Au hasard Balthazar

The Criterion Collection has released Bresson’s masterpiece, Au hasard Balthazar on DVD today; this review is for, which will publish our full review of the DVD shortly. –Doug

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The scholar C.H. Dodd once defined a parable as a “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application as to tease it into active thought.” Parables are thus distinguished from fables (which involve fantasy or myth) or allegories (which are highly symbolic with emblematic detail).

If Robert Bresson’s aesthetic of realist, material sounds and images assembled in paradoxical ways virtually defines the cinematic parable, Au hasard Balthazar (1966) may be his most inspired and moving expression of the form. Presenting parallel narratives juxtaposing the lives of a teenaged girl, Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), with a donkey named Balthazar, the film is predicated on ellipses and reversals that occur between and within nearly every scene, confounding, subverting, and challenging viewer expectations. It’s a narrative film, but its comprehension is less a matter of connecting cause and effect than speculating on the bits and pieces of information it assembles together in puzzling and evocative ways.

The film has thus provided fertile ground for many thematic interpretations. Bresson himself acknowledged certain suggestions during the film’s release on the French television program Pour le plaisir (included with the Criterion DVD): “This character resembles the Tramp in Chaplin’s early films, but it’s still an animal, a donkey, an animal that evokes eroticism yet at the same time evokes spirituality or Christian mysticism, because the donkey is of such importance in the Old and New Testaments, as well as ancient Roman churches.”

And yet Balthazar is far from a theoretical or intellectual exercise. (“Ideas gathered from reading will always be bookish ideas,” Bresson wrote in Notes on the Cinematographer. “Go to the persons and objects directly.”) The film’s surface textures–farmland, piles of hay, a wooden swing, a spartan bench–are as lovingly emphasized as its sonic textures–Balthazar’s braying, a creaking rope, various squeaking wheels. The film was shot by cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet, following Bresson’s extraordinary four film collaboration with L.H. Burel, and it evokes the physical world with precise clarity. Combined with Bresson’s downward-glancing, opaque models and evocative silences, the film offers an astonishing, muted beauty. Cloquet had previously worked on such films as Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog (1955) and Jacques Becker’s Le Trou (1960), and would shoot Bresson’s two subsequent works.

The film’s sounds include a melancholy refrain from Schubert’s Sonata No. 20, and although Bresson later rejected the use of nondiegetic music altogether (and suggested Balthazar‘s accompaniment was “too sentimental”), the film’s music, like its imagery, provides effective counterpoint to its somber drama.

Counterpoint is the driving force of the film. In the opening credits alone, Schubert’s sonata is interrupted by a magnificent donkey bray. The first shot after the credits provides a composition of nature–a donkey colt suckling his mother–but a human hand intrudes from offscreen to pet the animal. Two children then ask an older man if they can have the colt and the man refuses; the next shot reveals the three of them leading the colt down a hill. The following scenes contrast the children playing on a farm (“baptizing” the donkey and naming him Balthazar) with a bed-ridden child who takes her medicine and quietly weeps. These gentle scenes then dissolve to a low angle shot of a man menacing the camera, cracking a whip with loud snaps on the soundtrack; it is years later and Balthazar is being put to work.

As Balthazar ages, so does Marie, and the bulk of the film presents her in adolescence, caught in the fragile period when childish things are cast aside, complex emotions are born, and serious decisions can derail a life before it has the chance to blossom. Wiazemsky, who later became a novelist, provides one of Bresson’s most compelling models, projecting a reserved and seemingly unconscious combination of passivity and rebellion, reticence and rashness. Her treatment of Balthazar is simultaneously caring and neglecting: in one scene, she adorns the animal with flowers and kisses it, in another she pathetically notes how the donkey shivers in the cold. Marie marks Bresson’s increasing interest in youthful protagonists, prefiguring Mouchette, Une Femme douce, and a series of teenagers in his late color period (filmed in his seventies and eighties); his sensitivity to their uncertain, paradoxical behaviors would always remain highly observant, empathic yet unsentimental.

Balthazar, Bresson’s most original script (one of his few films not adapted from a literary text), is the first film in which he begins to fully confront modern cruelty. His counterpoint to Balthazar’s innocence and beauty is Gerard, the gleefully sadistic hoodlum who abuses nearly everything he encounters. Bresson continually associates him with the growling sound of the delinquent’s moped and blaring transistor radio, two objects of modernity that violently penetrate the pastoral atmosphere. Gerard and his gang vandalize roads, terrorize Balthazar, and physically abuse Marie, who seems so resigned to her fate that she rejects the one character–her childhood friend Jacques–who offers her unconditional love. Gerard is offered perhaps the most devotion when he’s hired by the local baker, and the artisan’s wife secretly dotes over the youth in romantically ambiguous ways.

Throughout the film, Marie and Balthazar meet and diverge, seemingly at random (the film’s title translates as “By Chance, Balthazar”). Suggestions of plot flicker in the background: Marie’s father inherits a farm and takes great pride in putting it to use, but the old enemies of Bresson’s Country Priest–distrust and gossip–isolate him from his small community; a murder occurs that implicates Gerard and his gang as well as the town drunkard, Arnold (played by Jean-Claude Guilbert, who, uncharacteristically for Bresson, would be reused in the director’s next film); Balthazar is sold to various owners, all of whom invariably abuse the donkey as outward manifestations of unique vices.

When Balthazar is made to work as a circus performer, it provides Bresson with one of his most justifiably lauded sequences. Balthazar assists a worker who moves from cage to cage providing hay for a variety of exotic animals. As the man stops, doles out portions, and moves on, Balthazar stares silently ahead and the animals stare back; the scene is strictly representational, there is no anthropomorphic embellishment to it, yet through Bresson’s conspicuous editing, the animal world unites in its mystery and diversity. And although Balthazar’s central position in the narrative defines the donkey as a protagonist, Bresson preserves the animal’s inscrutable nature, balancing its remoteness with its responses to human behavior. (Bresson insisted on using an untrained donkey.) Like the film’s enigmatic characters and teasing narrative glimpses, Balthazar’s singular being is a summation of ambiguous details offered moment by moment.

The profundity of Balthazar–no doubt a primary reason why it was voted one of the top 20 films of all time in the 2002 Sight & Sound international poll–lies not in its fragments, however, but its overall harmony, the way Bresson fashions a sense of balance between suffering and beauty, will and passivity, exactitude and suggestion, chance and inevitability, life and death. His formal unity elevates the film to the highest artistic plane and its steady stream of contradictions appear as necessary truths, firmly placing the viewer between the knowable and the unknowable, the world that’s perceived and the world that’s hidden, intangibly ordered, and finally perhaps, revealed.

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