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AU HASARD BALTHAZAR

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Anne Wiazemsky, Walter Green, Jean-Claude Guilbert, François Lafarge
Director: Robert Bresson
Audio: French monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, widescreen 1.66:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Un metteur en ordre: Robert Bresson, interview, trailer, essay
Length: 95 minutes
Release Date: June 14, 2005

"Farewell, my poor, dear friend.  Doomed to spend all your days watching the same fools go by."

Film ****

Lyrical, secretive, iconoclastic - the legendary French director Robert Bresson has always defied attempts to classify him or his films.  Neither a practitioner of the formalized Old-Guard style of French cinema nor the New Wave which succeeded it, Bresson was simply a self-determined auteur.  He was concerned primarily with the purity of the cinematic art form, and his few films were less "movies" than they were philosophical or spiritual expressions of fundamental truths about the frailty of human beliefs or existence.  Jean Cocteau once said of Bresson, "He expresses himself...as a poet would with his pen."

As one of the most revered of all French directors, Bresson approached filmmaking with a minimalist's austere eye, paring down his stories to their bare essentials.  If Orson Welles was legendary for his flashy visual and technical flourishes, so Bresson was his antithesis, equally brilliant yet invisible and subdued in his technique.

Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) was one of Bresson's later films, an allegorical treatise on the trials and sins of humanity.  Superficially the story of one donkey, Balthazar, as he shuffles from one provincial owner to another, Au Hasard Balthazar is in actuality an exploration of those weaknesses and flaws which define our very existence - love and abandonment, torment and labour, mockery and parade, or cruelty and salvation.

All these life's tribulations are experienced by Balthazar, from his early frivolous youth through his enduring and patient days as a beast of burden until his final peaceful hours.  Balthazar is adopted by the young son of a farm owner and presented to his childhood sweetheart Marie.  The years pass as Balthazar matures, his various owners, some kind and some not, drifting in and out of his life like ephemeral echoes in the wind.  Frequently, we are not privy to the inner thoughts of these human characters, whose stories are sometimes without beginning or resolution.

Some may re-appear or age during the course of Balthazar's own passage through life.  Young Marie matures from an innocent girl into a more world-weary and tragic character.  Her father the caretaker (Philippe Asselin) succumbs eventually to a stubborn pride that proves to be his undoing.  Then, there is the roguish Gérard (François Lafarge), a local lad who tirelessly stalks and seduces Marie (Anne Wiazemsky).  Gérard is the very personification of the paradoxical mixture of good and evil in Man.  On Sundays, Gérard's angelic voice brightens the church choir; for the remainder of the week, he reverts into a rebellious and abusive youth, engaging in fisticuffs and the willful destruction of property.  Caught in the midst of this tirade of uninhibited behavior is Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert), a wandering, alcoholic vagabond who at one point nurtures an ill Balthazar back to health but is destined himself for a somber fate.  Ultimately however, all these characters and sub-plots are tangential to the essence of the film - the enduring travails of Balthazar.

As such, any synopsis of Au Hasard Balthazar's surface storyline will fail to truly capture the film's quietly profound tone.  Deceptively simple, Au Hasard Balthazar is really a collage of images and short anecdotes which when juxtaposed together create the film's ethereal, almost reverent temper.  The film is briskly paced, although its oblique narrative style invests much greater depth into the film's imagery than into the simplicity of its outward superficiality.

In theological scriptures, "Balthazar" was the name of one of the Magi, or Three Wise Men.  This point is alluded to during a lighter moment in the film, a circus sequence centering upon the donkey's unusual brightness.  A bolder interpretation of the film may even liken Balthazar to a Christ-like figure, the torments afflicted upon the humble creature akin to those suffered in the final hours before the Crucifixion.  There are many allegorical images in the film to support this supposition - Balthazar's baptism, his crown of "flowers," his stigmatic wound in the closing moments of the film, or the very tangible impression that Balthazar suffers for his human hosts.

