Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Au Hasard Balthazar

Director/writer: Robert Bresson France/Sweden 1966 95 mins

Cast: Anne Wiazemsky, Walter Green, François Lafarge, Jean-Claude Guilbert, Philippe Asselin, Pierre Klossowski, Nathalie Jogaut.

If there is one sentence that could define Robert Bresson’s approach to cinema making, I think that would be on the lines of: The complexity of simplicity.

Au Hasard Balthazar falls clearly under this category. At first glance, it sounds simple, too simple for sophisticated tastes, awaking attitudes such as Oh no, I’ll fall asleep with this film. This is not the case at all. As with other Bresson’s works, it held my undiminished attention from the first frame of a stone wall until the last shot. It is the life story of a donkey, since he was a foal until his death as an abused old animal, downtrodden with smuggled goods and shot after his handlers abandoned him. The foal was formally baptized Balthazar, with a proper Catholic ritual, by and surrounded by adorable and loving children. However, this picture was not to be. It is also a story of betrayal and redemption, a story of fate. One of those children, Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) loved him dearly since she was a little girl, but also betrays him as she grew up and got mixed with a gang of youths in the village, shadowy young people inhabiting in that land located between society and complete amorality.

The film follows the parallel lives of Marie and Balthazar with stark camera work, black and white photography streamlined down to the minimum, the language being sparse like biblical sentences. However, while the donkey accepts mostly with grace and humility the cruelties and brutalities inflicted upon him as he was passed from owner to owner like a yo-yo, with flashes of rebellion here and there, but always with s flourish of his long ears; Marie betrays him and goes on in doing so not only him, but also her childhood sweet heart, Jacques. Balthazar’s life tragically ends, in a twist of fate, just when he had a chance to live his last few years in peace, after having worked all his life as, well, a donkey. His reward being kick after kick. He accepts his death with saintly tranquillity and dignity, his eyes open until the last moment taking in the world around him, Marie having disappeared in despair.

Au Hasard Balthazar has been interpreted as a Christian parable, an exemplary life led by the donkey, taking everything that came onto him, the kicks and the kisses, with humility and grace until his death. Marie, to some extent, leads a similar life, in sharp contrast with the lives of most of the surrounding humans around them, following a complete different path, a path of cruelty, selfishness and brutality.

Bresson’s eye is always sharp as steel in its dissection of human frailties; however, it is never unkind. Au Hasard Balthazar is no different in this respect as we despair watching Marie’s attitude when she sees Balthazar being beaten by her lover, but we learn the conflict in her hearth when she failed to intervene; we vent our anger to Gerard and his gang, but we also learn to see the world through their eyes.

Au Hasard Balthazar, a classic of cinema by one of its masters.

A search through the IMDb website revealed a few interesting facts. Anne Wiazemsky, the lead actress, the daughter of a Russian count and granddaughter of the French writer François Mauriac, did pursue, unusually for Bresson’s actors, a career in cinema and TV until 1988, having worked under Jean-Luc Godard – to whom she married, and Pier-Paolo Pasolini, and others. She is also a writer, having collaborated in L’Irreguliere, on which the film Coco Before Chanel was based. Pierre Klossowski, the miller in the film, was the painter Balthus older brother, himself being an artist and writer. He also appeared in Raoul Ruiz' films.

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