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Watching Robert Bresson's heartbreaking Mouchette, it's hard not to imagine all the ways that Hollywood would ruin it. Sure, let the title character be an impoverished teen scraping her way through a trying adolescence—but let's make sure she has a kicky sense of style! We're fine with Mouchette throwing clods of dirt at her classmates, but what about a sassy pal for her to befriend? A cute French boy next door?

Mouchette gets none of these things; indeed, it only goes from bad to worse for her in her tiny provincial town, a place of predatory older men, abusive schoolmarms and snobby shopkeepers. All the more reason, then, for us to treasure her magnificent surliness, supplied by young Nadine Nortier, a debuting actor who mysteriously never made another film. Bresson's gift was to strip his "models" of all pretense—indeed, of all art—until all that was left for them to portray was the uninflected truth. Of all his films, none puts this technique to the test more thoroughly, and with such passionate results, as Mouchette, a pure-eyed fable of the downtrodden. You can recognize the character's teary gaze—and single moment of delirious ecstasy, in a fairground's bumper-car course—in the deeply humane works she's inspired: Lukas Moodysson's Lilya 4-Ever, the Dardenne brothers' Rosetta. It is a cinematic tradition of, let's face it, utter miserablism, but one that we as human beings can't afford to be without.—Joshua Rothkopf


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