AU HASARD BALTHAZAR
Review by Ed Nguyen
Anne Wiazemsky, Walter Green, Jean-Claude Guilbert, François Lafarge
Director: Robert Bresson
Audio: French monaural
Video: Black & white, widescreen 1.66:1
Features: Un metteur en ordre: Robert Bresson, interview, trailer, essay
Length: 95 minutes
Release Date: June 14, 2005
my poor, dear friend. Doomed to
spend all your days watching the same fools go by."
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."
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
the disc offers the film's original theatrical trailer.
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.