The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Au Hasard Balthazar (1966/France/dir. Robert Bresson) appeared at #65 on my original list.
What it is • One of the most famous statements about Au Hasard Balthazar is attributed to Jean-Luc Godard, who went on to marry its leading lady (Anne Wiazemsky, at the time of Balthazar a completely inexperienced 18-year-old nonprofessional). Godard describes this deceptively simple, minimal, quiet film as "the world in an hour and a half." Virtually - maybe even actually - the entire film takes place in a village so provincial that the occasional car or transistor radio seems vaguely anachronistic. Yet this isolated hamlet truly does feel like a microcosm of the wider world, with characters who are starkly defined and delineated. They exist not only in isolated corners of the narrative but are also forced to interact with one another, creating clashes or attachments that illuminate both parties. The tapestry woven by this novelistic ensemble includes the intense, fiery cruelty of Gerard (Francois Lafarge), the miserly, lustful cynicism of the merchant (Pierre Klosowski), the belligerent but oddly impotent alcoholic rage of Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert), the infuriating, self-defeating pride of the schoolteacher turned farmer (Philippe Asalin), and especially the demure, despoiled innocence and growing self-awareness of the farmer's daughter Marie (Wiazemsky). The needle that weaves these threads together is the title character, Balthazar, a donkey suffering above and beyond the usual misery of a beast of burden. Over the course of the film he passes between a series of masters, frequently returning to and departing from the home of Marie, where he was baptized in the film's early minutes (some viewers perceive this act as giving him a soul, which heightens his awareness and "humanity" throughout the rest of the movie). We meet him before the film even begins, braying abrasively under the opening credits, and he is at the center of the first and final shots. The story is seen through his eyes even though there are many sequences in which he's not onscreen, in which characters discuss things that have nothing to do with him. This explains why the above description comes as something of a surprise to me even as I write it. The bustling, picaresque nature of that narrative is a far cry from the film's muted, spare storytelling. Even having seen the film numerous times, it's never really registered as a plot. There is character psychology at work; for example, Marie's complete submission to Gerard seems to be at least partly a response to (and perverse reflection of) her own father's harmful stubbornness. And there is a larger story unfolding, of a community that preys upon and breaks down its weakest members, of a child's fatal illness and an offscreen murder and a legal battle dividing longtime friends and a criminal conspiracy led by a choir boy gone astray. But the incidents occur mostly offscreen, and the relationships are implied rather than stated or even observed. The film's body is made up of acts, glances, and gestures of cruelty and occasional kindness that appear random to us, however deeply rooted they may be. Does the donkey's perspective strip this story of any relatable human context? Or does it reveal its emotional substance, free of distracting narration?
Why I like it •
Au Hasard Balthazar was my first Holy Grail film. Well, there may have been others but none that so captivated my imagination, so inspired me to seek them out, and so frustrated me when they could not be found. I discovered the film in a coffee-table film book owned by my father, The Great Movies by William Bayer. It was already twenty-five years old at that point, so many of the films it described as "rare" were no longer obscure in the age of video. But Balthazar certainly was. I was intrigued by Bayer's descriptions of Bresson's pared-down aesthetic and Catholic sensibility, the film's deep but difficult vein of non-sentimental emotion, and maybe especially by the cool but luminous black-and-white photographs adorning the page. Few of the film books I read even mentioned the title so I was starved for information, let alone for the movie itself. I tried to find a copy at the local rarity video store or to order it in libraries, but their catalogs didn't even recognize it. At one point I acquired a video online, but the tape that arrived at my doorstep was mysteriously unplayable (only later would I realize the difference between VHS and PAL). It was only after about four or five years that my opportunity finally arrived: in 2003 Au Hasard Balthazar ran at a New York theater to rave reviews and renewed attention. All of this background certainly explains my interest in the movie. But it doesn't explain why I like it because, at first, I didn't. At all. I was already a little nervous going into the theater, given the hype both inside and outside my head. And my worst fears were confirmed as the film unfolded: it was flat, cold, alienating, nothing like what I had hoped for or expected after all those years. The affectless performances pushed me away as did the directorial distance of Bresson's cool, calm, precise mode of filmmaking (despite having enjoyed Pickpocket already at this point). I don't think I've ever felt so disappointed walking out of a cinema - it was as if the director had held me at an arm's length while simultaneously slapping me around. I had to resign myself to the bitter recognition that this aloof art object would never, ever be one of my favorite films.
