Salo (Italy 1975) & Mouchette (France 1967)
It’s difficult to put your name on a site and call it “Creede on Film,” post a picture of Nadine Nortier as she appeared in Robert Bresson’s masterpiece Mouchette (itself about a down-trodden, abused and exploited girl of a young age) at the top of said site, declare that the site is “…about the movies I see and a few other things” and not at least make a mention of the sexual harassment/violence powershift fallout currently taking place in Hollywood.
Mine isn’t a gossip site and as I’ve mentioned before, it’s certainly not an industry site – I’ll occasionally mention box office and, more likely, budgets, but I’m not an industry guy. I like film – not television, not comic books, but film, so I write about what interests me, as obscurant as it might be on some occasions and as common and obvious as it might be in others. An easier way to put it is this: I love the movies, but I don’t want to see the sausage getting made.
Mouchette, made by the Frenchman Bresson (age 66 at the time) in 1967 and released in the USA in 1970, regards the coquette Mouchette, presumably 13-15 years old – her father is a cruel drunk and her mother is dying which leaves her to care for her infant brother; she is disliked at school and winds up being abused by a nefarious poacher in a cabin on a stormy night. There is nothing happy about the film, and Bresson – using amateurs to fill most of the roles, as was his way – constructed a masterpiece of cinema. I consider it one of the five best films ever made, right there with The Passion of Joan of Arc, Persona, Citizen Kane and Birth of a Nation. For clarity, it’s typically considered his second or third best film, after A Man Escaped and Balthazar (the one about the donkey).
I will stretch and point out that the film serves as a metaphor for the scandal that envelops more and more of Hollywood by the minute.
I have maintained for a very long time that most of the clichés Americans associate postwar, pre-1980s France come from the Jean-Luc Godard film Breathless, one of the most influential films ever made in the sense that The Pixies are one of the most influential bands to ever play – after seeing Pulp Fiction, my first clear thought the next day was how much it reminded me of Breathless. Mouchette, far less known to American audiences (but perfectly accessible for viewers over the age of 12), fills out more of those clichés without itself being remotely cliched – the only American film I can think of that grinds the same friction is Precious, but I’m just riffing and I’m sure there are more plentiful and appropriate examples.
There lingers around the edges in Mouchette the soft exploitation of the young girl/woman embodied by Nortier, soft enough to be viewable to the audience while the knowing of the exploitation/abuse is there, that by viewing this undistilled picture of her life we are in fact taking part in the abuse she endures – among [the film] Mouchette’s recommending aspects is that very point, a counter-punch to Godard’s correct notion that “cinema is the history of boys photographing girls.”
Bresson remains the quintessential minimalist and his work is steadfastly grounded in the human – Mouchette [the film] is a kind of visual answer to Godard’s unstated question (and to be fair to Godard, he loves Bresson to the extent that he said Bresson was French cinema as well as cutting a trailer for Mouchette). Bresson has appealed to me as long as I’ve been exposed to his work, but I find that as I grow older, his empathy for his subjects absent a nattering condescension is what separates him from almost all major filmmakers. David Lynch, the ultimate American surrealist, echoes Bresson in his use of amateur actors, and his work is also almost oddly humane. When I fantasize about the “movie I would make” the fantasy includes amateur actors and minimal production – I assume all directors start with this same insane fantasy, and most ditch it within a day or two.
Pier Paolo Pasolini chose to film his interpretation of Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom using the final days of fascist World War II era Italy as its backdrop, and it was and remains in my well-read opinion a mistake for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it is a terrible film.
It is a terrible film, make no mistake – awful, not for content, simply for construction and execution. There are purely-pornographic films produced in the same time (mid-1970s) that are better films.
Salo regards a group of libertines who enslave nine teenage boys and nine teenage girls (in the book it was 32 teens and tweeners and 4 disgusting old women), and abuse them at their whim, and as a film, it is (I intentionally repeat myself) terrible – it is impossible to reference Salo without mentioning the fact that it is, and I quote, “one of the most controversial films ever made,” a badge of honor worn by the likes of Caligula and I Spit on Your Grave, both of which I’ve seen, and both far superior. The amateur teenage actors chosen for this work laugh through much of the most cruelly ridiculous scenarios, and there are many, and I don’t blame them, because it is absurd, and not in that 1930s Bunel good way. I actually own a copy of the film thanks to Criterion releasing an edition, and it’s the only film I own in my diverse, arguably try-hard film library I wouldn’t recommend.
The film is effective to this degree: the moment that the 18 are told that no one knows where they are and they have no possible hope of escape is the single most depressing thing I’ve ever seen in a movie, and I’ve seen both iterations of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. It’s not a serious film – it’s not even a serious movie or flick or joint – yet there is something about those kids being addressed in such a manner that dragged me down.
Pasolini’s choice to base a film on de Sade’s 120 Days was a mistake to me because de Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom gets much more to the point while still including the grisly bits that Pasolini obviously wanted to use in order to shock. There was a time when I owned all of de Sade’s major works and all of them were annotated and marked, yet all of them have been borrowed/stolen. For most heavy readers who want to get into de Sade, a little bit goes a long way, yet there is something exotic or maybe, I dunno, vainly noteworthy about having those thick volumes on the bookshelf that guests will see.
I will be up-front – I read every word of Philosophy in the Bedroom and its passionate, graphic uber-sexual defense of human liberties, no matter how grotesque; there are sections of 120 Days of Sodom I could not finish – it is the most disgusting work I have ever attempted to read, and I am well-aware of its positive and negative criticism and what many people much better-read than me think it was attempting to convey, to say nothing of its creation by de Sade while imprisoned in the Bastille and its painstaking writing (I’m not sure if Eve’s imprisonment in V for Vendetta is an allusion to de Sade’s manuscript, but it should be if it’s not). In de Sade’s defense, he does his damndest to warn readers of what is to come. There are things as a writer I cannot and will not convey – 120 Days of Sodom is a laundry list of those things and things I’d never imagined.
Why I thought of Salo and Mouchette when considering whether or not to write about the scandal that is enveloping Hollywood I’m not exactly sure. I do think both films – neither of them Hollywood productions – offer insight into how young actors are seen and treated in show business even though neither film is about show business.