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August 07, 2009

"Au Hasard Balthazar"

By: Bernard Chazelle

I had originally intended to blog about the Schubert sonata but now it seems pointless. The clip says more about it than I ever could.

This film is about a donkey. It's one of the great works of art, on a par with a Dostoyevsky novel or a Vermeer painting. Godard called it "the world in an hour and a half." Balthazar the donkey gets passed around from one owner to the next, and experiences a little bit of love and much cruelty. He incarnates all that is good, noble, and innocent about the world, yet he is not anthropomorphized. He suffers but does not know about revenge. He serves but never complains. The film is more than an allegory. Balthazar's suffering does not represent ours; his sweetness is not offered as a model for us; the cruelty of the human world is not symbolic. Balthazar is saintly and we are not. Feel free to make of that whatever you want.

It's not a religious movie but the baptism in the opening scene makes it clear that Balthazar is not just the central character of the movie but its spiritual anchor. It's an extraordinarily beautiful film that makes no concessions to the viewer. You must go to it; it won't come to you. It's not an easy road to travel. The director, Robert Bresson, is virtually unknown here but his influence in cinema has been enormous. He pretty much invented a whole new way of making movies. He never achieved the notoriety of Bergman, Fellini, or Bunuel, though he was a greater director. He is a cult figure among the new realist American directors as well as Chinese and Iranian film makers (Iran being home to perhaps the best contemporary film-making). Bresson shared a lot with Coltrane: spiritual, fearless, original, and completely uninfluenced by the taste of his audience. Or for that matter, his actors. Like Brecht, he rejected the very notion of acting, shooting the same scene 50 times to strip it of any emotion from the actors. He made very few films, but most of his output will be remembered in 1,000 years from now, assuming there's still a humanity to remember anything.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at August 7, 2009 01:10 AM

He is a cult figure among the new realist American directors as well as Chinese and Iranian film makers ?
How so?
What about Chinese movie makers?

Posted by: Save the Oocytes at August 7, 2009 03:41 AM

From your description, it seems Balthazar is Apuleius' Golden Ass without the magic or Isis intervention.

Posted by: Paul Avery at August 7, 2009 04:25 AM

It is a startling film. It is beautiful, for starters. The inability to account for behavior in the movie, an important jarred me into the interiors o the characters and the film itself. The fact that the main characters is a donkey, subject to the whims of an uncontrolled world, requires us to notice that the humans control no more of their lives than the donkey. In fact, a little less, because often humas seem to make choices but never receive the results they could anticipate. For some, the saved, I guess, that's good. Brilliant. As are the rest. I couldn't pick a favorite -- maybe Mouchette.

Posted by: drip at August 7, 2009 05:43 AM

Well done.

I had previously wanted to talk about this film under the circus animals thread.

It is one of my favorites of all time, as is "Diary of a Country Priest."

Anyone seen that?

Posted by: En Ming Hee at August 7, 2009 08:27 AM

Thanks for that BC--looks very interesting. The clip feels like Bergman to me (not that it should), and when I poked around I saw that Bergman was a great admirer of Bresson's Mouchette and The Diary of a Country Priest.

And then I saw that Bergman thought Balthazar was boring, that he didn't understand a word of it, and that he fell asleep! Because donkeys are not interesting! And he didn't like animals in general!

This makes me laugh, because that's really about as stupid as a review could ever get. From Bergman!

Posted by: N E at August 7, 2009 10:48 AM

I've only seen Bresson's last film, L'Argent. I actually saw it at a movie theater on it's initial US release, and not in LA or Chicago but in San Antonio, way back in 1986.

The critic in the local paper mainly discussed how people needed to support the theater, which was a small independent that had been started by a film fan with more enthusiasm than business sense, and only lasted for a few months.

It was partially funded by a municipal grant intended to help rehabilitate a seedy part of town that happened to have an old theater (the Woodlawn)from way back when that still hadn't been torn down. The owner also screened older films periodically-- I saw Jules and Jim there, and a dreary Merchant-Ivory item I can't remember.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at August 7, 2009 11:05 AM

Many of Bresson's films, including Balthazar, are available from Netflix.

Posted by: N E at August 7, 2009 11:41 AM

"Virtually unknown here" is a bit strong I think. For those of us who venture beyond the multiplex, Bresson is a figure who we come across soon enough - even if he isn't (justifiably) lumped in with the better known New Wave directors. I think the comparison with Coltrane is apt. Apollinaire comes to mind also.

I would suggest "Pickpocket" for the first-timer, though all Bresson's films are among the best we have.

Posted by: John Larson at August 7, 2009 01:37 PM

Is the movie as pretentious and terrible as so many other foreign "classics" tend to be?

Posted by: Don Fernando at August 7, 2009 06:12 PM

i keep notes on cinematography in my camera bag and the camera bag hasn't left the closet for years. those may be connected....

hmm, would i hook bresson with coltrane. coltrane could work with peers and still explore/explode freely. slight spiritual disagreement. a cold solitary church compared to raising eyes to heaven.

"pickpocket" is where i started and is pretty accessible but now i'd encourage people to choose between that and "a man escaped." it's much less pretentious and terrible.

oddly, balthazar was the only one that didn't rock me. i remember thinking the director needed to get out more.

Posted by: hapa at August 8, 2009 01:46 AM

"i remember thinking the director needed to get out more."

--another animal hater!

Posted by: N E at August 8, 2009 11:42 AM

Posted by: hapa at August 8, 2009 01:47 PM