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Catching up with a Classic: ‘Au Hasard Balthazar’

Throughout January, SOS writers will be biting the bullet and finally sitting down with a film they feel like bad film buffs for not having seen already.

Au Hasard Balthazar

Directed by Robert Bresson

France, 1966

I would like to begin by apologizing to all of you who I promised that I would watch Chinatown for this project. I am unfortunately ridiculously unreliable, especially when it comes to film viewing, and ran out of time. It is only by chance that a couple of weeks ago I watched another film that I’ve had on the back-burner for far too long, Robert Bresson’s spiritual classic Au Hasard Balthazar.

In Bresson’s work, spirituality is often expressed or symptomatic of cruelty and exploitation. Over the course of many films his characters usually suffer unjustly, powerless against the greater threat of man. Borne into relative happiness, Balthazar (a donkey), is allowed just a few screen minutes of happiness before he is forced to live a life of abuse and suffering. It is in these early moments that the children afford Balthazar a soul when they baptize him and this simple childish act takes on incredible resonance over the course of the film. This “gift” becomes more of a curse and though by the very virtue of his physical form Balthazar remains an innocent, it makes the violence levelled against him all the more unbearable.

Balthazar remains a figure who is representative of a God-like patience but also somehow blighted by the invisible diety. Unchanging, he remains a silent witness to the world, as well as one of its victims. In classic Bressonian style, the characters are blank slates and become pure characterizations of selfish desire. It is only in the parallel story of Marie that he finds an equal but she suffers as well. For the exaltation this film receives for its blissful spiritualism, the world that Bresson presents is pessimistic and dark. It is only in each other’s company that Balthazar and Marie are able to find any happiness and it is short-lived; eventually tainted by the teasing of “God’s” children. A love which was pure and innocent becomes dirty and can never really be recaptured.

Just like the ambiguity of Job, the ill-fated man of God who is forced to needlessly suffer as a test of faith, Au Hasard Balthazar raises more questions about our belief in God than it answers. Even for the non-believer, questions about why humanity would create such an enigmatic and careless diety are ripe for social analysis. Furthermore, Bresson’s narrative extends far beyond the Bible, creating a parable-esque narrative that begs for moral reflection.  Bresson’s style is confrontational in its dogmatic approach to his rigid conception of minimalist style and his editing emerges as the strongest example of his belief in action over plot.

One only has to look at the scene I mention earlier about the meeting between Marie and Balthazar. We begin with a shot of the two boys hiding, the camera moves to follow the hand of the boy as he places it on the grass. We cut to Marie’s feet, manoeuvring through the same grass, the same camera seeming to anticipate rather than merely follow her actions. As she picks up a flower, the camera pans up and Balthazar is in the shot and Marie adds to his crown of flowers. Throughout this sequence, crickets chirp and the brilliant sonar talents of Bresson take the stage. As we forget the boys in hiding, we are taken by the smooth and peaceful mouvements of Anne Wiazemski. As she caresses Balthazar’s nose we hear a twig snap and her attention is momentarily broken and the crickets have disappeared. Though Marie is unaware, the moment has already been destroyed before she kissed Balthazar’s snout. The boys are approaching and this innocent interaction between misfits has already been weighed down by sin.

The sheer discomfort of this visual and aural construction is at the heart of Bresson’s craft. Filled with hidden meanings and the awful insinuations about the human mind, his work has a magical reverence for martyrdom and suffering. Bresson asks through his puzzling and dense formalism weighted moral questions that seemed seem to doubt fundamentally the innate goodness of man. Like all Bresson’s films, though deeply entranced in the word of God, it similarly doubts the path of the righteous. These are the ones who suffer the most and the only certainty we may have is that their souls are at peace in death because they have finally freed themselves, be it through redemption over annihilation from the cruelty of man.

–          Justine Smith