Saturday, August 8, 2009

Film Review: Au Hasard Balthazar [A]

Film / Review

Au Hasard Balthazar [InRO]
Director: Robert Bresson
Year: 1966
Part of: Robert Bresson & the Anti-Film

No film says more in as economic a runtime or can be read in as many different ways as Robert Bresson’s 1966 masterpiece “Au Hasard Balthazar.” Jean-Luc Godard claimed that "in 90 or 100 minutes, we see the world." As Bresson saw it, this was a world defined by both cruelty and salvation. As is established early on, his protagonist in the film, the Biblically named donkey Balthazar, is destined to suffer for our sins, and despite Bresson's dismissal of traditional Christian practices in his own book, "Notes on the Cinematographer," it's impossible to deny the presence of religion in "Au Hasard Balthazar." From the opening imagery of Balthazar's baptism by a group of children, to the final shot of his death amidst a sea of white sheep, set to the sound of clanging bells and Franz Schubert's elegiac "Piano Sonata No. 20," to the namesake of the virginal Marie, the film's second central character – Catholic mythos looms large here, and though densely allegorical, these elements weave seamlessly with a modest story about a young girl and a donkey, tempted and teased by a world gone wrong.

Bresson was a master of his intentionally artless and thus paradoxically artful craft, and here he tells a complex and symbolic story through minimalism, his intense control of both the aesthetic and more organic elements of this picture creating an overwhelmingly powerful cinema. Bresson's visual grammar establishes an intimate bond between his audience and Balthazar through close-ups of the animal's face, specifically his glassy eye, while distancing us from the relentlessly cruel and hopeless Gerard, a leather-clad, motor-bike riding, chain wielding bully often shot at torso level. Sound, too, informs our perception of these characters, whether the loaded silences, the relief of the Schubert or the cracking of twigs and branches snapping under the weight of Gerard's boots as he sneaks up on Marie, his grubby hand reaching from the shadows toward hers, which lays innocently on a bench. Also integral to Bresson’s execution is the reaction of the "models" (his word to describe actors, not mine), or, in this case, the lack of reaction, as impassive gazes reflect the characters' passionless nature.

The film opens with the animal Balthazar, his braying disrupting the lilting repetition of the Schubert piece which plays over the credit sequence as he’s being bought by a young girl and her school teacher father. The girl is Marie, and as a child her attention is divided between Balthazar and a boy named Jacques who she promises to marry, and whose name she carves into a wooden bench – the same bench where she will later be confronted by a darker and more sinful desire. The film soon cuts to Balthazar as an adult, being worked relentlessly by a stubborn owner. He's whipped and beaten and strapped to a cart. He eventually escapes and finds his way back to the home of Marie and her family. Marie is now a young adult, played by Anne Wiazemsky, whose immaculate features and porcelain face suggest fragility to be tested. Marie still plans to wed Jacques, but false accusations concerning her proud-but-timid father's unlawful dealings ultimately complicate her life and lead her astray. Weak and impressionable, Marie falls for Gerard (Francois Lafarge), whose strong will and rejection of authority appeal to her.

As Marie becomes increasingly obedient to Gerard – telling her concerned mother in one scene that, "If he asked me to, I'd kill myself for him" – her father falls into a deep depression, and disobedience and persistent lying bring the woman who cares for Gerard to tears. Balthazar, all the while, is passed from owner to owner, and Marie usually soon follows. When Marie neglects him, he's handed over to Gerard, who only then successfully seduces Marie; later, Balthazar finds himself in the hands of a cruel, greedy attorney, with Marie having just left Gerard soon arriving at the curmudgeon's estate; and when Balthazar is passed to alcoholic nomad Arnold (Jean-Claude Guillbert), Marie and Balthazar meet once again at a chaotic party orchestrated by Gerard. The meanings to be deciphered in "Au Hasard Balthazar" may be endless, but the world within the film feels inescapably small, with the same dreary scenery repeated and the same characters often involuntarily finding themselves face to face with each other. The party scene in particular beautifully communicates a feeling of congestion, as a hoard of faceless teens dance in sync with each other, none flinching as Gerard busts a mirror with a liquor bottle and destroys the bar. The others neither show disgust nor join in; and this eerie remove recalls and perhaps informs a similar dancing sequence at the opening of David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive," while also complementing the automatism of Bresson's craft.

Bresson made many film's that economically present stories rich with meaning and impeccable in presentation, but none feels so vast and all-encompassing in its scope and vision of, as Godard put it, "life." "Pickpocket" and “Mouchette” are more focused and precise; "L'Argent" comes close to the same universality; but the allegory and mysteriousness inherent in "Au Hasard Balthazar’s" animal protagonist make it uniquely great. It's a film that may not endorse Catholicism (its Virgin Marie/y is corruptible, its Christ-like figure is only deemed a saint bitterly just before death, and a priest reads from a Bible dispassionately and in fragments as a man lays dying), but, as film scholar Donald Richie puts it, it's a film aware of "the idea of religion.” Still, it works just as effectively as a simple tale about a girl and her donkey; or about a society struggling to maintain any kind of purity in the midst of financial obligation and material obsession; and as transcendent cinema of Bresson's own unique brand, where the craft is so prevalent and integral to the film's success, but yet also impeccably measured as to never be intrusive. "Au Hasard Balthazar" is all that's great about the cinema in just under 100 minutes.

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