Despite its religious context, Au Hasard Balthazar is perhaps the most critical towards Catholicism of Bresson's films.  There is a sense in the film that a pretense of religion is upheld within the community but that true faith or fear for the consequences of one's vices is absent.  Marie's father, in the throes of hubris and grave illness, rejects the presence of the local priest.  The character of Gérard practices a licentious life of sin, seducing Marie, tormenting his fellow men and animals, and engaging in thievery or battery, all while performing and singing in the service of God.

There is also an undercurrent of sexual tension and inhibition throughout the film.  We see it in the possessive obsession of a baker's wife for Jacques, who delivers the daily bread throughout the countryside for her.  We see it in sweet Marie, whose association with the impulsive Jacques and his rebellious band of brothers leads to her fall from grace and loss of innocence.  In the background also lingers a libidinous grain dealer (Pierre Klossowski), whose life of scornful solitude secretly harbors an envy for the vitality and spirit of youth as embodied in Marie.

Nevertheless, a note of poignancy runs throughout the film, expressed most predominately in the recurring motif of the outstretched hand.  This imagery is repeated, whether in a yearning reach for companionship, an expressive motion to drown out all external sounds, or the beckoning plea from behind a physical barrier.  In one character's seeming hour of absolution, the hands are folded.  In another scene, the hands grasp at supports to brace the body.  Bresson uses this hand imagery to emphasis the essential isolation and loneliness of every individual within a corporeal body.  Though we may reach out to one another in times of need or struggle, ultimately we all inhabit our own individual shell, to live in and to die in solely.  And in the final hour, death must be experienced alone for man and beast alike.

Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar is not an uplifting motion picture, but it is a deeply meaningful one.  Exquisitely lit, beautifully composed, this is truly a masterpiece.  Whether the viewer accepts Balthazar as merely a beast of burden living out his provincial life or as an allegorical representation of something more fundamental to human nature, Au Hasard Balthazar's subtle yet thought-provoking images will linger in the mind long after the film has concluded.

Video *** ½

Very impressive!  Au Hasard Balthazar may sport the finest black & white transfer of any DVD in 2005.  The video quality is extremely clear with a highly detailed image.  There are hardly any dust or dirt specks in sight, and the film is essentially in pristine condition.  The very fine transfer was created from the 35mm camera negative and is printed on a dual-layer DVD-9 disc.

Audio ** ½

Au Hasard Balthazar is presented in French monaural, although it might as well be a silent film, given the film's general paucity of dialogue.  What little dialogue that actually exists is generally directed to the center channel.  This film is also noteworthy as an example of how Bresson carefully employed a minimalist score (including, in this case, Schubert's Piano Sonata no. 20) and ambient sounds to enhance the tone of his films' images.

Features ***

Un metteur en ordre: Robert Bresson (62 min.) is from a 1966 French television broadcast of Pour le plaisir, a cultural television program.  This episode concentrates on Au Hasard Balthazar and includes interviews with Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard, Louis Malle, and members of the film's cast.  Bresson explains the origin of the film's title, while his contemporaries describe their reactions to the film.  Several extensive clips from the film are presented, after which Bresson and his cast members offer their opinions of the meaning or consequences of those scenes.

There is also another interview (14 min.) with film scholar Donald Richie.  He describes the various attributes of Bresson's directorial style.  Richie also reveals and discusses the film's ending, so I would advise against watching this interview until after you have seen the film.

Lastly, the disc offers the film's original theatrical trailer.

On the package insert, there is a new essay by film scholar James Quandt comparing Au Hasard Balthazar with Mouchette, Bresson's last black & white film.  The essay highlights various similarities between these films, particularly their religious symbolism.  However, Quandt does give away certain plot elements for Au Hasard Balthazar, so again, watch the film first.

Summary:

A profound and allegorical tale, Au Hasard Balthazar can be enjoyed and experienced on many levels.  It is the sweet and tender fable about one animal's life.  It is a poignant story of a fall from grace and innocence.  Or, it is about the tragic consequences of some basic human vices - pride, greed, and desire.  However one approaches this transcendent film, Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar is clearly the work of a master director.  Highly recommended!

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