Au hasard Balthazar
Posted 12 December 2003 - 11:48 AM
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
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.
Posted 12 December 2003 - 12:10 PM
Chicago crowd -- this is coming to the Music Box Theater and will be on their Feb/March calendar. Let's keep our eyes peeled.
Posted 12 December 2003 - 12:15 PM
Posted 12 December 2003 - 12:20 PM
What DVD version should I seek out? Or is there a good one? (It's not in theatres here at the moment.)
Posted 12 December 2003 - 12:29 PM
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.)
Posted 12 December 2003 - 12:31 PM
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’s death in ‘99, all 14 of his features remain virtually out of circulation. Of those, few have been harder to see than Au Hasard Balthazar, which opened in Paris in 1966 and has, in the intervening years, come to be considered by many as Bresson’s most sublime masterpiece. To pick and choose one Bresson over another, however, is a bit like comparing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to the David; in short, it’s a fool’s task, not just because of the films’ consistency of quality, but for their remarkable thematic interrelation. An exponent of one of Bresson’s foremost concerns — man’s inhumanity to his fellow man — Au Hasard Balthazar affects some in ways that other Bressons don’t precisely because, in this case, that fellow man is not man at all, but rather a gentle beast: a dark-gray ass who, over the course of his life, becomes both observer and martyr to the many expressions of human cruelty. Watching Balthazar’s progression from his days as a child’s beloved pet to his final resting place — seen in what is duly regarded as one of the cinema’s most unforgettable images — is both devastating for its funereal beauty and nearly sickening for its depiction of the modern world’s unending venality. The donkey itself gives an incomparable performance that is testament to Bresson’s preference for “models” over recognizable actors. The movie, weathered not one bit by the passage of time, gleams with the evidence of how much Bresson did to extract cinema from the influence of other art forms and from the Freudian logic that has become de rigueur in Western dramaturgy. The revivalist maestros at Rialto Pictures promise a pristine 35mm print for this engagement. (Nuart; Fri.-Thurs., Dec. 12-18 )
Posted 12 December 2003 - 12:38 PM
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.
Posted 12 December 2003 - 01:10 PM
I'm looking forward to the Chigroup comments...
Posted 12 December 2003 - 01:29 PM
: 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.).
Posted 12 December 2003 - 01:48 PM
|Beware, though, Stef--it's French and it's not Kieslowski.|
|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.
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.
Edited by stef, 14 June 2004 - 02:28 PM.
Posted 12 December 2003 - 02:01 PM
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.)
Posted 12 December 2003 - 03:43 PM
Nouveaux Pictures will release Au Hasard, Balthazar and Mouchette on DVD in Europe "sometime" in 2004.
DVDs from both distributors are Region 2.
Posted 12 December 2003 - 04:44 PM
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.
Posted 12 December 2003 - 04:52 PM
Posted 12 December 2003 - 04:59 PM
Posted 12 December 2003 - 05:00 PM
Posted 15 December 2003 - 11:51 AM
After all that, I'd move on to the 1999 James Quandt edited collection of international essays published by the Cinémathèque Ontario.
Posted 15 December 2003 - 01:06 PM
|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.
Posted 15 December 2003 - 01:30 PM
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.)