Friday, June 10, 2011

Au Hasard Balthazar -- Cruelty, humility and suffering

Director: Robert Bresson, 1966. (NR) 

Many critics consider Au Hasard Balthazar to be Bresson’s finest film, a masterpiece of artistic French cinema. I found it to be slow and boring.

The story is a simple but sad one, centered on a donkey, Balthazar, and its first owner, Marie. Their lives offer parallels as both grow, one retaining humility and innocence, the other falling from innocence and tenderness to corruption and despair. More than this, though, it is the story of man’s cruelty to the innocent captured in these two lives.

The film opens with a Schubert piano sonata playing in the background. But this is suddenly and discordantly interrupted by a donkey braying. The newborn foal Balthazar is suckling from his mother. This juxtaposition of the beautiful and the ugly epitomize this film, setting the tone for what is to come.

The young Marie, holidaying in a village in France with her friend Jacques and his family, persuades her father to buy the donkey and names him Balthazar. This idyllic, almost Edenic, picture presents mankind (in the person of Marie) in tune with nature (via the land and the donkey). But this harmony is destined to end, and Bresson conveys the fleetingness of youthful innocence as he abruptly moves the film forward cuts a decade.

Marie’s family have moved back to the farm. Now, though, there is a ruffian, Gerard, who pursues her. Clad in a leather-jacket this would-be gangster leads his friends on mopeds and bicycles. He wants Marie for her innocence, to take it and destroy it. Further, his sadistic nature emerges from his brutal treatment of Balthazar.

In one scene, Gerard cannot get the donkey to move, so he ties a paper to the donkey’s tail and sets it alight.

As Marie passively gives in to Gerard’s advances, Balthazar finds himself moving from owner to owner, each time somehow finding his way back to Marie. But it is a changed Marie, whose innocence is escaping. She allows Gerard to both hurt the animal and have his way with her.

By the end of the film, Gerard has literally stripped her naked, beaten her and left her weeping alone in the corner of a room, like an animal. His cruelty has achieved its goal.

As an auteur, Bresson retained complete control of his film creations. He saw film-making as art, distinct from the entertainment made in Hollywood. To create this art, he adopted an ascetic approach, stripping the film and each scene down to its barest essentials. He shifted the vantage point of the camera to focus on details, omitting things most directors desired, like portraits. In Au Hasard Balthazar, Bresson makes much of showing feet and hands, not torsos and heads. He also has the actors rehearse and rehearse until the scenes become second-nature and they are re-enacting his vision, rather than acting and bringing in their own vision. In this way, the actors become almost emotionless, mechanically delivering their lines, and this is apparent in many of the scenes here.

Bresson keeps the soundtrack sparse, so that the few noises we hear take on added significance. The dialog is slim, with even fewer words than usual for the director.

Watching a Bresson film is not entertaining. It is hard work; he demands much from an audience. Some, like me, found this too much here, although I did appreciate Pickpocket, another of his films.

Bresson also likes to focus on effect rather than cause. He rarely shows us scenes in sequence, where we would understand the cause. Instead, he edits his films to match real life, with scenes jumping around haphazardly as if by chance. Indeed, the title translates as “By chance Balthazar,” as if all of the donkey’s life (and ours) occurs by chance.

Despite the lack of reference to God, Au Hasard Balthazar is a spiritual film, offering a number of glimpses into themes like suffering and sin. This is not surprising given that Bresson was Catholic. Even the choice of the donkey and his name is important. Bresson commented that he gave the donkey the name Balthazar since it is biblical. It is commonly attributed to be that of one of the three wise men who visited the Christ child (Matt. 2:9-12). It points to the simple and humble wisdom that this beast of burden has, in contrast to the more educated but proud people around him.

The animal, too, points to the Bible. A donkey was the beast that carried Mary, mother of Jesus, to Bethlehem where Jesus was born. Three decades later, it was a donkey that carried this same Jesus as he triumphantly entered Jerusalem at the beginning of passion week (Matt. 21:5), the week that culminated in his crucifixion and resurrection.

Balthazar is a beast whose life knows mostly work and suffering. Yet he seems to go about this work with a gentleness and humility, a dutiful demeanor. Though just an animal, he stands in stark contrast to those around him. Even as he is being beaten, he accepts it, much like Jesus accepted his beating in silence (). At the climax, when the donkey comes to the end of his life, he is surrounded by a flock of sheep. It is among the sheep, that he lays down and breathes out his last, having been mortally wounded in his side. The allusion to Christ, the Good Shepherd (Jn. 10:11), is clear, though the donkey is no savior.

The donkey’s owners, however, represent the various vices common to man. Marie’s father is proud, too proud to humble himself for the good of his family. His pride is his downfall, and the cause of his family’s poverty. Pride is a serious sin (Prov. 8:13); humility is its opposite (Prov. 11:2).

Another owner is a homeless drunk, who roams from town to town seeking what he can. He finds in Balthazar a means to buy drink. The Bible gives warning against getting drunk (Prov. 20:1), although there is no injunction against enjoying alcohol in moderation. Rather, we should be drunk with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18), allowing him and not alcoholic spirits to take control of our minds and bodies.

Another owner is focused solely on money. He whips Balthazar as he turns circles around the well. His god is mammon, and he wants nothing more than earthly riches. He reminds us of the rich fool that Jesus spoke of (Lk. 12:13-21), who was so wrapped up in his commercial endeavors that he did not realize his life was about to be taken, leaving his full barns for someone else.

Gerard, though not his owner, interacts with Balthazar throughout. He is a liar and a cheat. He represents the evil that seeks to enslave or destroy others. Though not Satan, he characterizes that sly serpent whose chief end is to destroy (Jn. 10:10). His influence brings down all he comes into contact with. One scene shows him destroying a cafe during a free party just for the sake of it, to damage someone else’s property and to humiliate the host. It is Gerard who is the chief antagonist, focused on taking Marie down the spiral into darkness.

Marie is the other chief character. Beginning as a gentle, tender girl who loves Balthazar, her fatal attraction to Gerard is her downfall. Though it is apparent to her and her parents that he is no good, yet her passivity dooms her. She, like Balthazar, is always suffering. But whereas Balthazar is an amoral creature not given a choice in his actions, she is a moral person whose choices lead to her downfall. She never finds the love she desires.

In Marie, Bresson communicates that even a sweet and saintly person falls prey to inner and outer sin. Though she begins with childlike innocence by the end, cynicism has replaced this and she is broken. We are like Marie, not able on our own to maintain a purity and innocence of character. We possess a sin nature that veers us away from God and away from good. We end up broken, if we do not find our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

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