Q: Here (in Mouchette) and in Balthazar one senses a new fascination with pain.
A: Perhaps because I feel that pain must be acknowledged no less than happiness.
— Robert Bresson interviewed by Charles Thomas Samuels in 1970
Newly released on Blu-ray — by Artificial Eye and the Criterion Collection, respectively — are two of French director Robert Bresson’s greatest achievements: Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) and Mouchette (1967). Perhaps strangely, I had never thought of these ascetic masterpieces as being companion pieces, in spite of the short timespan in which they were made, until watching these Blu-rays in quick succession. Indeed, they represent the only time in Bresson’s 50-year career that he ever made two movies in consecutive years. Taken together, they show the filmmaker at a crucial transitional point in his evolution as an artist — more specifically, at the tail end of his middle period and just before the beginning of his great late period. Au Hasard Balthasar and Mouchette mark the last times Bresson would shoot on black-and-white film stock (to the chagrin of some of his admirers) as well as the last time he would use non-diegetic music on his soundtracks — a Schubert piano sonata in the former, Monteverdi’s Magnificat in the latter. (When Bresson transitioned into making films in color, his already-minimalist aesthetic would become even further refined to include only the barest essentials of what he needed in terms of image and sound.) The two movies even share a screen presence, Jean-Claude Guilbert, the only time Bresson ever cast the same “model” in a substantial role more than once. But Au Hasard Balthazar and Mouchette have deeper affinities in their approach to characterization and theme: both center on the plight of innocent “holy-fool” characters (a donkey and a 14-year-old girl, respectively) in worlds otherwise distinguished by an overwhelming human evil.
Many of Bresson’s admirers cite Au Hasard Balthazar as his single greatest achievement and it’s not hard to see why. In many ways it’s the most ambitious and expansive movie he ever made (Jean-Luc Godard called it, with little hyperbole, “the world in an hour-and-a-half”). Based on an original screenplay, as opposed to a short story or a novel like most of his other work, Balthazar tells the story of the life and death of the title character, a donkey, in provincial France. As the animal — Bresson’s ultimate “non-actor” — is passed from one owner to the next over a span of many years, he becomes a kind of blank slate upon which the sins of mankind are imprinted: his owners inflict physical abuse on him and exhibit such unsavory characteristics as avarice, lust, drunkenness, etc. All the while, Balthazar looks on, silently and without judgement. But Bresson intriguingly expands the scope of this narrative by telling the parallel story of Marie (Anne Wiazemsky in her screen debut), a teenage girl and the daughter of one of Balthazar’s owners, who is led astray by local bad-boy/Satan-figure Gerard (François Lafarge). As the story progresses in a fashion unusually elliptical even for this director, the poetic use of parallel editing makes it seem as if the fates of the girl and the donkey are inextricably intertwined. The final scene, which depicts a kind of miracle, is arguably the most moving scene in Bresson’s oeuvre, a feat that is all the more impressive given that it does not involve human actors.
Mouchette is an adaptation of a novel by Georges Bernanos (who also provided the source material for Bresson’s breakthrough feature, The Diary of a Country Priest, in 1951). When asked why he chose to adapt Bernanos a second time, he claimed “they” had been asking him to do it for 10 years and that, more importantly, he felt like making another movie but didn’t want to take the time to write an original script. While these comments might indicate that the end result is somehow slighter or less personal than Au Hasard Balthazar, this follow-up freature, which won the top prize at the Venice International Film Festival, is major Bresson. I would also argue it is a more lucid, pure and emotionally affecting work than his more celebrated previous Bernanos adaptation. Nadine Nortier, in her only film role to date, is an extraordinary screen presence as the title heroine, a poor, rural teenage girl who is consistently let down or betrayed by the adults around her: her alcoholic father, her bedridden mother, her unfairly strict teacher and a local poacher who repays the girl’s kindness by raping her. Solace comes only in fleeting moments: walking alone through the woods, riding the bumper cars at a traveling carnival, the chance to comfort her infant sister, etc. As in Balthazar, the film’s impact is shattering because of Bresson’s unique ability to elicit empathy for a marginalized protagonist while also ruthlessly avoiding sentimentality. And, while equating his protagonist with hunted animals suggests the influence of Jean Renoir and The Rules of the Game, Mouchette would itself prove to be a major influence on other filmmakers, most notably the Dardenne brothers in their 1999 film Rosetta.