Criterion Review: MOUCHETTE (1967)

Robert Bresson’s sobering drama joins the Criterion Collection


Robert Bresson plumbs great reservoirs of feeling with Mouchette, one of the most searing portraits of human desperation ever put on film. With a dying mother, an absent, alcoholic father, and a baby brother in need of care, the teenage Mouchette seeks solace and respite from her circumstances in the nature of the French countryside and daily routine. Bresson deploys his trademark minimalist style to heartbreaking effect in this essential work of French filmmaking, a hugely empathetic drama that elevates its trapped protagonist into one of the cinema’s most memorable tragic figures.

Adapted from a novel by Georges Bernanos, Mouchette is an immersion in pathos. An experience that is heartbreakingly perverse in it’s heaping of misery upon it’s titular character. This young girl (Nadine Nortier), coming from an impoverished background, abandoned by her father, her mother deathly ill, her baby brother in need of her care. Routine and requirements put upon her, depriving her of her youth, her innocence, and her hope. Breaking free of this yoke, she skips school and instead of finding escape, plunges into a darker world. A series of misadventures befalls her, primarily crossing paths with Arsene, a local poacher who is looking to secure an alibi after an incident with a local policeman, compounding her misery and the tragedy of her young life.

Nadine Nortier brings innocence and dignity, as well as a hugely expressive demeanor and face, to such a weighty and pivotal role. It’s an essential counterweight of humanity (and personal attachment) to what is often a punishing level of cruelty through the narrative. Even moments of comfort or respite have a hidden bitter lining (stale croissants). It is clearly mined for maximum effect, but soberingly natural in how it mounts. Robert Bresso brings a commanding precision to the cuts, staging, and pace of the film while delicately touching on religious themes and arcs that give the endeavor a fable-like feel. We seen and more importantly feel the corruption and fall of an innocent due to neglect, misfortune, and outright cruelty, and long does it linger after the credits roll.

The Package

Criterions restoration is impeccable, free of scratches and damage. The depth and quality of blacks and contrast, a crucial factor for a film offered up in black and white, impress, as does detail and clarity. Extra features do feel a little light compared to their usual standard:

  • Audio commentary from 2006 by film scholar, critic, and festival programmer Tony Rayns: A good overview of the film’s themes, and relating the adaptation to the original novel by Georges Bernanos. He also touches on Bresson’s approach, and personal life
  • Au hasard Bresson (1967), a documentary by Theodor Kotulla, featuring director Robert Bresson on the set of Mouchette: Filmed on set, it offers a great insight into the production and the process of Bresson with his cast and crew. It really does offer a great window to understanding and appreciating the filmmaker
  • Segment of a 1967 episode of the French television series Cinéma, featuring on-set interviews with Bresson and actors Nadine Nortier and Jean-Claude Guilbert: A visit to the set coupled with interviews
  • Original theatrical trailer, cut by Jean-Luc Godard:
  • PLUS: An essay by critic and poet Robert Polito: included in the liner booklet, which also details the film’s restoration

The Bottom Line

A harrowing tale of human misery and tragedy, that also serves as a showcase for impeccably considered filmmaking. Criterion pair an impressive remastering with extras that, together with Mouchette itself, really deepen appreciation for the work of Robert Bresson.

Mouchette is available via Criterion from December 8th

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