Saturday, September 23, 2006


Last night WHC screened two films that were remarkably well-paired. Robert Bresson's Mouchette (1967) and Lynne Ramsey's The Ratcatcher (1999), both tales of young protagonists at odds with their environments, both in many ways merely passive spectators of degraded situations. Both end up drowning themselves.

Bresson's film is more hard-edged because it indulges no sentimentality whatsoever. The people in the film seem genuinely to belong in the rural town milieu depicted. The time of the film might be hard to place, so basic is this existence, were it not for a visit to a carny where the rock soundtrack at the bumping-cars concession is clearly post-British Invasion. That scene is important because in it Mouchette shows more life and pleasure than at any other time in the film. It's a moment when the "60s" as they are generally perceived -- fun, excitement, youth -- comes to town briefly. Mouchette's father slaps her face for flirting with a young man. Well, not just flirting, she almost seems ready to offer herself to him as a menial.

Mouchette sustains our interest as a character because of her darkly indeterminate look -- we don't know quite what she's thinking, but we know she doesn't really accept the conditions she lives in. Her mother's death (after Mouchette has been raped, acceptingly, by a local poacher) precipitates her death: we see how much she is an outcast in the town, an excuse for charity (at best) and of moralizing condemnation. Her roll down a hill into a river is a game that becomes deadly, almost a raised middle finger to the grudging way in which her town staves off death by playing its grasping social games of education, mating and subsistence. As I think about it, the kid at the carny seemed the only suggestion of a way out of the rural monotony -- since Mouchette had no hope of being like the little rich girls in her class, pampered and perfected for a life of bourgeois indifference. Rock'n'roll -- the siren song for every would be runaway -- for a brief moment shows the way to something else.

The Ratcather is set in Glasgow, Scotland in the summer of 1973, during a trash strike (the mounds of plastic garbage bags are a bit too obvious symbol of "trashed" lives, but it still works and . . . it really happened). As with Bresson, the "stars" of the film scarcely seem like actors at all, but rather people believably trapped in the "dead end streets" where the film is set. The hero James, about 12, inadvertently kills a neighbor boy in a treacherous canal behind the houses. No one, except (it turns out) another boy, Kenny, somewhat simple-minded, knows he did it. The film isn't so much about his guilt and the price of the death (James' father at one point saves Kenny from nearly drowning in the canal, a kind of payback), as it is about the lack of prospects, of any way out (the family is on a list to be moved to government housing, but that hope gets bollocksed). Again, as in Mouchette, the central character has minimal responses to any situation, seeming to look on dispassionately at a life that isn't really his anyway, it's just the one he happens to be in.

But all's not bleak: his oft-drunk but fairly decent dad, his struggling but not without humor mother, his bus-riding to somewhere else older sister and his charmingly accepting younger sister all give the film a great deal more human interest than in Bresson's film. And then there's what is for me the tour de force sequence: James rides on the empty top of a doubledecker bus to the end of the line: a rural area where a spanking new block of townhomes is underway. He tours a nearly-finished unit, lies at length in a coffin-like plastic-wrapped tub, pisses in an unconnected toilet bowl, and then enters a room with a picture window facing an open field as far as the eye can see. He goes to the sill and climbs through (no glass is in yet) and it's a thrilling moment, almost as if he is stepping out of the film into a painting. He runs through the field, flinging himself about as if in an ocean. The spontaneous joy is a bit like Mouchette taking the flirting collisions from the kid on the bumping cars. Later, James runs off again to seek solace there and finds he can't enter the unit, it's been finished and locked up. The shot of him looking through the rain-drenched glass in the window he once climbed through pretty much says it all about his dreams. There are many other fine and interesting touches in this debut film which shows a sensitive, deft hand throughout, not only with the actors, but with so many shots and sequences.

Of the two films, Ramsey's is more visually interesting, but Bresson's is the more accomplished, ultimately, because it's stripped of the sentimental touches that, perhaps, we can't help intruding into our depictions of the socially hapless. In Bresson's film its easier to see the situations as common human suffering, as in a Chekhov tale perhaps; in Ramsey's film it's easier to see the situations as something happening to someone else, who we either "like" or don't. Why that might be, other than having something to do with the exigencies of viewing in the thirty years between '67 and '99, I don't know. But if I have anything to say about it, the '60s will in time eclipse the '40s and be perceived as the Golden Age of Everything. Gaffer and gammer, we're all their gangsters, as JJ might say.

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