Robert Bresson goes for the jugular here, even more so than in Au Hasard Balthazar. Mouchette is the sad – no, make that soul-sapping – story of a young teen (Nadine Nortier) whose life of poverty and misfortune devolves into horrific tragedy over the course of a few days. Balthazar the donkey had it good in comparison.
The exquisite balance of unadorned artistry and emotional intensity that defined Balthazar is less skillfully balanced here. Despite Bresson’s reputation as an anti-sentimentalist, Mouchette attempts to wring you out in crass ways: the screaming of Mouchette’s unattended, infant brother; the deathbed grimacing of her mother; the glistening trail of tears that often appears on her face. This isn’t to say that Mouchette is missing Bresson’s usual sense of poetry, only that it arrives randomly and in between some uncommonly ungainly scenes (an almost comical fight between a poacher and a game warden chief among them).
Still, there are moments here that rank among Bresson’s best, including a bumper-car interlude in which Mouchette and a boy flirt as they crash, all while a poppy piece of bistro jazz bounces in the background. It might be the most effervescent sequence of Bresson’s career.
There is poetry in the darker moments too, as when Mouchette uses one of her baby brother’s diaper rags to wipe her tears. Equally as symbolic, and even more telling, are the scenes of Mouchette hiding in a ditch to throw mud balls at her better-dressed classmates. The sullen Nortier gives a raw performance that says so much about the root causes of such “deviant” juvenile behavior.
And yet, as the movie goes on, there is something about the way Bresson tightens the screws – and how many screws are tightened – that left me feeling manipulated rather than moved. Early on in Mouchette, there is a scene of a captured bird struggling to free itself from the poacher’s trap. The movie essentially amounts to the same thing, with Mouchette in Bresson’s elaborately rigged snare.