Au hasard Balthazar

Studio: Criterion

May 29, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


A man looks at a little girl in a coffin; he looks sad. The same man looks at a bowl of soup; he seems hungry. He then looks at a beautiful woman reclining on a couch, and his face projects a different kind of hunger. The man is a Soviet film actor named Ivan Mosjoukine, and he stands in front of filmmaker Lev Kuleshov’s camera. Together the two of them are playing a trick on the audience: the looks of sadness, hunger, and lust that seem to pass over Mosjoukine’s face is an illusion. Mosjoukine maintains the same blank expression while Kuleshov cuts from Ivan to the coffin, the soup, the woman - the viewer is “seeing” these emotions based on the juxtaposition between actor and object of his attention. They’re filling in the blanks; after all, who wouldn’t be sad at the sight of a little girl in a coffin?

Dubbed the “Kuleshov Effect,” there are directors who’ve used that audience tendency to project meaning by using non-actors in their productions. Perhaps no filmmaker has used Kuleshov’s experiment to better effect than master director Robert Bresson. Electing to call his actors “models,” Bresson used non-professional actors and would often run them through a tremendous number of takes, gradually wearing them down so no visible emotion or “actorly” impulses would be expressed in their performances. Playing the part of ever-suffering Marie in Au hasard Balthazar, Anne Wiazemsky (who would go on to make an impression in Godard films like La Chinoise and Week End) remarked that Bresson would offer no direction to her on set - that he trusted his camera to capture what was already inside her.

Shot in stark and lovely B&W, 1966’s Au hasard Balthazar features Bresson’s greatest model: the titular Balthazar. The film follows the life of a donkey, beginning and ending in a shepherd’s field. Picked up by Marie’s father, the black donkey Balthazar switches hands through a series of cruel and indifferent masters. The only human being who seems to truly love and appreciate Balthazar is Marie, who also gets passed from master to master.

The film weaves its elliptical story around Balthazar’s owners, as he goes from beloved childhood pet to pulling a hay cart by a whip-happy master. Escaping from his master and a mob of pitchfork-wielding farmers, Balthazar retreats back to his “home,” returning to Marie and her father (a schoolteacher who quit his profession to become a successful farmer).

Balthazar’s happiness is brief: while he returns to Marie’s family several times throughout Bresson’s film, he also ends up joining the circus as a Clever Hans style attraction, becomes a smuggler’s pack mule, and gets his tail set on fire by the sadistic and louche Gerard (played by François Lafarge, who looks like a Satanic Jean-Pierre Léaud). Even the drunken Arnold, an owner who saves him from being mercy killed, ends up being the kind of bastard who’d beat his donkey with a chair.

The brilliance of the film comes in large part from how Bresson deploys the Kuleshov Effect. The viewer can’t help but project all kinds of emotions and feelings from the tormented and neglected Balthazar. In the film’s most haunting passage, Balthazar meets the other animals at the zoo. He mutely stars at a tiger, a bear, a monkey coated in chains, and an elephant with a doleful eye. The camera holds close to Balthazar’s face; what are we to make of the looks he exchanges with the other animals? Is he afraid of the tiger and the bear? Does Balthazar, an animal whose spent most of his life in chains, identify with the restrained chimp? Is he sad? Or is this just the pathetic fallacy run rampant? Are we fools for trying to imagine that a donkey would feel the way we do?

Film scholar Donald Richie, in an interview that makes up one of the supplements on Criterion’s outstanding Blu-Ray of Au hasard Balthazar, points out how amorphous the meaning of Bresson’s film can be. To some people, it’s an animal picture. To others, a bleak depiction of rural life. And to many interpreters, the film can be viewed as a Christ allegory.

Bresson’s Catholicism, for better or worse, is a filter that’s been applied to so much of his work by audiences and critics. It’s not hard to see the dark-furred Balthazar (named after the black wise man who brings myrrh to the manger) as a Christ figure: he’s an innocent being who’s beaten, scourged, and dies surrounded by lambs from bleeding “stigmata” wounds (in this case, bullet holes). Christian imagery pops up throughout the film: scenes shot in churches, priests, and bibles crop up. And there’s the touching early scene where Marie’s family baptises Balthazar, the children feeding him the salt of wisdom. She later crowns him with palm leaves at night, kissing him tenderly on his snout.

But to view Au Hasard Balthazar as a Christian film is to also ignore all the ways Bresson undercuts his own faith. A woman pleads to God not to take her husband; he dies immediately after her prayer. Arnold the drunk begs and promises Mary and the angels that he’ll stop drinking, and the camera cuts to him getting absolutely plastered a day later. The scowling and vicious Gerard, who ruthlessly beats Balthazar and slaps Marie around, sings hymns like an angel at church. And when a priest visits Marie’s sickly father, offering him divine reassurance, her father turns his back on him.

The only salvation the film offers is in disappearances and death. After being stripped and beaten (and possibly gang-raped), Marie vanishes from the narrative. Balthazar, accidentally shot by custom agents chasing after Gerard, lies down and dies among a flock of sheep while a Schubert piano sonata plays (until it’s eclipsed by the sound of clanging sheep bells). It’s a beautiful and graceful final image, but one that’s tinged with bitter sadness.

“Life’s a fairground,” Pierre Klossowski’s rich grain dealer tells a desperate Marie later in the film. The dealer delights in being rich because “paying people frees you from obligation.” Marie, moments away from prostituting herself, points out that his money won’t do him any good in the long run: everyone is doomed to die sometime. It’s the one obligation that we can’t get out of. Maybe that’s why Balthazar chooses to lie down and die rather than trot back to town and get help: he knew his bill was due. But then again, maybe he was just a dumb donkey who didn’t know any better. Just like the face of the man looking into the coffin: maybe there’s nothing to see at all.

(www.criterion.com/films/455-au-hasard-balthazar)




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