Nadine Nortier as Mouchette (Courtesy of Criterion Collection)

Summer Readings & Screenings

Friendly Exchanges on Books & Movies

Hello and happy summer. Last year, looking for a reading project that would sustain us through the season, we took on the first volume of Marx’s Capital together. We didn’t have any particular training in Marxist thought and even less knowledge of the history of political economy. But we figured two interested readers would find a lot to talk about in such a rich text. The result was occasionally ridiculous (sorry to those friends and family members who had to listen to us talking endlessly about “socially necessary labor time”), but more often intellectually transformative.

Our friendship has grown out of such conversations, and this summer we thought we’d share our talks with Commonweal readers. Over the next several months, we’ll be having a series of discussions about world literature and film, centered around a book from NYRB Classics—a favorite series of ours that features underappreciated work from different historical periods and different national traditions—and a movie from the Criterion Collection, another favorite series that also focuses on wildly varying works. Sometimes the film will be an adaptation of the book we’ve chosen; at other times, it’ll simply be something we thought paired nicely.

We’re hardly experts on any of these works, but that’s part of the fun of this exercise. We’re hoping that our exchanges will draw attention to some great works of art. We know that we’ll find the books and films interesting; we’re hoping that you’ll find our conversations about them interesting, too. Griffin’s mom has already been spotted in the pool reading Mouchette, our first book, so the series is bearing fruit before it even begins. Alongside this 1937 novel by Georges Bernanos, we’re viewing Robert Bresson’s 1967 film adaptation.

Please feel free to continue the conversation with us on Twitter! And, if you want to read and watch along with us, we’ll next be pairing Gillian Rose’s 1995 memoir Love’s Work with Peter Weir’s 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock.

***

Griffin,

It’s a beautiful summer day in New Haven, with the holiday just having wrapped up. So what better way to start our summer conversation series than with the anti-beach read of anti-beach reads, Georges Bernanos’s slim and devastating 1937 masterpiece Mouchette? Because nothing says it’s summertime like a novel that opens with darkness (“The dark west wind, the sea wind, was already scattering the voices in the darkness”) and that closes with “the smell of the grave itself”!

I joke, of course, but Bernanos’s compact novel really is a perfect introduction to some of the questions we’ll be thinking about together over the summer: What role can art have in the spiritual life? How can theology and aesthetics (and theological aesthetics) help us to understand our experience of suffering? Where is meaning, and where is God, in the darkness?

The plot of Mouchette can be briefly summarized. Mouchette, a poor young girl and “proper savage” from the north of France, meets a drunken, epileptic trapper named Arsène in the woods one afternoon. It’s pouring rain, and the two take shelter in Arsène’s hovel. There, Mouchette suddenly sees the man with complete love and tenderness: “Looking at his face, which she knew well, she seemed to be seeing it for the first time; or, rather, it seemed to be the first human face she had ever really looked at.” (In this and several other moments, Bernanos, amidst literal and figurative darkness, gives us a glimpse of grace’s unbidden light.) Arsène responds to Mouchette’s loving gaze by raping her. Soon after, the girl’s sickly mother dies. Humiliated, despairing, and hopeless, Mouchette drowns herself, the novel’s final vision “the insidious flow of the water along her head and neck, filling her ears with its joyful sound.”

(Courtesy of Criterion Collection)

As I said, it’s a dark novel, even and especially when this darkness gives way to light, as when Mouchette sees Arsène’s face as if for the first time, or when she remembers a rare moment of kindness from a stranger and can “smell the imperceptible perfume of that warm hand, and indeed she seemed to feel the hand itself, so near and so real and living that without thinking she raised her head and put up her lips to be kissed.” Mouchette explores darkness in its social forms (poverty, drunkenness, sexual abuse) but also in its theological forms (suffering, despair, death). This is the dark night of the soul at its darkest, when complete love is met with abjection and violence. Bernanos, a Catholic writer, doesn’t ignore the scandalous implications of the Cross.

