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The Style, Sins and Sympathies of Robert Bresson’s ‘Au hasard Balthazar’

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It is something of a critical cliché to say that a particular filmmaker’s work is instantly recognizable from a single shot or scene, though there are cases where this appears markedly true: think Stanley Kubrick, Béla Tarr, Yasujirō Ozu, and Andrei Tarkovsky. To this list of inimitable visions, one must also add Robert Bresson. Over the course of just 13 feature films, Bresson etched into the monument of international cinematic icons a distinctly identifiable aesthetic, from editing choices and camera placement to the direction of his actors and his use of sound. His themes, too, were often carried over from film to film, reappropriated to suite the given story at hand. As with these other directors, to select the emblematic title from Bresson’s career is therefore a difficult, nearly impossible, task. That said, however, his 1966 film Au hasard Balthazar not only houses these characteristic features extraordinarily well, even amplifying them in some cases, it may indeed be his masterpiece, a succinct, emotional and simply stunning encapsulating achievement.

In its most conventional sense, Au hasard Balthazar could be seen as a coming of age drama, a classic “bildungsroman that charts a pivotal time in the life of the young farm girl, Marie, played by the already astonishing Anne Wiazemsky in her debut role. She faces the trials and tribulations of young love — including the traditional good boy vs. bad boy teen conundrum, in the form of Jacques (Walter Green), a decent, caring friend since childhood, and Gérard (François Lafarge), the brutish town troublemaker — along with the sometimes puzzling problems of adult greed and arrogance, emerging from legal disputes between Jacques’ father and hers. Her romantic confusion stems from adolescent ardor torn apart by familial pride and a new abusive courtship that leaves her degraded and wanting. All the while, she’s exposed to rural nastiness that breeds rumors, bored acrimony and ambivalent malice; the struggles she endures are like a sullied blight on the idyllic countryside.

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Warned to keep away from Gérard, Marie repeatedly returns to the oppressive ruffian out of lonely desperation, tragically low self-esteem and a frankly despairing limited choice of options. Like the title characters in Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) and Mouchette (1967), Marie is an anguished young woman vainly attempting to preserve her liberation, her dignity and her own meaningful place in the world. But she is blindly obedient, and her naiveté keeps her susceptible to routine abuse. Sometime after moving away, Jacques returns to the village and contends nothing has changed, except that Marie has grown prettier. In a sense, it’s true; the provincial region is basically the same, as small towns often are even after prolonged periods of absence. But aside from her looks, Marie is no longer the vibrant young girl he used to know. By this point, any semblance of childlike purity has been lost along with her innocence — Marie has been hardened by harsh realities.

According to Wiazemsky, Marie’s passivity dooms her from the start. The same could be said of her economic and civil status, which in this time and this place assigns social conditions seldom surpassed. As she is put through the emotional and physical wringer, her increasing sense of being a mere object stamped with a wavering worth is mirrored by the similarly maturing path of Balthazar, the film’s tragic donkey namesake. Embraced by Marie and Jacques when they were just children, baby Balthazar is initiated into their loving domain with a bestowing of spiritual reverence: Marie baptizes him, sprinkles his head with the “salt of wisdom” and later crowns him with an adornment of flowers. But he, too, like Marie, is destined for a depressingly predetermined way of life. An animal dubbed ridiculous by her father (an “antiquated relic”), Balthazar suffers his own torment as an entity ordained to be used and abused by the world in which he is born. Au hasard Balthazar’s fleeting early sections of gaiety and playfulness show the sanctified pet as a source of comfort and love, and at least to Marie, this he will remain. But not to others. Seasons pass and the ownership of Balthazar is in perpetual flux, as he is passed around from one troubled individual to another.

