Criterion // 1966 // 95 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Joe Armenio (Retired) // June 14th, 2005
"Farewell, my poor, dear friend. Doomed to spend all your days watching the same fools go by." -- Arnold, to Balthazar
Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) is a film more often praised by critics than seen by even discriminating audiences: before this Criterion release it was the highest-ranked film in the 2002 Sight and Sound poll (tied at 19 with Antonioni's L'Avventura and Truffaut's Jules and Jim) that was not available on Region 1 DVD. Much ink has been spilled about its "meanings," much critical energy spent discerning the patterns of its religious symbolism, but such criticism always makes the film feel excessively dry and schematic, which it most definitely is not. Arguments about the donkey as a Christ-figure or the sins that the various characters represent seem not so much misguided as beside the point. "We must let the mystery remain," Bresson said, and Au Hasard Balthazar is a film that dramatizes the biggest and least explainable mystery of all, the fact of existence.
Balthazar is a donkey owned by a schoolteacher-turned-farmer (Philippe Asselin) in rural France, and beloved by his daughter Marie (Anne Wiazemsky). Balthazar is pampered by Marie but is eventually sold and lives a difficult life as a beast of burden, becoming the property of a baker, a drunkard, and a miserly merchant. Marie's life parallels that of her childhood pet, as her father goes broke due to a prideful refusal to defend himself from unjust gossip; she also rejects her adoring childhood love Jacques (Walter Green) in favor of the small-time crook Gerard (Francois Lafarge), with tragic results.
I said that Balthazar is a movie about "the fact of existence," which might seem vague or evasive, but I can think of no other words to describe the effect of the remarkable "performance" that Bresson elicits from his donkey; he never anthropomorphizes, never makes Balthazar react to human beings in ways that suggest he understands them or shares their feelings. Bresson discouraged theatrical acting because he felt that actors' tricks hid the deeper truth conveyed by a human being's sheer physical presence, shorn of individual inflection or mannerism (see my review of L'Argent for a discussion of Bresson's theories on acting). In that sense, as many critics have pointed out, Balthazar is a perfect Bressonian hero, an example of pure existence, without will, an uncomplaining bearer of burdens, entirely free of psychology.
One of my favorite images in any Bresson film comes when Balthazar joins a circus and the director gives us brief glimpses of his neighbors, among them a lounging tiger, an effusive monkey, and an elephant whose vast wrinkled face and pinprick eye are seen in closeup. I can think of no other image that conveys so beautifully the weirdness of life, and Bresson does it in the most subtle of ways, without anything resembling cheap shock tactics. To look in that elephant's eye, or to hear Balthazar's bray, is to wonder what it means to be alive; not for nothing did Jean-Luc Godard call this film "the world in an hour and a half."
Seeing the film again, I was surprised by how overtly lyrical and emotional it is, how packed with plot and incident, especially for a filmmaker often noted for his "austerity." What some critics take for coldness is simply a refusal to bully an audience: Bresson never tells us what to think or feel. Instead of dictating meanings, as Roger Ebert says in his lovely piece on this film in his The Great Movies II, he makes the viewer participate in creating them. His is a "cinema of empathy," as Ebert puts it, one which makes a viewer actively engage with the living beings on the screen. Even compared to the rest of Bresson's films, Balthazar is deeply emotional, with Bresson's methods wringing remarkable performances from his cast of non-professionals, most notably Wiazemsky (who went on to become Jean-Luc Godard's second wife). Bresson also uses music to enhance emotion in more straightforwardly beautiful ways than he would in his later films: Schubert's Piano Sonata #20 is used sparingly but consistently throughout the film as a sort of melancholy punctuation.
The plot is more complicated and the cast larger than in most of Bresson's films, but he is unconcerned with details, presenting events with an elliptical style that often sets us down in the middle of a scene without explanation and refuses to follow what most other narrative filmmakers would consider important stories. At one point there is a drawn-out lawsuit, and even a murder, but Bresson is unconcerned with them except to the extent that they create a portrait of a rural community filled with pettiness and cruelty.
