FILM REVIEWS: Au Hasard Balthazar by Robert Bresson

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Balthazar, finally at peace. This film by Bresson is probably the most haunting film ever made.

C L A S S I C >>>>F I L M

Movie Reviews \\\ Editors’ Note: At Cyrano we do not intend to reinvent the wheel. When we have a movie review written by one of our editors or associates, we run it. When we don’t, we still run the film and use a review in public distribution that we think does the job. The point is not ego but education of the public sensibilities, especially since we believe that all great art is moral. This ecumenical approach is further suggested by the rise of the Net, and of citizens’ journalism, which provide a wealth of reviews from different quarters: readers’ commentary on films, professional evaluations by well-known critics, and so on. Cyrano’s reviews tap all of these sources without prejudice, as amateur reviews are often freer in their expression than commercial ones. But rarely does one single review capture all there’s to be said about an important film, so sometimes we run two or even three “takes” on a given title. When we do, we think they deserve it.

An engrossing view of sin, sainthood
By Ty Burr, Globe Staff

First Published: 04/09/2004

For my money, the most Christ-like figure now appearing on movie screens isn’t in “The Passion of Movie Review the Christ” or “The Gospel of John.” He isn’t even human.

He’s a donkey named Balthazar, and he suffers mightily for the sins of man in an out-of-the-way French village in Robert Bresson’s 1966 classic “Au Hasard Balthazar. ” A new print opens for revival run today at the Kendall Square; a pilgrimage to absorb this quietly devastating, nearly perfect allegory is very much recommended.

Bresson was a Jansenist, a strain of Catholicism that stresses divine grace and man’s distance from God. His films — lean, minimalist fables all — occasionally allow for sudden bolts of transcendence, but in “Balthazar” we have all fallen and we can’t get up. The donkey is merely present as witness, servant, and martyr: Our Beast of Metaphysical Burden.

Balthazar is bought as a foal by rich man vacationing in the village, and as his young son Jacques plays with the donkey and with Marie, the local schoolteacher’s daughter, we are given a brief, problematic glimpse of Eden.

Jacques then returns to the city, and Marie grows up into a tremulous teenage innocent Anne Wiazemsky, the closest the movies have ever come to Vermeer) drawn helplessly to local bad boy Gerard (Francois Lafarge).

Gerard’s not much of a rebel by Hollywood standards — he’s the leader of a moped gang, for one thing — but his sadistic streak is considerable and deeply felt.

Marie is soon addicted to him, and her face carries the full weight of the spiritual loss.

Everyone in the village specializes in one sin or another. Marie’s father (Philippe Asselin) has a stubborn pride that costs him his land; the baker’s wife (M. C. Fremont) lusts after delivery boy Gerard; homeless wastrel Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert) includes murder, drunkenness, and greed among his flaws.

Balthazar serves them all, is abused by most, judges no one.

There’s a sequence in which Gerard, annoyed by the donkey’s balkiness, sets fire to his tail and watches the animal canter up the road in panic; in the next shot he finds Balthazar standing stolidly among the bushes and hitches him back up to the cart. The violence is absorbed, the sense of forgiveness palpable, but Gerard sees only a dumb beast. Bresson invites us to consider which of these two is the more unfortunate.

Marie’s mother is the only person in the film who recognizes Balthazar for a saint; perhaps Marie does as well, but she’s too far gone to admit it. Redemption isn’t on the menu in “Au Hasard Balthazar” — see the director’s “Pickpocket” for that — but the film is meditatively engrossing nonetheless, and it occasionally flashes a spry sense of humor, as in the scenes in which Balthazar is briefly taken in by a circus. He threatens to become a star — not his lot in life — and so doesn’t stay long.