There’s so much to talk about in this short book that I haven’t even scratched the surface—nor talked at all about Bresson’s film. Griffin, I’d love to hear what you think about the novel’s representation of poverty. This is a world of stale croissants and bad coffee and social pathologies; Bernanos certainly doesn’t idealize poverty. But he does find holiness in it: the poor, he writes, “carry the sacred sign of their poverty.”

And how about Fanny Howe’s introduction, which is as theologically provocative and stylistically brilliant as the novel itself? She focuses as much on Bresson’s film as on Bernanos’s novel, and has this to say about the relationship between film and Catholicism: “the ethos of Catholicism can be demonstrated on film as film per se.” It’s almost as if she’s writing ad copy for our series! Is she right, do you think? Is there something inherently Catholic about film—or something essentially filmic about Catholicism? What are you thinking about on this bright day about such a dark work?

***

Movies present sounds and images, they show human bodies in motion, and wasn’t that exactly how Jesus chose to communicate the Kingdom of God?

Tony,

Yes, you’re absolutely right. For all its darkness, Mouchette is the perfect story to kick off our summer series—after all, with the solstice now a few weeks behind us, our days will be growing steadily shorter (and darker) from now until December!

Speaking of dark nights, you mentioned the dark night of the soul, which got me thinking about that apophatic saint par excellence, St. John of the Cross. Despite John’s life of suffering, asceticism, and privation, he had one of the sharpest aesthetic sensibilities I’ve ever encountered. Just read a few stanzas of his Spiritual Canticle and you’ll see how the beauty of John’s verses (where the sweetness of his Castilian mirrors seductive, erotic imagery) was in fact his way of doing theology. Here poetry isn’t simply a vehicle, a passive receptacle for theological content, but the very site and substance of intense thinking about God. Other forms of art do this, too, and I think that’s what makes cinema a particularly apt medium for Catholic theology. Movies present sounds and images, they show human bodies in motion, and wasn’t that exactly how Jesus chose to communicate the Kingdom of God: holding his audience’s attention with vibrant visual metaphors and preaching the Gospel through dramatic, symbolic actions?

That’s what I think is happening in Mouchette, both the book and the film. Bernanos, writing fiction in the interwar France of the 1930s, and Bresson, making a film thirty years later, are grappling theologically with the vast social changes wrought by French modernity. Mouchette, a peasant girl, represents a whole culture facing eradication as France’s economic development intensifies. Yes, she lives a hard life of poverty and loneliness that ends in suicide, but she also perceives beauty and, as you mention, grace. For all the external blows she receives, she’s got an inner depth, a richness of heart that far outstrips the vanity of the spiritually obtuse, socially privileged characters around her. Bernanos and Bresson (like Jesus) seem to be telling us modern, materially comfortable Catholics that if we want to see God, we need to pay more attention to the least among us.

And Mouchette (whose name means ‘little fly’) is herself the least important character in her own story. I was struck by her resemblance to St. Francis of Assisi (another aesthetically inclined saint), whose entire life of poverty became a prayerful, preferential option for the “least” of God’s creatures—not only for the materially poor, but also for the natural world. And in nature, that’s where Mouchette, a “filthy little savage” alien to the superficial life around her (in Bernanos’s novel it’s her bourgeois school; in Bresson’s film it’s her village, with its carousels and bumper cars and expensive handbags), seems most at home. Her bleak life of grinding poverty, her marginality, and especially her lonely death, are an indictment of modernity’s valueless “values,” in particular the evisceration of meaningful forms of community. She dies, as Howe notes, not so much because she wants to, but because there’s simply no one to save her from a sudden (and tragic) moment of despair.

It’s all so interesting, and there’s so much more to say! Tony, I’m curious: What differences did you detect between the novel and the film? Did Bresson change your reading of the book? And as you mention, Mouchette is a story full of death. But do you think it ever hints at a possible redemption, even a resurrection?

