Mouchette (1967) tells the heart-wrenching story of a young girl tragically forced to grow up too soon. With a dying mother, alcoholic father, and a baby brother to take care of, Mouchette (Nadine Nortier), a mere teenager, is trapped in a life of responsibility for which she is — understandably — not yet mature enough for. Her painstaking alienation, self-denial, self-hatred, and occurent desperation for freedom is a powerful expression of a humanist integrity. As humans, we each may experience — at times — the desperation and yearning for child-like wonder that Mouchette constantly feels. For its empathetic nature and emotional resonance, Mouchette may be the most endearing, yet powerful of Bresson’s work.
To me, there is a point in one’s life where one becomes acutely aware of their own consciousness. In other words, one becomes conscious of their own volition — of their own freedom. Ironicaly, with this awareness comes the loss of true freedom. As the late hip hop artist Eyedea states in the song Infrared Roses, “the second you’re smart enough to recognize freedom, you’re no longer free”.
While reality itself necessarily tends our lives in this direction, this shift in consciousness occurs earlier in some people’s lives than others. It seems to accompany a need for the individual to “grow-up”. While some may experience this transformation naturally over a period of time, events such as a trauma, economical or emotional hardship, and external pressures or responsibilities can cause it to be forced upon people; in cases, it can be forced upon someone too young to know how to deal with it.
In Mouchette, our young, tragic figure is but a little girl. Her mother is dying, and she is forced to take care of both her and the baby. Her father could help, but is never around and uses his earnings to support his alcoholism. This is not the life of a thirteen (ish) year old girl. She watches as her classmates happily play together — not a care in the world; she throws clumps of mud at them, because she doesn’t know how to direct her feelings; her troubled life alienates her, and she feels the need to relate to someone.
She recognizes that the huntsman, Arsène (Jean-Claude Guilbert), is similarly alienated by the townspeople, and feels that she may relate with him. His ‘lone-ranger’ type figure intrigues her to follow him into the forest. When told that Arsène may have killed someone, Mouchette pledges to do what she can to help him. Her desire to help him reflects a true desire to help herself.
When Arsène forces himself upon her, she at first resists — for this reason, many claim what happens is rape, but I don’t think it’s quite so cut-and-dry. In one of Bresson’s most powerful moments, her arms stop flailing, and her hands clasp around him. This image represents the struggle she is experiencing. Though teetering the brink between childhood and adulthood, and fervently fighting off this transformation, her embracing of Arsène illustrates her final submission — she is no longer a child.
Near the end, a particular image conjures up Mouchette’s experience: a shot rabbit desperately fights to stand up, but, in the end, it is not able to. Likewise, despite all Mouchette’s attempts, she cannot prevent what is happening to her. The rabbit will die, and Mouchette will completely lose her freedom.
The final scene is amongst the most powerful in Bresson’s filmography. Mouchette whimsically rolls down a hill, a bed of flowers stopping her from falling into the lake. On her third tumble, she falls in and does not surface. This act is most commonly regarded as a tragic suicide, but I don’t believe it necessarily means that. The dream-like nature of this scene — it’s quaintness and her whimsy — makes me not take it quite so literally.
Understanding Bresson’s filmic nature — the clarity of his stories, but also their poetic tendencies — suggests that, whether she dies or not, this final image is a metaphor for loss of self. It may or may not be the end of her life, but, in any event, it truly is the end of Mouchette, the thirteen year-old girl who grew up too quickly.