the wall
music friday: pink

by request: au hasard balthazar (robert bresson, 1966)

This wasn’t exactly a request. Jeff Pike had it at #16 when we did our Facebook Fave Fifty lists, and I’m trying to see all of the movies Jeff and Phil Dellio chose that I have missed.

Jeff isn’t alone in ranking this one so highly. The most recent Sight and Sound critics’ poll also had it at #16. (Among the critics who voted for it: Manohla Dargis, Molly Haskell, Wesley Morris.) It came in at #21 on the directors’ poll (for some reason, I’m not surprised that Béla Tarr had it on his list). The just-updated They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films saw Au hasard Balthazar rise from #60 last year to #33 this year.

So, of course, I didn’t connect with it.

I don’t think it went over my head, as often happens with subtle films. Much of what its devotees like about it was apparent to me, as well. It’s just that I didn’t get that devoted feeling.

Take Bresson’s famous method for using actors, or, as he calls, them, “models”. He used mostly non-professional “models”, and in the process of making films, he would repeat take after take, until the performer disappeared and became a conduit for the words and actions Bresson wanted. The result here is that the performers’ looks are the totality of their work. Anne Wiazemsky, who plays the leading human role, has pouty lips and a certain near-insolence that comes across equal parts submissive and innocent. Her character does good things and bad things and things outside of good and bad, but she always has the same look on her face. Bresson is letting the audience experience the emotions of the characters, unfiltered by actor’s technique. Yet all I could say at the end of the film was that Wiazemsky’s lips were nice to look at. (Unlike many of the people in the film, she went on to have an acting career, and was married to Godard for a dozen years.)

I also fear I took everything too literally, which is something I’m susceptible to. The donkey (it occurs to me I’ve gotten this far without explaining that the Balthazar of the title is a donkey) is believed by some characters in the film to be a saint, and I think Bresson wants us to feel the same way. You could say it’s all just metaphor, but I found it literally true: Balthazar was a saint. And perhaps I’m too human-centric, but the idea that a donkey is a saint strikes me as nonsense. Which means only that I’m probably not the right audience for the film.

Having said that, the notion that a donkey could be an exemplar of saintly behavior seems more understandable, although in that case, Balthazar is perilously close to that idiot Forrest Gump, another supposed role model. Bresson does not turn his donkey into a human in animal clothing … Eddie Murphy isn’t on the soundtrack offering wise cracks. Balthazar plods along, often mistreated, always overworked, and he seems to take everything in his life with equanimity. Roger Ebert pointed out that, given Bresson’s theories of actors, “a donkey becomes the perfect Bresson character. Balthazar makes no attempt to communicate its emotions to us, and it communicates its physical feelings only in universal terms.”

I could say a lot of positive things about Au hasard Balthazar. It affects many people on a very deep emotional level, even battle-hardened critics with tough hearts. Bresson has an individual vision about film, and his films are very clearly “his”. He is one of the few directors who truly deserve the title of “auteur”.

I’m not sure this says anything useful about my own reaction to Au hasard Balthazar, but on my own Fave Fifty list, I had four French films in my top 14, including one by Jean Renoir, for whom I felt some measure of guilt because I didn’t include more of his movies. Renoir seems very different from the Bresson of Au Hasard Balthazar, and I wonder how many people love the work of both directors.


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