***

I noticed Bresson drawn again and again to the fathomless mystery of human hands—to their beauty and their poetry, to their essential role in mediating between our lonely selves and the world that seems so alien to us.

Griffin,

“It’s all so interesting, and there’s so much more to say”—maybe that should be the tagline for this series!

You note that Mouchette seems “the least important character in her own story.” To an extent that’s true in the novel. As I mentioned last time, Bernanos opens with the hostile world in which Mouchette finds herself: “The dark west wind, the sea wind, was already scattering the voices in the darkness. It toyed with them a moment and then lifted them all together, dispersing them with an angry roar.” What a perfect description of a world that seems alien, even hostile, to our voices and our very presence.

But the rest of the novel is tightly focused through Mouchette’s perspective. We’re with Mouchette from beginning to end and, aside from the narrator’s occasional third-person, oracular-sounding pronouncements, we’re just there. Think about the rape itself, which Bernanos presents with true savagery (“There was nothing to be heard in the shadows but Arsène’s panting voice”) but also with merciful brevity. Then, we get a dozen or so pages of Mouchette’s psychological and spiritual response to this action. What matters is interiority, and the interiority we get is Mouchette’s.

In the film, though, Bresson devotes far more time to people and images other than Mouchette. We get long shots of Louisa, a worker at the local café and a source of sexual competition between Arsène and the gamekeeper Mathieu. We get long shots of Arsène as he’s suffering through his epileptic fit. We get long shots of Mouchette’s schoolmates, playing as a car dustily drives past. In fact, the movie begins not with Mouchette at all. First, very briefly, we see and hear her mother thinking aloud about her own impending death. Then, in a tensely shot, tightly framed scene, we watch Mathieu watching Arsène set an illegal trap. The trap is successful—a bird is snared—and this echoes the end of the film, where we see a group of hunters successfully shooting hares.

(Courtesy of Criterion Collection)

This framing, of course, reflects upon Mouchette: she is like a terrified animal, trapped and broken by forces beyond her. But it’s still worth noting that attention is a zero-sum game in art—if the camera is on a jackrabbit, it’s not on Mouchette’s face; if a narrator describes the workings of a local café, it’s not describing the heroine—and that the film pays more attention to non-Mouchette elements than the novel does. This makes the film, to me at least, feel less claustrophobic than the novel. The novel makes us feel Mouchette’s alienation by rigorously isolating us within Mouchette’s alienation; the film makes us feel that alienation by showing us what Mouchette is isolated from.

You recently wrote about Alberto Giacometti’s late obsession with “the fathomless mystery of human faces.” I noticed Bresson drawn again and again to the fathomless mystery of human hands—to their beauty and their poetry, to their essential role in mediating between our lonely selves and the world that seems so alien to us. We regularly get close-up shots of hands at work: Louisa pouring drinks at the bar; Mouchette preparing coffee for her family in the morning and wiping the spittle from Arsène’s face; a woman slipping a loaf of bread into Mouchette’s pocket. In the film’s most awful moment, when Mouchette is raped, all we can see of her are her flailing hands on Arsène’s back and shoulders.

The hands are where work happens (Louisa’s pouring of drinks, Arsène’s setting of his traps), and the film frequently if not uncomplicatedly finds dignity in work—a dignity afforded by the attention the camera pays to it. And the hands are also where love and care happen: Mouchette feeding her sister, comforting her mother and Arsène. To touch the world is to open oneself up to violation. But it’s also to open oneself up to love; to incarnate love in a real and meaningful sense. If there’s hope to be found in the film, it’s in the hands, I think—those points of contact between us and the world.

Mouchette
Georges Bernanos
NYRB Classics, $14, 152 pp.

Mouchette
Robert Bresson
Criterion Collection, $31, 78 min

Griffin Oleynick is an assistant editor at Commonweal. Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College, SUNY and a columnist at Commonweal. 

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