Mouchette by French director Robert Bresson and Pan’s Labyrinth by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro are both films about a young girl in early adolescence trying, and failing, to come of age in a hostile environment.
Mouchette is a 13-year-old misfit who lives with her dying mother, baby brother, and drunken, abusive father in a mean-spirited little town in provincial France. Everything seems to conspire against her. She clumps to school in her cheap shoes, which are at least 2 sizes too large for her. She gets laughed at by the popular girls, singled out, and abused by the teacher. She comes back home, where her parents treat her more like the maid than their only daughter. When she hesitates at the threshold of the local church, her father shoves her inside so violently that it’s unlikely she’ll ever see religion as anything more than a slap in the face, a burden, not a consolation. Just about the only happy moment Mouchette has in the whole film is at a town fair. An unseen woman hands her a coin so she can go on one of the rides, bumper cars. A young man bumps into her. She bumps into him. They play cat and mouse. Suddenly the music is is upbeat, and Mouchette smiles. Sadly, just as she’s about to talk to her new friend, her father grabs her by the shoulder, violently spins her around, and slaps her face. Why? No reason. He’s basically just an asshole.
If Mouchette works so well at showing how an ordinary mean spirited little town in provincial France can drive a young girl to kill herself, then it has a lot to do with Bresson’s meticulous attention to detail. It’s not so much that the ordinary becomes monstrous. It’s that Mouchette’s world is so relentlessly banal, so colorless, so without hope, that she can’t see beyond it. The symbolism of her teacher trying to force her to sing a song about a speech Columbus gave to his crew in 1492, about how hope lies beyond the horizon just when things seem the most hopeless, is too obvious for even the most obtuse film goer to miss.
The song’s reappearance later in the film is a bit more subtle. Mouchette leaves school, and decides to take the long way home through the woods. She’s caught in a violent thunderstorm. A local hunter/poacher takes her into his apartment and tells her to dry herself off by the fire. He’s an alcoholic and an epileptic. While she looks on, he falls to the floor, foams at the mouth, and bites his tongue. It’s a grotesque. He’s an ugly middle-aged man, and becomes even more ugly as blood pours out of his mouth. But Mouchette isn’t afraid. The poacher is a fellow outcast she identifies with, feels empathy for. As she wipes the bloody foam from his mouth, she sings the song she couldn’t manage to sing on key in school, her pitch perfect, her voice beautiful.
Then he rapes her.
But the poacher’s rape is only the first blow that will befall Mouchette that night. When, she returns home, her mother finally dies. Mouchette, who’s been so beaten down emotionally she can barely feel the violent abuse as it happens to her, doesn’t cry after she’s raped. She falls asleep next to her mother’s dead body, her emotional death mirroring her mother’s physical death. But the rest of the film has the same feel as the return of repressed emotions long denied. The townspeople are no kinder to the little girl after the death of her mother than they were before it. A middle-aged women invites her inside for croissants and coffee, then makes her feel like a thief, slipping an extra croissant into her pocket — Mouchette was clearly enjoying her breakfast — and making her feel dirty. She notices the scratches on Mouchette’s skin from the rape and calls her a slut. Mouchette’s next stop is a crazy old lady obsessed with death. If the shopkeeper was a hard, mean, sneering middle-aged petty bourgeoisie, the old woman is more like death herself. She gives Mouchette clothes for herself, and a shroud for her mother, but it’s not out of kindness. It’s for her own selfish reasons. She wants to tell Mouchette about “the dead.”
As in so many of Bresson’s films, a casual suggestion can often be the final piece in the puzzle that resolves the plot. An offhand remark by the psychotherapist in The Devil Probably shows Charles the right way to commit suicide. The gift of the shroud helps Mouchette realize that there’s no hope over the horizon, that her life will never change. Critics have occasionally remarked that her decision to wrap herself in the shroud, roll herself in the lake, and drown herself seems to come out of nowhere. They have not sufficiently worked their way into Mouchette’s world, into the combination of poverty and emotional repression make finding the urge to kill yourself seem as natural as finding where you put your car keys after frantically searching for them for 15 minutes. Ah, there’s my keys. Ah, there’s what I should do, end it all, now. It’s been over from the very beginning anyway.
If the world of the 13-year old Mouchette is banal and mean spirited, the world of the 11-year-old Ofelia, the heroine of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, is over the top, baroque horror. Ofelia comes to a small military base in Franco’s fascist Spain to live with Captain Vidal, her soon to be stepfather. Carmen, Ofelia’s mother, is pregnant. She’s also sick, and then, like Mouchette’s mother, dying. It’s easy to see why. Captain Vidal, who’s running a counterinsurgency against a small group of anti-fascist guerillas, is a monster. Actually monster doesn’t quite express the man’s evil. He’s perhaps the best portrait of the pure, distilled nature of fascism I’ve ever seen in any film. He runs his little world as if he were God (or Satan). He kills on a whim. He tortures on a whim. There’s no kindness, no empathy, not even any emotion about Captain Vidal. He’s nothing but a narcissist who worships his household gods, himself. He murders Carmen’s doctor for disobedience, thus insuring that Carmen will die in excruciating pain. Finally, he murders Ofelia for the same reason.
But, unlike Mouchette, Ofelia is unconquered. Like Mouchette, she’s sullen, disobedient, and rebellious. Unlike Mouchette, she has a rich, powerful imagination that conjures up an entirely parallel universe. Ofelia is not just an unhappy little girl. Centuries ago, she was Princess Moanna, future queen of the underworld. Ofelia’s inner life includes monsters, secret passageways, fairies, magic chalk that opens doors where there are no doors, tests to prove her heroism, and, finally, the rebirth of her mother and her real, biological father. She’s made it clear through the whole film that Vidal is no father of hers. Robert Bresson and Guillermo del Toro may seem like opposites. They are, mirror images. If Mouchette is an expression of how reality can conquer the soul, Pan’s Labyrinth is an expression of how the soul can conquer reality. Ofelia not only sees the world of hope over the horizon. She’s already there.