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Film Club: Au Hasard Balthazar

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Let's start discussion in the next few days. My copy came at the end of last week and I'll be rewatching it shortly. I know there have been some Netflix barriers to it getting around, but I fear that we'll lose steam if we wait too much longer.

I'll post some comments by Saturday. If others want to post sooner, that's fine. Doug will shepherd the thing along.

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Link to the Au Hasard Balthazar thread.

Link to the 'What would you say to help someone "get" Bresson?' thread.

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Posted · Report post

As usual, we'll just let reactions flow for a few days before taking the conversation in a more probing vein. Feel free to enthuse, vent, ponder, shrug.

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Almost missed this thread - thank goodness wink.gif for the Besson vs Bresson thread.

As I mentioned in the two threads Peter linked too above I saw this the other day for the first time, which was more due to finally having the chance than wanting to tie in with this thread, but it's here anyway which is great - cos although I intend to wade through those posts (and the billion others that probably rest in the novogate boards, and of course doug's various articles in various places), I also want to just talk about it, as Ken has identified without feeling the pressure of "this-is-the-most-spioritual-film-of-all-time-so-make-sure-you've-got-it-before-you-post-anything-and-try-not-to-say-anything-stupid". I must add that's largely a pressure I put on myself rather than that has been voiced as far as I recall.

After watching the film I also read the two chapters in the MOMA book "The Hidden God" as well as Lloyd Baugh's "An exceptional Christ Figure" chapter in his "Imaging the Divine" book. It was a funny juxtaposition cos the MOMA chapters, certainly the first, were written by non-Christians, who, as has been observed here, don't get Bresson in the way we (think we) get Bresson. Interestingly the writer was semi-aware of that viewpoint and seemed to counter it with a "they-overplay these-aspects-and-ignore-these-aspects" type comments.

My initial impression was maybe slight disappointment - probably mainly cos I'd heard so much, and so many superlatives. That said I certainly liked the film, and realise that most of these superlatives are usually given in the context of "you-need-to-see-this-several-times-to-really-get-the-most-out-of-it" type comments. I guess as well I was looking for the kind of ending I love a la Magnolia or Ordet, whereas for all the subtle implications of transcendance of the ending of Balthasar it is a bit more low key.

I was surprised toi find the music added so much as well, particularly given that Jeffery O had said how much Bresson tried to communicate in a way that music couldn't, and one of the MOMA writers said that Bresson had second thoughts about it after it had been released.

But obviously, beautiful images. I find it difficult to appreciate these the first time I watch a film, I'm still too busy thinkihng about the narrative etc. - must stop doing that - but looking at the stills on the dvd and again on one of the website Doug linked to in one of the other threads I could appreciate them a lot more.

I guess what I least liked about the film was that for a Christ figure he didn't really acheive that much. Baugh did kind of talk about this, and what he did acheive, but it seemed like clutcing at straws to me. At the same time I'm feelig that I'm beginning to move on from Christ-figure films, bible films and films with a major act of reconcilliation / grace at the end, and onto something else, and I feel Balthasar could be part of that as it contains aspects both of the Christ-figure thing I'm leaving behind, and the something else I see approaching.

So that's all a bit vague. Marie was obviously brilliant, and the figure of Gerard seems strangely prophetic - his behaviour was obviously shocking in its day, but so commonplace nowadays in many ways.

Matt

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Posted (edited) · Report post

Thanks for your comments, Matt.

I also want to just talk about it, as Ken has identified without feeling the pressure of "this-is-the-most-spioritual-film-of-all-time-so-make-sure-you've-got-it-before-you-post-anything-and-try-not-to-say-anything-stupid".
Indeed, I hope we can steer away from this; especially at first. Your and Ken's impressions set the tone well, so I'm looking forward to more posts like this before commenting too directly.

More later...

Edited by Doug C

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Posted · Report post

Um, why is this thread so wide? I don't think I see any oversized graphics or any long strings of text ...

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. . . it occurred to me that the long gap between my initial post and subsequent picking up of discussion has actually given me more time to reflect, let the questions that I had (and wrote) germinate, ask myself what I thought about these things rather than immediately have someone answer them.
Actually, I would say Bresson intentionally designs his films to work this way. He gives us the ingredients for meaning and our assembly of those ingredients continues long after the film is "over," if we're willing, through a process of reflecting, speculating, and revisiting. And yet part of the beauty of his films is that they are so rigorously exact and physical and comprised of the everyday. It's a very provocative tension . . . and one that has a lot of implication to our daily lives.

In the classroom, like on the air (radio or tv) there is (or can be) this fear of "empty space/silence."
Edited by Doug C

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Watched it last night. My initial reaction is that there just seems to be so much missiing. If I were reading it as a book, I'd be looking back at page numbers to see if I missed one. Ken alluded to some of the spots. Another is why does the baker's wife give Gerard all that stuff to stay away from Marie?

I haven't read the other threads yet, so forgive me if they're covered there. I was wondering if there is a way of connecting Balthasar to people who represent each of the 7 deadly sins. (The thought came to me late last night and I couldn't even enumerate them at the moment, but the one's I remembered I could identify.)

