Brendan’s Log: AU HASARD BALTHAZAR (1966)

October 22, 2013 § 1 Comment

The characters of Robert Bresson’s 1966 masterpiece, Au hasard Balthazar, linger with the viewer for some time after the final shot of the donkey has faded to black. They discover their world as surely as we do, because the manner in which Bresson assembles his scenes is so alien to our concept of the cinema. I don’t say “alien” because his picture resembles something like a Kubrick movie, in which humanity is dwarfed and herded into a collective by the vast, foreign intelligence watching through a camera. Rather, Bresson takes familiar scenes and breaks them down into each individual fragment, showing how disparate and discrete the elements of suffering can be.

My favorite scene in Au hasard Balthazar is an agonizing experience, as are so many of its memorable images and sounds. It unfolds in near-total silence, as the shy Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) climbs into the passenger seat of a car with the troublemaker Gerard (Francois Lafarge), the closest thing the picture has to a stand-in for the devil. We see him seduce her in short bursts, his hand creeping over her shoulder, then into her lap. Intercut with these shots are close-ups of Marie’s face, at first remaining calm, then suddenly wet with tears. The stuff of Bresson’s cinema is pain, the space between its shots occupied by lasting trauma. Marie is never quite the same after this scene; though the two don’t go all the way, Marie’s dialogue starts to take on a tragically hardened quality. She speaks with that brand of cynicism owned by teenagers who think they have seen the worst of the world. Balthazar is not such a wholly cynical film, but neither does it present Marie as a fool.

Balthazar, the donkey who gives the film its rhyming, almost jokey title (it’s a nonsense couplet that translates roughly to By Chance Balthazar), carries the name of a Scriptural figure remembered only for an encounter with the infant Jesus at His birthplace, the Nativity in Bethlehem. Of course the donkey has further resonance for the life of Christ as the beast on which He rode into Jerusalem, the site of His Passion and death. I think that Au hasard Balthazar has acquired something of a false reputation among Catholics and Christians of other denominations, eager to seize in Robert Bresson a patron saint of our faith for the cinema. The film addresses religion, but through absence and indirection. It presents a Balthazar not fated to meet the Savior incarnate, a donkey never blessed with the touch of Christ.

I find it so wrongheaded and alarming to read allegorical interpretations of Balthazar, interpreting the donkey as a Christ figure itself or its tribulations as representing the seven deadly sins, because for me the film works so beautifully through its lack of signs and symbols. Bresson presents us with a tactile universe of violence we can hear and see and suffering we experience through his editing, which is the very substance of cinema. He invites us to look for God in a universe carefully stripped of every sign of divine love and fulfillment, and despite all this I can’t find Au hasard Balthazar to be an atheistic or even wholly pessimistic film. There are many ironies at work here: the alcoholic Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert) swears to himself to never touch booze again, and sure enough Bresson swiftly cuts to his hand reaching for a glass. “What are you afraid of?” “Fear.” A woman prays for the life of her husband, and almost immediately he perishes. Soon after, a traditional Catholic funeral is held, with Balthazar bearing the tabernacle. These scenes, and more, all seem to be the work of an artist wholly disillusioned with faith, with the very idea that suffering could be magnified through love of God.

Yet the final images give me pause, as a fatally wounded Balthazar lies surrounded by a flock of sheep, an oblique gesture toward symbolism in a film otherwise scornful of such expression. Gradually, they are led away by their shepherd, and the creature dies alone, his eyes shutting slowly. Why give Balthazar such a serenely poetic death, when the film’s human characters get no such relief or dignity? I see in this image a veil briefly lifting from the camera’s eye, a momentary admission that in death and dying one sees the world differently, and Bresson gives us a scene to match. It’s still pessimistic; the transcendent moment having passed on, Balthazar expires forgotten and abandoned on a hillside. In a way this is the very crux of Bresson’s masterpiece, and where believers and nonbelievers may part ways in their appreciation; the proposition that, even after what Godard called “the world in an hour and a half” has been depicted as a cavalcade of indignities and abuse, one minute of grace is enough. – Brendan 


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