Keeping up with the D'Urbervilles
It would be hard to believe that Robert Bresson has ever made a film which did not exactly, and to that extent perfectly, reflect his own intentions. He is a formidably complete craftsman: there are none of the rough edges, the visible gaps between an idea and its execu- tion, which leave toeholds for argument and interpretation. Bresson's films rise like towering white ice-cliffs: the North Face of the cinema. If there are cracks, they tend to come right at the centre, with his choice of actors (or more accurately non-actors, since he believes that 'films can only be made by bypassing the will of those who appear in them, using not what they do but what they are') to follow his arduous pilgrimages towards grace. The fine balance between what the performers do and what they are cannot always be held; to my mind his Trial of Joan of Arc, and to a lesser extent Pickpocket, fail this ultimate Bressonian test. But when the performance is right, the whole film becomes luminous, trans- parent, bafflingly effortless. Bresson gets this kind of performance from Nadine Nortier in Mouchette (Academy Three, 'X'); and the result, inevitably, is a kind of perfection.
Mouchette is a peasant girl of fourteen or so, living in circumstances that could only euphemistically be called squalid. Her father drinks, and engages in some depressing illegal traffic as supplier to the local café; her mother is dying; a squalling baby brother roosts on a ragged nest of sacking in the corner of the room. At school, as she clumps in late in her hideous heavy shoes, she is the girl least likely to succeed—and gets her own back by lurking in the ditch throwing lumps of mud at her more winning schoolmates. She becomes involved, not entirely inadvertently, in a dour, wordless country squabble over a girl between the local poacher, Arsene, and the gamekeeper, Mathieu. Arsene, drunk and epileptic, thinks he has murdered Mathieu, enlists Mouchette to provide an alibi, and in the course of their transactions rapes her. But Mouchette's longing to make contact, simply to be needed, collapses. Mathieu is not dead after all. And, rolling down a slope wrapped in a new dress given her, as an uncharitably charitable act, by a village beldame, she rolls on into the river; to her grotesque, lucid and necessary escape.
It hardly needs to be pointed out that, what- ever the plot sounds like, no one is going to be reminded for a moment of Cold Comfort Farm. Bresson's village is a place of solid, ugly doorways: café, grocer's shop, school, the houses of the old and reproving. People come into the caf0, drinks are ponied and gulped in silence, and the camera stares at a glass on the counter, rises fleetingly to a shuttered face. Mouchette herself burrows away like a rebel- lious mole: grinding a muddy heel into a carpet, showing off to herself in the airy way she pours the breakfast coffee, sturdy, im- placable and lost.
Mouchette is hardly more articulate than her predecessor as scapegoat in Bresson's last film, the donkey Balthazar. And, as with Balthazar's more mysterious progression to- wards his destiny, Bresson imposes belief not in any theoretical idea of grace or goodness, but through the total concentration of his imagery: a wood fire crackles, a lorry drives noisily past, a hand stretches out to a glass, a man walks by with a gun, eyes glance at us and look nervously away. In the opening shots, a snare is laid in the woods and a trapped pheasant struggles in a wild flutter of wings. Even at this stage, one is aware that these shots are going to contain the theme of the film: but the pheasant is a pheasant before it's a sym- bol, and the parallel is quite dispassionate.
The film, apparently, is a very close and faithful adaptation of Georges Bernanos's novel. All the same, one wonders if a novel could quite achieve Bresson's mysterious dualism. Any small action—the way Mouchette walks, her extraordinary smiles of triumph when riding a dodgem car at the village fair, the washing up of a glass, the dipping of a croissant in a cup of coffee—becomes some- thing for concentrated absorption. But at the same time, death and rape, drunkenness and the threat of murder, are almost formal events: these are the points where Bresson withdraws from the immediate emphasis, the faintest seismographic tremor of sensationalism, be- cause we are not there sentimentally or sadistically to watch Mouchette suffering. In any Bresson film, the conflict is between sub- mission and the route open to liberation- Mouchette is not a child for anyone's pity, except, in both senses, her creator's.
Like Au Hasard, Balthazar, Mouchette is a deeply pessimistic film which somehow leaves one in a mood close to exhilaration. It is con- ceived, if you like, as a religious experience in which the heroine is not a saint, and in which there is no conventional religious reference. But Bresson's celebrated austerity has taken a slightly new direction in his two latest films : he has come out into the French country land- scape (masterly camerawork by Ghislain Cloquet), and where Balthazar introduced a -baker's boy and a circus, Mouchette produces the quite extraordinary sight of a Bresson character driving a dodgem car. The parallel Mouchette tempts me to make is with Hardy. It is certainly not a comparison to be pushed very far (Bresson's determinism, for one thing, starts elsewhere), but the strange, lonely storm scene, and Mouchette's suicide, and the wood- land settings of poacher and gamekeeper, wouldn't be out of place on Egdon Heath.
Sebastian (Rialto, 'A') is wayward, a bit too consciously out to please, but enjoyable pre- cisely because it never comes too close to de- fining its own terms. Its hero (Dirk Bogarde) is a secret service coding expert, with a staff of a hundred playful girl decoders perched
up a tower somewhere in the Barbican. One clerk (Susannah York) pursues him more reso- lutely than the rest; an old colleague (Lilli Palmer) goes on protest marches and lets slip a small but embarrassing piece of secret in- formation to the Daily Express.. There are, naturally, spies—professionals who plant bugs behind the bedroom wallpaper, and amateurs who feed Sebastian LSD and try to persuade him to fly off a rooftop. There is even John Gielgud, fastidiously bristling, as 'C' of the Secret Service.
The point about Sebastian is that it has little point, but some witty insights into the way people talk (script by Gerald Vaughan-Hughes), a nice line in tangents, and some real feeling for the slovenly, bleary, half-smart context of contemporary London. It shows, for once, how intriguingly unfamiliar a London-based movie can look if you shuffle locations adroitly be- tween the Barbican, the Post Office Tower, the Economist building. David Greene directs with a sharp sense of his script's fluctuating levels; and Dirk Bogarde, as usual, is invaluable. Other things apart, he's one of none too many actors who can plausibly be seen as deciphering any- thing more complicated than the Evening Standard crossword.