Monday, December 11, 2006

Au hasard Balthazar (Bresson, 1966)

In his essay for the Great Movies series, Roger Ebert writes of Au hasard Balthazar that the film’s donkey protagonist is the “perfect Bresson character.” It is a sentiment with which I agree. However, unlike Ebert, I don’t necessarily think that this is a compliment. One of Bresson’s most noticeable stylistic choices is the way in which he forbids his actors from … well … acting. In a misguided attempt at trying to achieve emotional purity, Bresson instead creates emotional inertness. With films like A Man Escaped and Pickpocket, this can easily pass for quiet intensity or purposeful stoicism. However, in both Lancelot du Lac and Au hasard Balthazar, Bresson trips over the fine line and lands squarely in ludicrousness. Bresson’s oppressiveness is palpable throughout both of these films and, in the latter, characters speak of their joy and anger in the same forced monotone, performing as if in fear of electric shock. The donkey Balthazar consequently becomes a kind of unintentional self-parody, allowed extravagant indulgences like flinching and braying that Bresson wouldn’t dream of permitting in his human actors.

Bresson’s donkey is the link between a variety of troubled characters who temporarily serve as the beast’s owner. The way that each of them treats Balthazar reflects something of their respective personalities. Marie, the reckless romantic showers him with love while the young delinquent, Gerard, subjects him to cruelty. Throughout his lifetime, Balthazar is subjected to all sorts of suffering and indignity, only to bear it all quietly without complaint. His level determination is presumably intended to be contrasted with the human characters that fall in love with the wrong person, sedate themselves with alcohol, or scheme to make more money. Unlike these people with their aspirations, expectations and disappointment, Balthazar does not carry with him past troubles. He also does not fret about the future. He lives perpetually in the present, plodding through his life with single-minded stubbornness.

There is a critical moment in Au hasard Balthazar that will likely have a great impact on whether an individual viewer accepts or rejects Bresson’s artistic offering. Noting all that the donkey has endured over his lifetime, one character declares without irony that Balthazar is a saint. Such a straightforward statement of the film’s intent forces the viewer into a decision. Have we merely been watching politely, following the events of the film with a modicum of interest because those involved seem so sincere? Or have we really absorbed Bresson’s thematic exploration and bought into the substance of what Balthazar symbolizes? My reaction was to resist a spiritual connection that Bresson, in my determination, had not earned because his scenes of human interaction were not believable or compelling. Thus, the rest of the film struck me as somewhat ridiculous, an ineffective reach for profundity. Based on the film’s stellar reputation, your results may vary.



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