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More often than not, the maltreatment Balthazar sustains — rather like that which afflicts Marie — derives from the misdirected anger of others (Gérard’s cruelty toward Balthazar seems to strangely spring from irrational jealousy toward the animal). Violently put to work, with a physical pressure literally placed upon his back, Balthazar toils away in inescapable adversity (a briefly less anguished time as a mathematical circus act is nevertheless ruined when past associations disturb the temporarily complacent donkey). Exposed to the fortunes and fates of others, Balthazar is always resilient, carrying on and observing with neither judgement, surrender, nor, perhaps obviously, emotional manipulation. By film’s end, however, powerfully redolent sentiments swell when he is granted, at long last, a dignified death, passing amongst a tranquil herd of watchful sheep. Balthazar’s death scene is as affecting as any human performance, and it becomes tenderly apparent (as if it weren’t already) that now, in a state of exhausted relief, this poor animal has lived quite a life, and has seen more than his fair share. Old, worn and wounded, Balthazar has experienced the aching stages of man as inflicted by a punishing mankind.

The faults and fears of Balthazar’s outwardly destructive, self-hating owners are exposed through the conduit of this living whipping post. Mournful cries painfully communicate the suffering of this beast of burden, who is thematically and metaphorically, if not actually, taking the abuse in order to relieve the sins of others. As such, much Au hasard Balthazar’s transcendental value derives from its explicit openness to theological interpretation, particularly given Bresson’s oft-commented upon Catholicism and some of the film’s more overt symbolism. Allegorical visions play on familiar Christian iconography, with pictorial, narrative and verbal allusions to salvation, spirituality and commonly identified Biblical signposts. Fittingly, critic Roger Ebert regarded Bresson as “one of the saints of the cinema, and Au hasard Balthazar is his most heartbreaking prayer,” while scholar James Quandt similarly calls attention to just some of these religious features, noting “the Palm Sunday imagery of Jesus riding into Jerusalem,” the fact that “Balthazar passes through the hands of seven masters [suggesting] to some a numerical trace of the seven words from the cross, the seven sacraments of the church formed by Christ’s Passion, or the seven deadly sins” and even the concluding bells that permeate the soundtrack of Balthazar’s death, possibly indicating “the animal’s divinity.” And according to author Keith Reader, as Balthazar bears witness to — and bears the physical brunt of — the evil that surrounds him, the litany of sins are given a manifest representation that places the donkey as “scapegoat, as observer, as literal or metaphorical bearer of the divine…”

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As this episodic chronicle unfolds, Bresson uses piecemeal narrative exposition, with little to no explanatory dialogue, to encase his penchant for stilted and calculated character movements and equally mannered visual expressions. While plot vagaries are left unresolved (Where does Marie leave to after the assault? Who committed the murder?), according to Bresson, one doesn’t “run after poetry” anyway, “It penetrates unaided through the joins (ellipses).” Character motivations and intentions are equally ambiguous and, in a story like this, told with blatant opacities, as Bresson eliminates backstory while, at the same time, ignoring pat resolutions. If it’s not quite redemption his owners find in the presence of Balthazar, there is at least a momentary glimpse of potential blessing. Yet in the apparent transition of suffering-turned-forgiveness, the exact status of these relationships are left ultimately uncertain.

Within these storytelling idiosyncrasies, Bresson, as always, focuses more intently on the exactitude of his imagery. In his seminal text, Notes on the Cinematographer, he writes, “Master precision. Be a precision instrument myself,” and comments that, “a single word, a single movement that is not right or is merely in the wrong place gets in the way of all the rest.” Thus acknowledging the particular efforts of his editorial collaborators, in the case of Au hasard Balthazar, Raymond Lamy, who worked with Bresson several times over the course of his career, the implication is that through juxtaposition viewer identification and sympathy is divulged. The intense close-ups and exceptionally formed compositions do not work if they are not arranged in the best position and timed just right. Cinema is, after all, as Bresson also notes, “The art of having each thing in its place.” As “the camera simply records,” a film’s rhythm is born from the editing. These musings are granted vivid visual realization in Au hasard Balthazar through Bresson’s use of disembodied feet to alone express danger, movement and trepidation, and tightly-framed hands that are forever reaching out, attempting to physically and emotionally connect with those around them (man or beast). Further, a concentrated physicality is uncomfortably apparent when sexuality renders the body into a suggestive canvas upon which vulnerability and desire comingle. Be it when Marie stands before the miserly, cynical miller (Pierre Klossowski), weakened with a literally nude helplessness or when Bresson emphasizes an awkwardly burgeoning sensuality via close-ups of her bare knees and the brilliant white of her slip, delicately peeking beneath her dress and triggering Gérard’s juvenile impulses.