“Balthazar” also has one of the most astonishing final sequences in all of cinema, one in which a handful of prosaic elements snap together to create an image to make grown men weep. I won’t spoil it, other than to say that it covers some of the same symbolic ground as Mel Gibson’s “Passion” but with twice the depth and none of the gore. To see “Au Hasard Balthazar” is to understand the limits of religious literalism in movies — the limits, even, of movies themselves. Bresson pares everything away until all that’s left are the things we do and the hole left by the things we could have done but didn’t.

Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
Roger Ebert / March 19, 2004

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Cast & Credits
Marie: Anne Wiazemsky
Jacques: Walter Green
Gerard: Francois Lefarge
Marie’s father: Philippe Asselin
Marie’s mother: Nathalie Joyaut
Arnold: Jean-Claude Guilbert
The grain dealer: Pierre Klossowski
The priest: Jean-Joel Barbier

Rialto Pictures presents a film written and directed by Robert Bresson. Running time: 95 minutes. In French with English subtitles. No MPAA rating.

Robert Bresson is one of the saints of the cinema, and “Au Hasard Balthazar” (1966) is his most heartbreaking prayer. The film follows the life of a donkey from birth to death, while all the time living it with the dignity of being itself–a dumb beast, noble in its acceptance of a life over which it has no control. Balthazar is not one of those cartoon animals that can talk and sing and is a human with four legs. Balthazar is a donkey, and it is as simple as that.

We first see Balthazar as a newborn, taking its first unsteady steps, and there is a scene that provides a clue to the rest of the film; three children sprinkle water on its head and baptize it. What Bresson may be suggesting is that although the church teaches that only humans can enter into heaven, surely there is a place at God’s side for all of his creatures.

Balthazar’s early life is lived on a farm in the rural French district where all the action takes place; the donkey will be owned by many of the locals, and return to some of them more than once. A few of them are good, but all of them are flawed, although there is a local drunk who is not cruel or thoughtless to the animal, despite his other crimes.

Balthazar’s first owner is Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), who gives him his name. Her father is the local schoolmaster, and her playmate is Jacques (Walter Green), who agrees with her that they will marry someday. Jacques’ mother dies, and his grief-stricken father leaves the district, entrusting his farm to Marie’s father (Philippe Asselin), in whom he has perfect trust. Marie loves Balthazar, and delights in decorating his bridle with wild-flowers, but she does nothing to protect him when local boys torment the beast. The leader of this gang is Gerard (Francois Lafarge), and when Marie glances up to the church choir during Mass as Gerard sings, he brings an evil even to the holy words.

Marie’s father is a victim of the sin of pride. Although he has managed the farm with perfect honesty, he refuses to produce records or receipts to prove himself, after rumors are spread by jealous neighbors that he is stealing from the owner. To the despair of Marie’s mother (Nathalie Joyaut), he follows his stubborness straight into bankruptcy. Balthazar becomes the possession of the local baker, and is used by the baker’s boy (none other than Gerard) to deliver bread. Gerard mistreats and abuses Balthazar, who eventually simply refuses to move. Gerard responds by tying a newspaper to its tail and setting it on fire. Eventually under Gerald’s mistreatment thedonkey collapses and there is talk of putting it down.

But the town drunk, Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert), saves him and brings him back to life, and then there is Balthazar’s brief moment of glory when he is hired out as a circus animal–the Mathematical Donkey, who can solve multiplication tables. This life is soon brought to an end, as Balthazar becomes the property of a recluse, and then finally wanders back on its own to the stable where it began its life, and where it finds Marie’s father and even Marie.

But this is not a sentimental ending. Marie is a weak girl, who rejects the sincere Jacques when he returns as a young man, to say he still loves her. She prefers Gerard, who mistreats her but seems glamorous with his leather jacket and motor bike. What we see through Balthazar’s eyes is a village filled with small, flawed, weak people, in a world where sweetness is uncommon and cruelty comes easily.

