Doug C

Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

218 posts in this topic

12/12/03

Transcendent, wrenching 'Balthazar'

French director Robert Bresson's 1966 film is being redistributed; there is no more important movie now in theaters.

By Manohla Dargis
LA Times

Some years before he died, the French director Robert Bresson gave an interview to film critic Michel Ciment. Bresson was in his early 80s and had recently completed "L'Argent." The film, Bresson's last, concerns a man who commits a murder for money but like many of the director's stories is essentially about the crimes committed against the soul.

"The only things that matter are invisible," Bresson told Ciment. "Why are we here? What are life and death? Where are we going? Who is responsible for the miracle of animal and vegetable life?"

�I don't have a clue about the last three of Bresson's questions, but I'm certain that an answer to the first can be found in his work. Among the greatest filmmakers of the last century, Bresson is one of the few directors for whom cinema was both an aesthetic and spiritual pursuit, a search that was reflected in films for which the words "sublime," "transcendent" and "masterpiece" can seem somehow lacking. That his 13 features remain largely unknown and unavailable in this country (only one is available here on DVD) is a measure of our impoverished film culture and a reason why one of the heroes of the movie year is Rialto Pictures, the New York distributor reissuing Bresson's "Au hasard Balthazar." The film opens today at the Nuart and there is no more important movie in theaters.

Released in 1966, "Balthazar" tells the wrenching story of a donkey and the country girl who grows up with him, Marie (Anne Wiazemsky, who was then, like most of Bresson's actors, a nonprofessional). The film opens with a young donkey being taken in by a farmer as a pet for his children, including his ailing daughter. Marie, the daughter of a schoolteacher, lives with her family in a house owned by the farmer. Her closest companion is the farmer's son, Jacques, with whom she shares a child's romantic passion. After Jacques' sister dies, the farmer moves his family away, leaving behind Marie's family and the donkey, whom the children have christened Balthazar. Time passes and Balthazar is sold to a succession of owners, undergoing a crucible of suffering that parallels that of Marie.

With "Balthazar" Bresson wanted to tell the story of human vice, as told through a donkey who represents both purity and sexuality. The donkey, Bresson said, "has in his life the same stages as does a man, that is to say, childhood, caresses; maturity, work; talent, genius in the middle of life; and the analytical period that precedes death." During his short, hard life, Balthazar moves from one group of inattentive owners to the next and in his passage suffers from what makes us suffer, including pride, lust and greed. Marie's father sells him to work at a bakery, where he's abused by a thug in a motorcycle jacket. Later, Balthazar passes into the cruel, careless hands of a miser, who flogs the animal as it walks around a mill, pumping the costly mineral water so beloved by the French.

Village Voice critic J. Hoberman has observed that "Balthazar" is about a donkey in the way "Moby-Dick" is about a whale. Melville's novel is certainly about an animal � its meat, its appetites, its terrifying power � but it is also about heroic struggle, a search for faith and man's drive to dominate the natural world. "Moby-Dick" is also, importantly, about its author's own heroic and triumphant effort to wrench something great out of his creative consciousness, which echoes Bresson's struggle to turn movies into art. But whereas with "Moby-Dick" Melville could achieve greatness by fusing different literary forms, Bresson believed cinema could achieve the condition of art only if it did not mimic literature and theater. His aspiration was nothing less than pure cinema.

That sounds daunting and dusty in the manner of three-hour art movies, but Bresson's films are models of aesthetic economy ("Balthazar" runs a fleet 95 minutes). Stripped of narrative fat and yet filled with meaningful event, the films possess a rigor that seems ascetic by our busy standards. The director was fond of photographing hands � he posed them with the care of a Renaissance painter � and he liked to show people passing through doorways amid coming and going. If in Bresson's films nothing ever seems out of place or superfluous it's because he strove to find the essential truth of the image. Not an image or sound is wasted � or offered up in self-glorification � and from such seeming simplicity there arises a world of feeling.