I'll probably take in the special features this afternoon.

Edited by Darrel Manson

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Posted (edited) · Report post

Cool, Darrel, I'm glad you watched it. Yeah, there is a lot missing, but it's very intentional. Less is always more for Bresson...he thought very carefully about what information/cues (images and sounds) to include and what not to include; "teasing" the viewer to encourage reflection. How did it make you feel? Frustrated? Intrigued? Indifferent?

You're definitely on the right track regarding the Seven Deadly Sins, it's great that you picked that up. I'm not sure that Bresson applies them as rigorously as some commentators have implied--maybe there are more or less or different vices revealed in the film?

And don't worry about reading other threads--this one stands alone.

Edited by Doug C

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I wanted to get back to a couple of your comments, Matt; any more thoughts on the film since you watched it?

I don't know if James Quandt (who wrote the essay in The Hidden God book that formed the basis of his Criterion essay) is or isn't a Christian, but certainly he didn't shy away from engaging theological/spiritual readings of Bresson's work in his magnificent but dense monograph on the filmmaker. In any case, I appreciate his essay because it does highlight a Christian interpretation yet it also doesn't prescribe a reading, and refers to elements that make the film more complex than an easy, connect-the-dots allegory might've been. Which leads me to your next point:

At the same time I'm feelig that I'm beginning to move on from Christ-figure films, bible films and films with a major act of reconcilliation / grace at the end, and onto something else, and I feel Balthasar could be part of that as it contains aspects both of the Christ-figure thing I'm leaving behind, and the something else I see approaching.

I'm fascinated; have you written about this elsewhere? It reminds me of Sister Wendy's distinction between "religious art" and "spiritual art," in that the former uses codes and signs that resonate with the already converted that reflects their faith but the latter taps more into the universal human condition and deepens our awareness of ultimate concerns. Of course, Jesus films have been made by and for non-believers, and non-religious films have incorporated Christ figures, so the distinction isn't cut and dried. And even though a film like Ordet ends with a miracle, it is so true to human experience and the struggles of faith that it doesn't seem propagandistic at all.

Your transition sounds very exciting and I'd love to talk about it more sometime...

Edited by Doug C

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Cool, Darrel, I'm glad you watched it.  Yeah, there is a lot missing, but it's very intentional.  Less is always more for Bresson...he thought very carefully about what information/cues (images and sounds) to include and what not to include; "teasing" the viewer to encourage reflection.  How did it make you feel?  Frustrated?  Intrigued?  Indifferent?

You're definitely on the right track regarding the Seven Deadly Sins, it's great that you picked that up.  I'm not sure that Bresson applies them as rigorously as some commentators  have implied--maybe there are more or less or different vices revealed in the film?

As to the less is more, I think in that way this is similar to a parable, which is the bare bones of a story. But then, it's not a parable either. But like parables, there are those who want to (over?) allegorize the film.

As to my feeling about it: a bit confused/distracted, a bit of intrigued, quite a bit challenged.

It felt good watching the French TV bonus feature in which one of the people (I think it was Louis Malle) was talking about the various sins of the people who caused B to suffer.

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It felt good watching the French TV bonus feature in which one of the people (I think it was Louis Malle) was talking about the various sins of the people who caused B to suffer.

Ha. I bet. smile.gif

As to the less is more, I think in that way this is similar to a parable, which is the bare bones of a story.  But then, it's not a parable either.  But like parables, there are those who want to (over?) allegorize the film.
Actually, Darrel, I think you're exactly right that this movie very much takes the form of a parable in cinematic terms. I'm always quoting C.H. Dodd's famous definition of a parable in regards to the movie because it describes the film so well: "a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application as to tease it into active thought."

In what ways were you thinking it maybe wasn't like a parable?

As to my feeling about it: a bit confused/distracted, a bit of intrigued, quite a bit challenged.
Sounds a lot like my own first encounter with the film. It's great that you can recognize all of those responses and in some way hold them together while you continue to think about and talk about the movie. If your "journey" wilth the film is anything like mine, the more I watched it and reflected on it, the deeper and more consistent my emotional response became.

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I'm always quoting C.H. Dodd's famous definition of a parable in regards to the movie because it describes the film so well: "a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application as to tease it into active thought."

In what ways were you thinking it maybe wasn't like a parable?

Perhaps because parables, while often strange and challenging, are usually far less complicated. In looking at biblical parables, it often takes a bit of work to find the simple reading (e.g., the 4 soils in the parable of the sower - is it really the parable of the sower or of the 4 soils?) Most parables are very brief and at least on the surface simple - a woman looking for a coin.

In some ways the film seems more like a whole collection of interconnected parables - as if the prodigal son was the man beaten by thieves on the road to Jericho where he was going to buy a field that he'd discoved treasure in.

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Perhaps because parables, while often strange and challenging, are usually far less complicated. . . . In some ways the film seems more like a whole collection of interconnected parables - as if the prodigal son was the man beaten by thieves on the road to Jericho where he was going to buy a field that he'd discoved treasure in.

