Friday, August 09, 2013

Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

France/Sweden, 95 minutes
Director/writer: Robert Bresson
Photography: Ghislain Cloquet
Music: Jean Wiener, Franz Schubert
Editor: Raymond Lamy
Models: Balthazar, Anne Wiazemsky, Walter Green, François Lafarge, Jean-Claude Guilbert, Philippe Asselin, Pierre Klossowski, Nathalie Joyaut

I have a great fondness for Robert Bresson's donkey movie, which is typically enough fractured, allusive, and blunt, helped in great measure by a basic narrative element barely in Bresson's control, if it is in his control at all. Back in film appreciation classes, I was given to understand that the somewhat stultifying Diary of a Country Priest was Bresson's essential go-to masterpiece so it's interesting to me that Balthazar is now ranked highest among the canonizers at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, followed by Pickpocket (my other favorite Bresson), A Man Escaped, Mouchette, L'Argent, and then finally Country Priest at #196. Despite that apparent fall in favor by Country Priest, a total of six titles in that list's top 200 clearly signals a regard for Bresson that may be higher than ever.

The element barely under control, of course, is Balthazar, who is an enigma in the way of all animals we may come to know, a blank slate as such, one that as viewers (and/or caretakers) we may be quick to fill in. Bresson artfully matches his usual bent for ambiguity—as always, the intent appears to be to film the ineffable—with the manifest reality of the donkey, which I think is what makes this movie work so well. However abstracted anything around it might seem to become, it remains the story of a life from beginning to end, "Balthazar, told by random incident" (more or less the translation of the title).

Balthazar is enigmatic in other ways too. He appears to have no other name than the one he bore in the picture. He is not listed in the credits anywhere I can find (there are probably two of him anyway as he appears first as an adorable foal). In fact, there doesn't appear to be a lot of information about him. IMDb has an intriguing story about how the animal was not even trained when it was acquired for the film, and little was done to remedy that other than teaching him the trick he does in a circus scene. He is thus almost pure cipher, harried for probably weeks or more by the bewildering confusion of a camera crew. I can imagine an interesting Les Blank coulda woulda shoulda documentary to accompany this that would tell the real story of the real animal.

Full disclosure: I come at the picture from a certain point of view I am likely to project all over it. In fact, with this particular movie, projection tends to be even a little more evident than usual. It produces copious amounts of weeping in otherwise stone-faced men and women, and leaves the most passionate vaguely bored. It is simply a puzzle, and a bit of a pretentious one, to many others. I find myself alert to the treatment of the donkey, somehow acutely aware it never has any idea of being in a movie. There is one scene that seriously threatens to break the spell, when the film itself becomes as despicable as the thuggish character it is attempting to show. Yet on balance I was moved deeply by the life story told here, appreciating the natural power of the scenes, as conceived, and by their sequencing and setups and occasional explosions.

Though Balthazar begins the movie, and life, as the pet for children on a country farm, it is not long before his life as a beast of burden sets in. Less than 10 minutes along a title card briskly informs us, "YEARS GO BY." At which point all the narrative threads begin to distinguish themselves: the farm girl who loves Balthazar, Marie (Anne Wiazemsky, who is tenderly beautiful and a magnet for the camera), the juvenile delinquent, Jacques (Walter Green, wearing a black leather jacket in every scene), and the older generation of family and neighbors who ineptly (and sometimes a little inappropriately) attempt to meet their responsibilities and care for them.

It is filled with many human cruelties. One could complain that some are a bit elaborately fashionable (Marie's humiliation by Jacques in her home, late in the movie), but they nonetheless hit with force. One could also complain it assumes the gait of an allegory too easily. There's a certain specificity to Jacques's relationship with Marie and his life around the town, for example, but otherwise the black leather jacket and, later, a ubiquitous transistor radio playing obnoxious "rock 'n' roll" feel like rote symbolism. But this is a very spry film as assembled, moving rapidly about its characters and modes, perhaps stubbornly refusing to clarify its narrative points (perhaps not), but always going back again to its certainties.

Balthazar is ultimately the one certainty of this picture, even as he never quite fits into it any better than he does the lives of those around him. Bresson finds numerous ways to emphasize this over and over. Medium-close shots for a person, it turns out, produce extreme close-ups of a donkey. When Marie pets him and murmurs to him to comfort herself, we see her just fine in almost glamour shots but we see only one eye and the contours of part of Balthazar's head. But the eye does read as expressive, and his bulk fills the frame. He is imposing and omnipresent in this film, as intended.

At which point you either make your purchase or you don't, I suppose. So much depends on caring about the donkey—the counterpoint all through between braying (a disturbing noise when prolonged) and chilly Schubert, the lovely touches of sound effects, the humor (as in the titles pausing for a bray), and of course the final sequence. The last 10 or 15 minutes, with Jacques's last unforgivable act, and all the ways it plays out, is one of the great finishes to a movie. Au hasard Balthazar remains scrupulously within the bounds of what it sets for itself, and achieves a tremendously poignant note, simply by the nature of the shape and aspect of the animal we have become familiar with.

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