One of Bresson's self-directed dictums was to "hide the ideas, but so that people find them. The most important will be the most hidden." In "Au hasard Balthazar," some of the most important and hidden of those ideas concern faith and the fallen world. For much of film history, moviegoers regularly talked about what was once somewhat quaintly called "the seventh art." It's rare today that movies and art are discussed in the same breath, proof perhaps of another fallen world. The relentless commercialization of movies is understandable; people get rich off movies and all power to them. But there are other kinds of movies, and while it is no longer fashionable to talk about those that stir you � those movies you carry inside you and that press on your chest � they exist nonetheless.

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Fantastic news. Thanks, Doug, for the contribution.

Chicago crowd -- this is coming to the Music Box Theater and will be on their Feb/March calendar. Let's keep our eyes peeled.

-s.

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Beware, though, Stef--it's French and it's not Kieslowski. wink.gif

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If I may quote the King Prawn of Finding Nemo: I am ashamed. I have not yet seen this film, and it has been on my list for many years.

What DVD version should I seek out? Or is there a good one? (It's not in theatres here at the moment.)

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It's not on DVD at all, and it's not on VHS in North America, either (though copies can often be ordered off ebay).

I'd keep an eye on the Grand Illusion, Jeffrey--Rialto is slowly moving this release around the country.

And if all goes well, don't forget Criterion's DVD release of Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest in February. (Amazon and others are taking pre-orders.)

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And the LA Weekly chimes in:

Au Hasard Balthazar

Preaching the gospel of Robert Bresson, greatest of all filmmakers, has, in recent years, been no easy task. With the exception of infrequent revival screenings and a 1998 touring retrospective that shortly preceded Bresson

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Actually Doug, Stef is a recent Godard convert. He is certainly branching out! Now we have to get him to watch some Varda.

Chicago is really looking forward to the Music Box screenings of this print. We will have to rejuvinate this thread when we all have seen it.

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Oh my, Stef's going off the deep end!

I'm looking forward to the Chigroup comments...

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Jeffrey Overstreet wrote:

: If I may quote the King Prawn of Finding Nemo: I am ashamed. I have

: not yet seen this film, and it has been on my list for many years.

Did the 1998 touring retrospective come to Seattle? It came to Vancouver in November of that year, and that was when I saw this film, as well as A Man Escaped, Diary of a Country Priest and maybe one or two others.

It really IS a pain that these films are so hard to find, given the number of directors who cite him as an influence (Tarkovsky, Schrader, Hartley, Kaurismaki, etc.).

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Beware, though, Stef--it's French and it's not Kieslowski.  wink.gif

Heh. smile.gif

don't forget Criterion's DVD release of Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest in February.  (Amazon and others are taking pre-orders.)

I have failed at this film three times. Doug knows this and i think that's where the fun comes in. In my defence, i point to the poor quality of the VHS in black and white and my late-night starts. Not to mention there aren't any H.O.T. chicks in it. wink.gif

I very much look forward to it on DVD.

Actually Doug, Stef is a recent Godard convert. He is certainly branching out! Now we have to get him to watch some Varda.

Thanks for the lift, but it doesn't count.

Anna Karina.

-s.

Edited by stef

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Bresson's films do require concentration--not in an intellectual sense, but because his style is so rigorous. But the added effort pays off.

Anna Karina added a lot of warmth and romantic charm to Godard's early work that a lot of people miss in his later films. (Incidentally, I'm writing a review of Contempt for a UK magazine as we speak.)

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MastersofCinema.org reports that Artificial Eye in the UK are releasing A Man Escaped, Lancelot du Lac and The Devil, Probably on DVD in May 2004.

Nouveaux Pictures will release Au Hasard, Balthazar and Mouchette on DVD in Europe "sometime" in 2004.

DVDs from both distributors are Region 2.

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That's funny, Tim--Masters is my site. wink.gif

Criterion gets almost all the Rialto releases, so although they haven't announced anything yet, I wouldn't be surprised to see Balthazar and Mouchette on region 1 DVD sometime next year.

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Masters is an AWESOME site -- and I likely should have known it was yours... sorry!

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No problem--and good on you for promoting multi-regionism. smile.gif

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Jeff, be sure and let me know if this pops up in Seattle. Would love to get more Bresson under my belt.

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Okay!

