Au hasard Balthazar
1966Director: Robert Bresson
Cast: Anne Wiazemsky, Francois Lafarge, Walter Green
resson despises what the moviegoer likes best. His films are ‘cold’ and ‘dull’; they lack the vicarious excitement usually associated with the movies.” – Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film
“I couldn't watch another movie for months after seeing this. What would the point be?”– Amazon.com customer review of Au hasard Balthazar
Robert Bresson is, at once, one of the key figures of cinema’s first century and an apparition from an era long predating the medium he managed to quietly revolutionize. I would be hard-pressed, in fact, to try and name a more radically anti-modernist major 20th Century artist, filmmaker or otherwise. Since his retirement following 1983’s L’Argent (and his death in 1999), we’ve inched progressively closer to a proper appreciation of Bresson’s oeuvre, though his work may yet remain the least widely seen of any director of his stature.
As you may, by now, have surmised, I’ve decided to again attempt to shed a bit of light on a long-out-of-circulation classic finally receiving the DVD treatment it richly deserves—sorry, Brad and Angelina! 2003’s select cities re-release of a pristine new print of Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar was widely celebrated as that year’s preeminent filmic event, and it’s hard to argue: It’s the crowning achievement of Bresson’s career, and, frankly, it might just be the greatest film ever made.
The Criterion Collection’s June release of Au hasard Balthazar is ultimately even more significant. Granted, it’s almost always preferable to experience a film projected in a theatre rather than on a television screen. But the film’s release on DVD enables those of us living outside the major urban markets to experience Au hasard Balthazar in a form far superior to the variably watchable bootleg editions previously available to cinephiles tenacious enough to track a copy down. Trust me: I’ve just about worn mine out. Up until now, I’ve had little choice but to tolerate its considerable imperfections in order to watch a film I love dearly. Since Criterion announced its release of Balthazar, however, I’ve become increasingly irritated with those flaws; my preordered copy of the Criterion edition can’t arrive in my mailbox soon enough.
Of course, with praise as lofty as Balthazar routinely receives comes impossibly high expectations. (For every first-time viewer dazzled by Citizen Kane, there must be at least a dozen left wondering all the fuss is about.) Additionally, it may, in all honesty, not be the ideal place to begin investigating Bresson’s work. Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne and Diary of a Country Priest, both already available through Criterion, could well make for more natural introductions. It is difficult (a word that’s thrown around a lot, oftentimes patronizingly, but that pretty accurately describes Bresson’s approach to movies), and, for many viewers, will prove altogether alien compared to what they expect from a film. Returning to the quotes above this review, Schrader nails spot-on the complaints typically leveled at Bresson’s films, and later explains in detail how Bresson manages to largely eschew the traditional notions of plot, acting, camera work, editing, and soundtrack. The second quote is preceded with the condition “it’s not a film for everyone.”
All that said, see it. Rent it. Buy it. Do you what you have to do. If you see no other film this year, find a copy of Au hasard Balthazar and watch it.
Virtually any description you’ll find of the film will mention two things. The first is Jean-Luc Godard’s famous declaration that Au hasard Balthazar is “the world in an hour and a half.” The second is that the film presents the trials and tribulations of a donkey named (or rather, baptized) “Balthazar” as a representation of the life of Christ. The spiritual (or to use Schrader’s preferred term, “transcendental”) nature of Bresson’s films could scare off strictly secular viewers, but that would be a real shame. I’m an atheist, and Au hasard Balthazar, viewing after repeat viewing, manages to move me more deeply than any other film (excepting, incidentally, Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc). Godard was right: It’s, finally, nothing short of the richest encapsulation of human experience put to celluloid.
Bresson notoriously demanded that his actors--or "models," as he rechristened them--abandon any suggestion of performance in the conventional, theatrical sense, often shooting endless takes until all that remained was the model's presence, iconic in its blankness. Curiously counterrevolutionary to the Stanislavskian method gaining popularity in Hollywood over roughly the same period, Bresson's approach has left an undeniable mark on cinema in its wake. To be sure, it's the apotheosis of auterism, and has subsequently found itself under attack by critics ranging from Orson Welles to Pauline Kael.
The most haunting of these "non-performances" remains that of Anne Wiazemsky (who, later, as fate would have it, married Godard) as Marie, the titular donkey’s original caretaker, in Au hasard Balthazar. Good luck finding an Oscar Moment--you know, the scene where a character breaks down, freaks out, has their big epiphany and you know you're going to be seeing this clip again on awards night--anywhere in there. Yet her face and every seemingly mundane gesture will stay with you longer than any piece of hyperdramatic, Academy-lauded scenery-chewing.
For more recent examples of such work, I'd cite some of the (non-)acting in the films of Kiarostami, Hou, and (to a lesser extent) Wong. Admittedly, there is, to varying degrees, Acting on display in their films that is far more noticeable than in Bresson's signature work. But take, for example, Homayoun Ershadi in Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, Shu Qi in Hou’s Millennium Mambo, and Michelle Reis in Wong’s Fallen Angels. These are turns that are, again, importantly, more about the presence of the performers than the performances they're giving, or emoting. In the case of the former, Kiarostami allegedly went so far as to hide a handgun in a car's glove box to elicit the reaction he was looking for from Ershadi (like Bresson's models, a non-professional actor). The contemporary directors most often linked with Bresson are, inevitably, the two-time Palm d’Or-winning Dardenne brothers. They clearly share Bresson’s sense of spiritual conviction. Emilie Dequenne’s Rosetta, like Wiazemsky’s Marie, is a fallen saint, condemned to the cruelty of human existence--yet not without the possibility of redemption.
Despite the enormity of Bresson’s influence on contemporary world cinema, his masterpieces remain unequaled. Rather than functioning merely as rough blueprints for a bold experiment later tweaked to perfection, his films may well seem even more stubbornly majestic and austere today than when they were originally released. They’re sacred artifacts that seem almost to exist outside the usual limitations of time and space. Au hasard Balthazar is cinema’s holy grail.