Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sight & Sound Sunday: Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 Poll Rank: #16

French director Robert Bresson's mid-1960s films Au Hasard Balthazar and Mouchette (1967) are often heralded as his finest works. Previously, Bresson - a crucial player in the development of the French New Wave - had made a series of films in which he deployed his philosophy of "pure cinematography." This premise of this theory was that cinema needed to be liberated from the constructs of theatre, in which dialogue drives the action, and focus instead on the strengths of this inherently visual medium. It's a variation of an idea that dozens of filmmakers had worked with previously, particularly Soviets such as Dziga Vertov (Man with a Movie Camera, which will be covered later in this feature). What makes Bresson's unique was twofold: he arrived just as the French New Wave was in full-swing, which helped him rise to the top as an essential voice, and his approach wasn't completely avant-garde, which made his films somewhat more accessible.


With Au Hasard Balthazar, however, "pure cinematography" is not the focal point of the film, which is incredibly dense to approach. A large part of this is because the film's protagonist is a donkey named Balthazar, who comes into possession of a number of owners, all of them terrible and abusive. There is no voiceover to explain the donkey's thoughts, no anthropomorphism; instead, Bresson relies solely on images, a challenge in and of itself (donkey's aren't exactly the most expressive animals). There's a twin narrative going on too, following Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), who suffers just about as much as her beloved Balthazar does at the hands of many of the same people.

The film's elliptical structure gives credence to Jean-Luc Godard's famous quote that its "the world in an hour and a half." Bresson himself never indicated that he intended the film to be allegorical, but it's hard not to read that into it, especially given Godard's reaction and Bresson's noted Catholic faith. Though some, as James Quandt notes in his essay about the film, read the donkey's trail of suffering as symbolic of the procession that Jesus Christ took to his crucifixion, it's notable that the film functions more as a vision of a hostile world that no longer takes pity on its inhabitants' pain.


Balthazar, later in the film, is described as "a saint," and it's a fitting description: he may be the only character in the film that comes close to innocence. Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert) seems to have a cycle: he drinks himself half to death, promises God that he'll never drink again, then (in a clever cut) starts downing glass after glass of alcohol. Gerard (Francois Lafarge) and his posse leave oil slicks on the road to make cars crash, steal, and eventually strip and beat Marie, and remains wholly unrepentant throughout, under the protection of the baker's wife. Even Marie exchanges sex with the Merchant (Pierre Klossowski) for money to keep her family's farm afloat.

Even by Bresson's admission, the film is a bleak interpretation of life. This is where the film's final act delivers on its spiritual overtones. Balthazar is led by Gerard to the border, bearing the burden of contraband. In a firefight, he's wounded, limping off to a hillside where his life comes to an end, surrounded by white sheep. Many have interpreted this as a metaphor for Christ, with Balthazar dying bearing the burden of the world's sins while being surrounded by innocence and mercy. With the inclusion of Shubert's concerto in the score, the film seems to end on a somewhat-hopeful note, assuring the viewer that Balthazar has found peace after a merciless existence.

The film doesn't offer much in the way of explanation of everything that's going on; the audience drops in on the characters' lives with Balthazar, which leaves some mystery to what exactly is going on. It also makes the film that much more dense; Gerard repeatedly refers to Arnold as a murderer, but its never really clear how this murder transpired (or when, or how). The characters do weave in and out of each others' lives, and the power dynamics shift every time the film revisits them. The one thing that is certain, though, is that their malice is not limited only toward Balthazar. Bresson presents a portrait of humanity that's rotten to the core; there are good people, but even they have a darkness in them that could rear its head at any moment. Only through the lens of a donkey, a symbol of pure innocence, does this become evident.

Next time on Sight & Sound Sunday: The Searchers (1956)

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