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Bresson’s actors, or “models,” as he calls them, reveal implied thoughts and feelings with a blank-slate expressiveness in which emotion is intimated by viewer-applied, almost Kuleshovian associations. Performance repetition (at times in excess of 50 takes) leaves the actors void of spontaneous naturalism, as they go through the motions with what becomes automatic, mechanical behavior (even peripheral characters are impassive, as when Gérard’s shattered glass outburst at a bar is disregarded by a still dancing attendance). Bresson adopts this detached, though still potent, visual treatment with the perceived vantage of a serene yet deeply-felt emotion. Though yielding uneasily achieved responses, the eventual reaction does point to a unique approach by which Bresson uses what Donald Ritchie terms his “x-ray eyes,” to look objectively but to expose so much within. Such a carefully considered exploration of inner psychology by artistic means has prompted the likes of Marguerite Duras to contend that “what had previously only been expressed through poetry and literature, Bresson has expressed through cinema.”

Aided by cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet (who in just the next year would work on such diverse films as Jean-Luc Godard’s Far from Vietnam, Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort and with Bresson again on Mouchette), Bresson’s formal austerity is punctuated by meticulous close-ups, sometimes serving as establishing blocks for entire scenes, and singular images and postures so powerful that the compositions appear seared onto the celluloid. But the obviousness of Bresson’s fastidious imagery should not dilute his similarly compelling use of sound, where, as if in a church, isolated sounds are linked with associative imagery to create reverberations of profound significance. Favoring dialogue only as a last resort, when characters in Au hasard Balthazar quietly sit and stare, Bresson does for the shock of sound in the silence what he does for movement in general stillness. The donkey’s braying as it interrupts the Franz Schubert sonata during the opening credits is like a grating dose of reality confronting classical beauty, just as, later, surprising violence or nudity breaks the visual serenity. Even if Bresson later regretted his use of the Schubert piece to end Au hasard Balthazar, considering it too sentimental, the effect is powerful all the same.

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Though this tale of an animal martyr, in part inspired by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, won multiple awards at the 1966 Venice Film Festival, some, like Ingmar Bergman, could not make the leap and apply humanistic traits to this donkey (though the film does recall Bergman’s own examination of God’s silence in an unjust world). Others, like Jean-Luc Godard, who considers Bresson to be an “inquisitor and humanist,” found a universal and presumably species-spanning relevance. The encapsulation of life’s various stages, figuratively discernable through Balthazar as a template character, is partly why he refers to Au hasard Balthazar as “the world in an hour and half.” Individual reactions to this archetypal “art film” will no doubt vary, even now, 50 years after its release, and the amount of sympathy and resonance one places on Balthazar as a character or allegorical outlet will certainly differ. But like Ritchie rightly contends, there is something telling about one’s reaction to Au hasard Balthazar, like a revelatory Rorschach test of empathy. It may be “the most complex and baffling” of Bresson’s films, as Keith Reader writes, “but [it is] also for a great many critics … the most ‘Bressonian’ of its maker’s works.”

Jeremy Carr (@Jeremyrcarr) is a faculty associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for Cineaste, Film International, CineAction, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, PopOptiq, Bright Lights Film Journal, and The Moving Image. Current projects include Senses of Cinema Great Director profiles on John Cassavetes and Elia Kazan, and a book on Stanley Kubrick.

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