Much of the film's poignance comes from his examination of the brief but doomed moments in which connection between human and human, or between human and animal, is possible; Marie loves Balthazar, she cradles and pampers him and puts garlands in his hair, but she also neglects him, causing her father to sell him because he believes that she doesn't care about her donkey anymore. She has a chance for love with the devoted Jacques (there is a heartbreakingly lyrical and characteristically Bressonian shot in which their hands touch on a park bench) but rejects him out of a shallow regard for the flashy but ultimately selfish and malicious Gerard. Again, Bresson never psychologizes, never over-explains, never tells us in words what can be conveyed on a person's (or a donkey's) face. In this context the briefest utterances can carry the greatest emotional weight. My favorite example of this comes in A Man Escaped, when Fontaine and Jost finally break loose; Fontaine simply turns to his friend and says his name, and all tension is released, the men's profound but fragile sense of freedom conveyed. In Balthazar, the way that Marie says her pet's name and nothing else expresses a world of compassion and melancholy. The famous ending of Balthazar, which is enough to move the hardest heart to tears, contains no words at all.
Criterion's presentation of the film is, not surprisingly, excellent. Sharper eyes than mine might catch some problem with the transfer (which preserves the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio), but the film looks gorgeous, and the mono soundtrack captures as well as possible Bresson's complicated use of sound. There aren't quite as many extras in this single-disc release as one has come to except from Criterion, but the ones that are here are substantive, and a great treasure for Bressonians. In a 13-minute video interview, critic Donald Ritchie celebrates the film and attempts to put it in the context of the rest of Bresson's work. Ultimately he says that the film has an unexplainable emotional effect that "defeats" his "critical faculties," a sentiment with which I can sympathize as I attempt to describe and justify my response for this review.
The real gem here is Un metteur en order: Robert Bresson, an hour-long program about the film that aired on French TV in May of 1966. This is no promotional puff-piece but a serious and probing examination of Bresson's style, the centerpiece of which is an extended and illuminating interview with the director himself, along with admirers of the film such as Jean-Luc Godard (who gives his famous "world in an hour and a half" quote, although it's translated a little differently here), Louis Malle, and Marguerite Duras. The interview with Bresson is filled with characteristically spiky and penetrating aphorisms on almost every aspect of film style. He distinguishes "movies," which he sees as simply "filmed plays," from "cinema," which he says is created "from the juxtaposition of image with image, image with sound, and sound with sound." His is a style that values the "rhythm" of a film above all, the way of succession of shots presented together achieve a cumulative effect.
One of the more interesting moments in the show comes when the interviewer (whom I assume is Roger Stephane, the host) asks Bresson explicitly about the film's religious content, suggesting that Balthazar is a film without God since its characters receive no religious consolation. Bresson counters by saying that for a film to have religious meaning, it need not deal explicitly with theological themes: "If the human is present," he says, "so is the divine." This is consistent with Bresson's embrace of mystery, his refusal to preach or hector, his quiet and profound belief in the integrity and beauty of life.
At the end of Un metteur en order Bresson says: "I firmly believe in cinema as a great art, not as entertainment but on the contrary as a way of taking a deeper look at things, a kind of aid to mankind in delving deeper and discovering ourselves." For those of us who love his work, Bresson's films justify cinema as art: they act as "an aid to mankind," they consider the deepest human questions, in ways that could be achieved in no other form. I was relieved to hear Donald Ritchie say that his critical faculties were defeated by Balthazar, since it makes me a little less embarrassed by my failure to describe the film adequately here. All I can say is that this is a film about which I care very much, and I'm glad to have this Criterion edition. I would encourage any lover of film to spend some time with it.
Shouldn't that be obvious by now? Go watch it.
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Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2005 Nominee
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1966
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Donald Ritchie on Balthazar
* Un metteur en order: Robert Bresson
* Original Subtitles