I think this is brilliant. Yeah, Balthazar actually is fairly plot-heavy with a lot of recurring characters, even if the plot is continually fragmented and elided and de-emphasized. But there's the whole story about the transfer of the farm to the schoolteacher and the community response, the whole murder subplot, Gerard's relationship with the baker, Marie's rebellious fling, Balthazar's whole life, Arnold's battle with alcohol, etc. Sometimes people complain that Bresson's films are slow, but if anything, they're too fast and constantly jump from one element to another before we can sort it all out--and that's particularly true of this film.

A "whole collection of interconnected parables" . . . I really like that.

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Something which has always struck me when watching Bresson in general and Au Hasard Balthazar in general is the difference religious belief must make in your reaction to the films. Balthazar, and also The Diary of a Country Priest, must seem extraordinarily bleak to anyone who doesn't see any consolation in God's grace. Without that you're just talking about a lot of futile struggle leading to a bad end. Interesting to read what Matt said about being disappointed in Baltazar as a Christ figure because he didn't achieve very much. But Jesus, in his actual human life, was obscure, derided and ended up crucified between two thieves. So Balthazar is pretty analogous to that. I think there's also something interesting about the way that the various characters seek some kind of transcendence, Arnold in alcohol, Marie's father in his new farm, Marie in selfless love for a worthless boy and the thug himself in inarticulate violence. They are all, I think, on different kinds of debased spiritual quest. I think it's an extraordinary film and Balthazar, exhausted and used to the last, lying down in the field among the sheep must be one of the most moving images in the history of cinema. On a different note. There's a neighbour of mine here, a farmer who's an alcoholic and from time to time ends up in jail (I hope I'm not giving scandal, nobody will know him. And I'm not judging, I'm a reformed drunk myself, he's a very decent man most of the time). He owns a donkey which, when he's away, becomes a bit unkempt. Myself and my three year old daughter go down to the field and feed him carrots. We call him Balthazar. Probably irrelevant but it's a personal thing which makes the film resonate for me. And the personal angle affects the way everyone looks at art I think.

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Something which has always struck me when watching Bresson in general and Au Hasard Balthazar in general is the difference religious belief must make in your reaction to the films. Balthazar, and also The Diary of a Country Priest, must seem extraordinarily bleak to anyone who doesn't see any consolation in God's grace. Without that you're just talking about a lot of futile struggle leading to a bad end.

Not quite. There is the whole "materialist/agnostic" school of Bresson Studies. There's even a "queer studies" Bresson. However strange it might seem to you, rathmadder, I think that there are a large number of people who watch Bresson, precisely to confirm and reassure their unbelief.

But then, that's why he's "Bresson". He's great enough as an artist to be more inclusive than any ideological camp would prefer.

Look at what happens when another director (Lukas Moodyson, f'rinstance) takes on these kinds of Bressonian super-melodramas -- they become laughable. Ultimately, it's all in the telling.

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It's true that Bresson has (increasingly) a wide variety of readings and understandings...but I still preference certain theological ones given his own statements over the years. And I do think there is a "those with ears to hear" quality to his films. Of course, that doesn't invalidate any other readings, and Bresson never made theological tracts or films for religious people to feel complacent about their dogma/faith.

Rathmadder, I was very moved by your compassionate story.

Edited by Doug C

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2) Im starting to become aware of what seems like a lot of shots of arms and feet, especially establishing shots. Also, while there is some panning, there appears to be more instances than I am used to of the camera remaining fixed on a spot and the actor moving into the frame.

I've been doing some journaling on Balthazar recently, and I'm focusing on hands and feet. And water... how everyone, whatever their agenda, must stop at some point and drink... how bottles are used to catch water, to pour wine, to threaten. And technology. Interesting how when the drunkard turns to deliver his ultimatum to God, it's unclear whether he's looking at the sky, or looking at the wires stretching across the sky. There's something restrictive and binding about those dark wires. Bresson quietly emphasizes these things over and over again, and each time they emphasize something distinct about the rest of the picture, just the way the hobbling old woman reveals something about those who observe her in the Three Colors trilogy. No wonder he gets by with so little musical soundtrack--his visuals are providing the recurring motifs that most directors only know how to include through superficial enchancements of the imagery.

One of my favorite moments comes when we see Gerard on the prowl at night. He moves forward and puts his hand onto the grass... and CUT to Marie's bare foot softly stepping into the grass. They're a fair distance apart, but that delicate juxtaposition of images creates a great deal of tension... as if Gerard is much closer to Marie, preying on her. It creates an electrical current between his hand and her foot, as if his hand is a snake. This is one of the reasons that there is so much energy and terror in the moment when she sits on the bench and puts her hand out. You know his hand is going to emerge from the darkness even before it does, even though it seems like something surreal, out of a nightmare, instead of a literal approach. The way she extends her hand seems at once deliberate and yet something incidental... as if she's only half-aware of what she's doing, experimenting a bit with darkness to see what will happen. While she does pull away, she has already taken that first step into a darker world.

Edited by Jeffrey Overstreet

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Posted · Report post

but I still preference certain theological ones given his own statements over the years.

As do I. But then again, I often get into fights for saying Bu

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As do I. But then again, I often get into fights for saying Bu

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