By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “La Moustache,” Cinema Guild/Koch Lorber, 2006]
You could down a trough of Gogol, Kafka and Buñuel and still not come up with an absurd domestic apocalypse as simple and disconcerting as that of Emmanuelle Carrère’s “La Moustache.” It begins with a banal bathroom question: should I shave my mustache? Marc (Vincent Lindon) asks his wife this as he’s lathering up in a bath before a dinner party; “Never seen you without it,” Emmanuelle Devos’s Agnes shrugs. He does the deed, hides his face coyly, and then the unimaginable happens she says nothing. His friends don’t notice, his co-workers (at a storefront design firm) are mute. Every conversation is a spit in his eye, because it’s a denial of the obvious. Does anyone ordinarily notice him? Agnes soon flips out her husband never had a mustache. At first, Marc thinks it’s all an elaborate joke, then he wonders if he’s having delusions, both of which are happier scenarios than the last stop on this existential rail line to nowhere: that Carrère’s hero is in fact invisible, incorporeal, present but somehow irrelevant, a Kafkaesque non-person.
Is this psychology, or something scarier, something cosmic, like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and its psychosis-evoking penultimate act? Is it science fiction? “La Moustache” is all the more chilling because what happens to this couple happens every day every marriage as its seizures of cognitive dissonance, and every middle-ager wakes up one day to a life and self he or she doesn’t recognize. As David Byrne used to holler, my God, what have I done? The acting is peerless: Devos, she of the relentlessly fascinating Picasso face, never wavers in her conviction, but it’s Lindon’s film. Thick-faced but lipless, with a natural frown and the worried eyes of an old dog, he is perfectly cast as an average semi-macho schmo caught in the ultimate pre-menopausal nightmare.
French nightmares are almost by definition mundane like Robert Bresson’s “Mouchette” (1967), a wounding, epochal analysis of a neglected and abused teenage girl on her blank-faced way to the grave. An inarticulate country girl with a dying mother and an alcoholic father, Mouchette (Nadine Nortier) is almost ritually humiliated, insulted and exploited by everyone around her an all-too-common paradigm for poverty-stricken, post-agricultural social settings, which was surely original novelist Georges Bernanos’s point. In Bresson’s no-nonsense hands, this grim fable becomes a pantomime stations of the cross, so completely focused on sensuous details, ethical interrogation and the fastidious lasering-away of movie bullshit (like acting and action) that it comes close to the simple thrust of a medieval Christian icon. That the film is a saint’s passion doesn’t mean it’s overtly Christian Bresson is far less a spiritualist than a precision pragmatist, with a holy man’s crystal-clear moral vision. (This goes for Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” and “Au Hasard Balthazar” as well, making up a kind of trilogy of the down-trodden.)
Bresson shoots tragedy with an unblinking, unpunctuated lens he corners you into empathy without making it easy or easily forgotten. Still, however you read the Bresson experience, he arguably stands as the most mysterious and elusive master filmmaker, demanding and repaying patience like no one else. The large library of critical scholarship on him still hasn’t fully sussed him out, or fully translated his intensely particular strategy into a relatable idea. He’s a tough cookie, and it may be that his movies cannot be written about eloquently, but only watched. Nonetheless, this Criterion disc comes lugging exegesis, including an audio commentary by old-school scholar/critic Tony Rayns, two TV docs about Bresson and the making of “Mouchette,” an essay by author Robert Polito, and the original theatrical trailer, edited by Jean-Luc Godard.
“La Moustache” (Koch Lorber) and “Mouchette” (Criterion) will be available on DVD January 16th.