By a customer
, 23 Jun 2008
"Au Hasard, Balthazar" was made in 1966 and was followed in 1967 by "Mouchette", the only time Robert Bresson made films in successive years. His final black and white works, they are often linked critically as the peak of his cinematographic skill. Themes spill over from the earlier to the later film - Bresson seems to have felt the need to resolve issues of teenage alienation and the bleak future which can face adolescents.
Robert Bresson (1901-1999) began directing in 1934. His thirteen feature films, made between 1943-1983, achieved great critical acclaim, marked Bresson as a major influence on many European and American directors, yet never achieved box office success. Bresson made the films he wanted to make, striving at all times for visual impact; the majority of his films were in black and white - he demonstrates great visual control in this medium. And the visual element can be emphatic - his films are often sparse in their use of dialogue while Bresson makes exaggerated use of natural sound effects (wind, rain, footsteps, creaking boards).
Bresson used unknown or amateur actors - no big names, no easy familiarity with the faces on the screen. He wanted his audience to concentrate on the story and its emotions, even if his style might make these enigmatic, if not cryptic. Note the opening scenes of "Balthazar" - a dying child, a school teacher in an empty class, references which will have later import but which flash by inconsequentially.
Bresson began as a painter and often referred to his actors as 'models' - they were there to provide visual images. They were stripped of emotion - he didn't want them to portray emotion as a public show, but to exhibit something more transcendent. "Balthazar" is the extreme form of this depersonalisation - the star of the film is a donkey, significantly silent throughout most of the abuses he endures, yet whose voice intrudes into the opening credits to fracture the accompanying music.
Heavily influenced by a Catholic vision of predestination, Bresson shuns exploration of psychology. In many of his films the characters simply accept their fate - they know they are destined to suffer and battle against an illusion of free will. Again, Balthazar provides the ideal form, a poor, mistreated beast, exposed to the whims and abuses of human actors to the point where he is resurrected to endure even more torment.
Bresson's pessimism is evident, but he felt he saw the influence of god more clearly and potently in poverty and suffering. The struggle to resolve the conflict between freewill and destiny is, for Bresson, the essential route to spiritual fulfilment. Balthazar at one point escapes, flees back to the happier world he had known in his 'childhood', only to be once again pressed into the service of humans and into a fresh round of mistreatment and abuse.
"Au Hazard Balthazar" has obvious religious references - the donkey becomes a parody (or even parable) of Christ; the film rides on the donkey's back, is carried in procession by this creature. We can imagine birth in a stable, we have symbolism of bread and wine, Balthazar is crowned with flowers, baptised, resurrected, humiliated, yet transcends all with dignity - emphasised by raucous braying.
The theme is sin and suffering, the donkey acting as both witness and victim. The film follows Balthazar's life - a caricature epic, shot in short episodes, carrying the viewer along at rapid pace. You observe a densely packed narrative - this is a film you need to return to three or four times to absorb all the detail Bresson serves up.
Much of the storyline is enigmatic. Marie, the daughter of a schoolteacher, adopts the new born Balthazar. The farmer, owner of the donkey, loses his child, loses interest in his farm. Marie's father takes on the farm, applying rigorous scientific knowledge in its management. He is plunged into scandal - financial, sexual? The donkey has been sold into a life of toil but escapes and is rediscovered by Marie ... only to be tormented by her delinquent lover and returned to a life of abuse. On his travels he watches the degeneration and corruption of the people who touch his life. Hardly the commercial fare of a Hollywood epic, but an epic none the less.
"Au hasard" suggests danger, risk, but is best translated as 'chance', suggesting that Balthazar's life is random, beyond control ... certainly beyond his control. It's an allegory of human life. Donkeys are born to suffer. So are humans. Marie, in particular, is stripped of control over her life as her brief, idealised childhood descends into the abuse and humiliation of adolescence.
But none of the characters in the film have any control over their lives - they are all driven by forces beyond their ken, are all pawns in a larger game. Bresson casts sin and morality into a bleak light - how do we judge the sinner if the sinner is simply damned to sin? Is the sinner any less deserving of sympathy than the sinned against? The film does contain 'villains', but they too are propelled by an unknown hand and destiny.
An epic, a classic piece of cinematography, an enigmatic flow of narrative, "Au Hasard Balthazar" is beautifully transferred to disc in crisp, high contrast black and white with a largely naturalistic soundtrack. This is a well-produced, well-packaged offering. The DVD delivers an hour-long 1966 French TV programme on the film and a short interview with film scholar Donald Richie, and some printed notes further enhance your analysis of and understanding of the film. A movie worthy of great critical acclaim, but hardly commercial in its themes and style.
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