That is what we see — but what does Balthazar see? The genius of Bresson’s approach is that he never gives us a single moment that could be described as one of Balthazar’s “reaction shots.” Other movie animals may roll their eyes or stomp their hooves, but Balthazar simply walks or waits, regarding everything with the clarity of a donkey who knows it is a beast of burden, and that its life consists of either bearing or not bearing, of feeling pain or not feeling pain, or even feeling pleasure. All of these things are equally beyond its control.

There is however Balthazar’s bray. It is not a beautiful sound, but it is the sound a donkey can make, and when Balthazar brays it might sound to some like a harsh complaint, but to me it sounds like a beast who has been given one noise to make in the world, and gains some satisfaction by making it. It is important to note that Balthazar never brays on cue to react to specific events; that would turn him into a cartoon animal.

Although the donkey has no way of revealing its thoughts, that doesn’t prevent us from supplying them — quite the contrary; we regard that white-spotted furry face and those big eyes, and we feel sympathy with every experience the donkey undergoes. That is Bresson’s civilizing and even spiritual purpose in most of his films; we must go to the characters, instead of passively letting them come to us. In the vast majority of movies, everything is done for the audience. We are cued to laugh or cry, be frightened or relieved; Hitchcock called the movies a machine for causing emotions in the audience.

Bresson (and Ozu) take a different approach. They regard, and ask us to regard along with them, and to arrive at conclusions about their characters that are our own. This is the cinema of empathy. It is worth noting that both Ozu and Bresson use severe stylistic limitations to avoid coaching our emotions. Ozu in his sound films almost never moves his camera; every shot is framed and held, and frequently it begins before the characters enter the scene and continues after they leave.

Bresson’s most intriguing limitation is to forbid his actors to act. He was known to shoot the same shot 10, 20, even 50 times, until all “acting” was drained from it, and the actors were simply performing the physical actions and speaking the words. There was no room in his cinema for De Niro or Penn. It might seem that the result would be a movie filled with zombies, but quite the contrary: By simplifying performance to the action and the word without permitting inflection or style, Bresson achieves a kind of purity that makes his movies remarkably emotional. The actors portray lives without informing us how to feel about them; forced to decide for ourselves how to feel, forced to empathize, we often have stronger feelings than if the actors were feeling them for us.

Given this philosophy, a donkey becomes the perfect Bresson character. Balthazar makes no attempt to communicate its emotions to us, and it comunicates its physical feelings only in universal terms: Covered in snow, it is cold. Its tail set afire, it is frightened. Eating its dinner, it is content. Overworked, it is exhausted. Returning home, it is relieved to find a familiar place. Although some humans are kind to it and others are cruel, the motives of humans are beyond its understanding, and it accepts what they do because it must.

Now here is the essential part. Bresson suggests that we are all Balthazars. Despite our dreams, hopes and best plans, the world will eventually do with us whatever it does. Because we can think and reason, we believe we can figure a way out, find a solution, get the answer. But intelligence gives us the ability to comprehend our fate without the power to control it. Still, Bresson does not leave us empty-handed. He offers us the suggestion of empathy. If we will extend ourselves to sympathize with how others feel, we can find the consolation of sharing human experience, instead of the loneliness of enduring it alone.

The final scene of “Au Hasard Balthazar” makes that argument in a beautiful way. The donkey is old and near death, and wanders into a herd of sheep–as, indeed, it began its life in such a herd. The other animals come and go, sometimes nuzzling up against it, taking little notice, accepting this fellow animal, sharing the meadow and the sunshine. Balthazar lies down and eventually dies, as the sheep continue about their business. He has at last found a place where the other creatures think as he does.

NOTE: Ebert’s review of Bresson’s “Pickpocket” is also in the Great Movies series.

2 comments on “FILM REVIEWS: Au Hasard Balthazar by Robert Bresson
  1. I saw this film when I was very young (12) in Europe, and never forgot it. These reviews do it justice, I think, but Bresson is a director that defies analysis. Thank you for reminding us of this masterpiece of the soul.

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