And yet here it is. It requires a slightly longer-than-usual review to explain my turnaround, and even so I can only be brief and suggestive. Balthazar is a film whose appeal is difficult to articulate without making it sound too cerebral or too sentimental - and it isn't either. It is primarily a sensual experience, providing rich but subtle sights and sounds (oh, those sounds!) yielding themselves to us only when we allow the film to be itself instead of what we might wish or expect it to be. Several years after the film's theatrical release and grand Criterion debut, I found myself hungering to revisit it. I was gradually drawn into various scenes, usually involving not Balthazar, at least not primarily, but Marie. Bresson's photography and editing of the "seduction" scene in which Gerard completely overpowers Marie without laying a finger on her is captivating and quietly heartbreaking. So is the most beautiful scene in the movie, as Marie offers Balthazar a crown of flowers while a possibly jealous Gerard whispers in the bushes. And then of course there is the final scene, featuring only Balthazar himself (aside from a flock of sheep) - one of the great scenes of its type in cinema. All of these sequences have in common a sense of power being harnessed. The director is providing the material for a strong emotional engagement while simultaneously holding everything slightly in check. Often when we talk about a filmmaker's great editing we talk about the rhythm of the cuts themselves but Bresson's sense of montage has more to do with sustaining a shot just long enough to absorb us before separating us from the power of that particular moment. The cutting has the same deep, restrained sense of timing and movement as Schubert's Piano Sonata No. 20 explaining why Bresson was inspired to use that piece of music, and also why he later regretted it (perhaps because he considered it redundant). There is tremendous beauty in the movie, and strong emotion that avoids sentimentality because it is no more reflective than Balthazar himself. But I wouldn't call Au Hasard Balthazar cathartic. It does avoid the relentless viciousness of Bresson's Mouchette (also probably a masterpiece albeit one I deeply resented on first viewing). However, Balthazar is probably too bleak, or maybe just too open-ended, to accurately suit its frequent (mis?)characterization as transcendent spiritual allegory. When I watch it, I don't feel the film is about what Balthazar's life means, positively or negatively. It's about what his life is - not about what the events we see add up to, but about how they unfold. The film doesn't offer answers, it offers experiences which we can reject or accept as we please. What's important is that witness them and realize, with our nerves rather than our intellect, what they consist of.
How you can see it • Unlike for me in the late nineties, Au Hasard Balthazar is now widely available. It streams on Hulu, and can be rented on DVD from Netflix. I wrote briefly about how I discovered the film in The Great Movies book (including pictures of it from that book), and created a visual tribute to another fantastic sequence, in some ways my favorite although I didn't even bring it up in this review. A clip appears at 3:58 in "That Total Film", a chapter in my 32 Days of Movies video clip series, and there are a couple brief moments included in my montage Cinepoem - "Idylls of the King".
What do you think? • How did the film affect you on first (and later) viewings? How does it compare with Bresson's earlier and later films? Do you think Wiazemsky crafts a more deeply-felt performance than Bresson may have wanted (as she herself seems to suggest at times)? Do you think of the film as Balthazar's story, Marie's, or the whole community's? The film is often paired with Mouchette; what does that comparison reveal about both films? Despite his unique austerity, does the world and sensibility of Bresson in Balthazar remind you of any other filmmakers or films? Are there other films about an animal that compare to Balthazar for you, either in terms of effect or approach? Is this is a film about an animal? Do you think the ending can be classified as "transcendental" or spiritually uplifting in any sense? Have you read Paul Schrader's book about transcendental cinema? Whether or not you have, do you agree with his association of Bresson with Ozu and Dreyer?
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Previous week: Rear Window (#66)
Next week: The Best Years of Our Lives (#64)