the music - watch the water rippling.

As with Balthazar, Mouchette has been rescued from the realm of jittery, murky VHS transfer; in fact, as is so often the case with Criterion discs, it probably looks better now than it did when it was first released. There 's a sturdy selection of supplementary materials, including the by now standard academic commentary track (this one from Tony Rayns), but the most valuable feature is the thirty-minute documentary Au Hasard Bresson, directed by Theodor Kotulla. The film was made during the production of Mouchette, and it consists of behind-the-scenes footage interspersed with an on-the-fly interview with Bresson himself. Much of what he has to say will be familiar to readers of his book, Notes On The Cinematograper (not the least of which being his belief that cinematography encapsulates not just the photography but the entire philosophy of film as an art form) but it's fascinating to see him explain his ideas while the crew is at work behind him, and even better when the camera follows him onto the set and watches as he composes his shots and directs the actors, and those same philosophies elucidated a second time, in practice.

Great filmmakers are generally studied and criticaly dissected vis-รก-vis their finished works, so there's a bit of a deconstructive thrill in tracing the those studies back to their protozoan roots on the set, behind the camera, with grips and script supervisors standing by. It's hardly a rarity with modern filmmakers, who probably have their behind-the-scenes documentaries included in their production budgets, but in the case of a director like Bresson, who made films at a time when they were their were their own commodity, it's a particular treat to get such a candid and revealing look at the production.


There's a wonderful sequence in which Bresson works out a simple shot of Mouchette awakening, sitting up on the floor and then standing up against a wall. With on eye to the viewfinder, he repeatedly goes through the blocking with Nadine Nortier, gradually figuring out the composition of the shot, what purpose it needs to serve, what form will best accomplish that, while at the same time giving direction to his young actress, telling her to close her mouth, to close her mouth completely, to stand up more smoothly. His directions are incredibly precise: "Jean, are you framing her head or her elbow?" he asks his camera operator. "Or purposely not framing? That might be best. Make it half her head and half her hand." But what's so great about it - at least from the perspective of this admiring filmmaker - is that he's figuring it out on the spot!

All of this is underscored by a comment he makes in an interview a few moments later:

"In cinema, what matters is form, and it must be given priority. When composing a shot, the composition must express something even before the characters speak. The shot itself should embody the idea."

Posted by David Lowery at February 12, 2007 2:15 PM



Nice post on one of my favorite filmmakers, Bresson. The Criterion edition of Mouchette is on the way as I write this.


Posted by: Jerry at February 13, 2007 11:22 AM

What a lovely post, especially that second paragraph. So insightful. I might just end up owning this one.

Posted by: Maya at February 15, 2007 10:42 AM

What the heck ever happened to Nadine Nortier?????

Did she fall into the same pit as Michele Breton?????

Posted by: Mark Vincrest at March 15, 2007 4:35 PM