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Mouchette: The Criterion Collection

In the midst of Robert Bresson's 1967 Mouchette, the titular character (played by Nadine Nortier, in her sole onscreen performance) goes to an amusement park and rides a bumper car. By the very nature of Bresson's cinema, this seems anachronistic. Even in his later color films (Mouchette was his last in black-and-white), his oeuvre feels untouched by the present day. That's not to suggest that his art feels as though it were created in the centuries previous to the invention of cinema — though both The Trial of Joan of Arc and Lancelot du Lac are period pieces. And it's not that Bresson tempered his cinema away from the modern world — A Man Escaped and Pickpocket are respectively set in World War II and then-metropolitan Paris. It's that the emotive core of Bresson's works feel timeless. And it's also that his settings evoke an old world feel. His proletariat characters in pictures like Mouchette or Au hasard Balthazar are so poor that modern technology hasn't entered into their lives. Avoiding technology is at the very heart of Bresson's movies, which are about the characters, their pain, and their doubts about their beliefs and existence. Anything more would simply be a distraction.

This piece starts with Mouchette (Nortier) in a strange emotional place: At the age of 14 she is witness to her mother's (Maria Cardinal) deterioration to an illness doomed to kill her (before the credits begin, the mother wonders what will happen to the family when she's gone). Her father (Paul Hebert) and brother are bootleggers and don't concern themselves with the mother's health, leaving her needs to Mouchette. At school, she's picked on by the teachers and finds herself ostracized from her classmates, partly by choice. She's very poor, and she takes revenge on the other better off girls by hiding in a field and throwing dirt at them and their belongings. She works after school in a café, but her father takes her earnings, and only through the kindness of a stranger does she get to ride the bumper cars. Once there, she flirts with a boy who keeps running into her, but when she gets the chance to talk with him, her father spots and slaps her. After going through the woods, she runs into the poacher Arsene (Jean-Claude Guilbert), who encourages her on how to lie to her family, to lie for him, and then he takes advantage of her. And on returning home, she finds her mother is in her death throes. Mouchette tries to comfort her, but little is of comfort to either.

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Adapted from a novel by Georges Bernanos (who also wrote the Bresson-adapted Diary of a Country Priest), Mouchette is picture of tragedy, faith, and rebellion. Though Bresson's films seem timeless, this story of a teenage girl caught in a situation of strife may very well have been Bresson's response to the chaos of the late '60s. The defining characteristic of Mouchette is rebellion, from throwing dirt at the girls, to engaging in sex (which is a rape, even if there are elements that make it not completely something she objects to) after her father tells her not to flirt with boys, to smearing mud into the carpet of an old woman who belittles her. As the story moves to its infamous — and infamously depressing — conclusion, Mouchette's final act is one of revolt, a revolt against a world and a life that offers little comfort or Christian charity. How the audience views her act, how much redemption they see in her choice, how much futility, and how much waste, is one of the great, haunting questions of Bresson's masterpiece.

The Criterion Collection presents Mouchette in anamorphic widescreen (1.66:1) with the original French audio on a DD 1.0 track with optional English subtitles. As to be expected from Criterion, the transfer is outstanding, even if there are occasional moments of notable damage to the source material. Extras include a commentary by Tony Rayns, the documentary "Au hazard Bresson" (31 min.), an excerpt from the French TV show "Cinema" on the film (8 min.), and a trailer cut by Jean-Luc Godard. The trailer is quite playful, and Godard was obviously a fan of the director (Godard married Anne Wiazemsky, whom Bresson discovered for his Balthazar). Keep-case.

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