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mrmando, if you're interested in introducing yourself to Bresson, I'd recommend Joe Cunneen's new book, Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film and Bresson's early works on VHS like A Man Escaped, Diary of a Country Priest, Pickpocket--maybe even the Criterion DVD of Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, which is a very early work that predates his most rigorously-styled films, but is still quite interesting in theme and execution.

After all that, I'd move on to the 1999 James Quandt edited collection of international essays published by the Cin

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mrmando, if you're interested in introducing yourself to Bresson, I'd recommend Joe Cunneen's new book, Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film and Bresson's early works on VHS like A Man Escaped, Diary of a Country Priest, Pickpocket--maybe even the Criterion DVD of Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne

Thanks -- Have seen the first two; will keep an eye open for the others. For me, viewing A Man Escaped at the L.A. County Museum of Art (I think this was before the VHS release) was an all-time Top 10 film experience.

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Very cool. A Man Escaped is an astoundingly good film. I've seen all of Bresson's 13 and-a-half films, and I can never really decided which I like better: Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, or Au hasard Balthazar. I usually cite the latter because it's his most personal and original screenplay, not really adapted from any other source.

I remember Jonathan Rosenbaum commenting that seeing A Man Escaped on film was a more emotionally moving experience for him than all the times he had previously seen it on video combined, so I'm jealous of your opportunity at LACMA! (Although I now live in L.A., I was living in Tucson at the time and the retro unfortunately never appeared there.)

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BTW, just curious, but I just picked up Paul Schrader's book on transcendent style in film the other day for a bit of background on a blurb I have to write on an upcoming Ozu retrospective -- I haven't got to the section on Bresson yet, but what's your take on his take on Bresson?

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BTW, just curious, but I just picked up Paul Schrader's book on transcendent style in film the other day for a bit of background on a blurb I have to write on an upcoming Ozu retrospective -- I haven't got to the section on Bresson yet, but what's your take on his take on Bresson?

Peter, I INSIST that you reference Doug's comments in your blurb. If you do, I promise I'll write about your comments. I'll call it "Reed on Chattaway on Cummings on Schrader on Bresson." Think it'll sell?

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Ha! That's kinda hard to do when the blurb I'm writing is on Ozu, not Bresson. smile.gif

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I admire Schrader a lot for writing about spirituality for a secular audience in a pretty academically-informed manner in the '70s. His book is still one of the few in-print English works written about Ozu, Bresson, or Dreyer (which is no doubt why you're referencing it), so that's commendable in and of itself.

But as a critical study, it has its problems. Good points include explaining Jansenist views of hard determinism (via Schrader's Calvinism), comparisons to Bresson's penchant for frontal shots to historical iconography, interesting theories on the way Bresson uses narration, etc. On the other hand, there are a few factual errors, his translation is not always good (I doubt he even knows French and was merely using subtitles), and in fact, he probably overplays the "transcendental" aspects of all of these filmmakers. One has to wonder how laudable "transcendence" really is as a theme in art, and it sidesteps the harsh physical realities and attention to surface textures and real-world sounds that permeate Bresson's work. Add to that the fact that Schrader (who was in his 20s when he wrote the book) has continued to use the phrase "transcendental" in reference to his own work over the last 30 years, and it starts to ring even more hollow--it seems more like a promotional term than a very useful one to expanding our own understanding.

So it's a mixed bag. I'm glad it's out there and Schrader deserves a lot of credit for breaching the subject with seriousness when he did. He came from a strict religious family that forbade watching movies and seeing him integrate his faith and seminary training with his love of movies should be inspiring to all of us. But his book is (perhaps necessarily) limited.

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Jan 31

NEW YORK, NY

MoMA Film at the Gramercy Theatre

http://www.moma.org/visit_moma/momafilm/jan_29_04.html

Feb 13-19

SILVER SPRING, MD

AFI Silver

http://silver.afi.com/afi_web/home.asp

Feb 20-23

DETROIT, MI

Detroit Film Theatre

http://www.dia.org/information/info1.html

Mar 19-25

SEATTLE, WA

Varsity

http://www.landmarktheatres.com/Market/Sea...le_Frameset.htm

Apr 9-15

CAMBRIDGE, MA

Kendall Square

http://www.landmarktheatres.com/Market/Bos...on_Frameset.htm

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