Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
June 29, 2015 7:10 AM - Subscribe

J. Hoberman: "Robert Bresson's heartbreaking and magnificent Au Hasard Balthazar, the story of life and death in rural France, is the supreme masterpiece by one of the greatest of 20th-century filmmakers."

Part of the Criterion On Hulu film club.
posted by Ian A.T. (8 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Well.... I'm glad I watched this but..

I don't know. I feel like it's impossible for me to evaluate this on it's own terms, as someone born after it was made, in another country, and with social movements like modern feminism between me and this movie.

Visually, it's gorgeous. The loving shots of the donkey are especially surprising in their beauty. The countryside, the faces, are all perfect. I notice it's mostly close in shots - is that a norm of the film making of that time?

I had trouble following the details of the plot. I kept missing why the donkey was being passed to the next person, or why the female hero would make some of her more terrible decisions.

The ideology or worldview of the movie is a bit grim for me. Although I appreciate that isn't just grim. It's not like, a wall of unrelenting grimness or anything.

I don't think I have a coherent analysis. I did like seeing the bread delivery service. That was cool. And the bicycle/motorcycle gang was a funny, seemingly very European thing.
posted by latkes at 12:25 PM on June 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yeah, there was definitely a moment of letdown for me, when I actually said out loud "Oh, THIS is what the movie's about?"

I'm not even trying to be funny when I say that I was expecting it to be SLACKER but with a donkey.
posted by Ian A.T. at 2:11 PM on June 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

"He's a waste of time."

"No, he's intelligence itself."

I'm pretty much in love with this movie. If I had to pick my all-time favorite movie, this would be it. The only reason I don't watch it about once a week or so is that it kind of destroys me for a while, and I can't afford that kind of downtime.

So when I'm talking about it, it'd be safe to prefix everything I say with "Let me count the ways."

I do know that it's not everyone's cup of tea, and honestly, I can't really explain why it is mine. It's all sort of post facto justification for the fact that I love it for reasons I don't understand and cannot articulate. I just do.

But I'm not going to let that stop me trying. At excruciating length. I'll try to break it up into paragraphs at least.

I love the way Bresson rarely depicts things directly. Things tend to happen in the periphery. There is a joke about Bresson directing the story of Noah's Ark, gathering all the animals, and then only filming their feet. (That might come from the video of Donald Richie discussing the movie that shows up in the recommendations for the movie.) Very little happens right on screen. Instead, you see hands and feet and fabric and you hear braying and screeching tires. Events are more implied, and often not really explained, like the unsolved murder that somehow involves Arnold and Gerard or what ultimately happens to Marie.

There's something fundamentally naturalistic about that, and about the capriciousness throughout the story. Because life is capricious. It doesn't have morals or explanations or even clear outcomes most of the time. Things just happen, and those things make other things happen. Things change, but for no clear purpose. And somehow, there's even something naturalistic about the studied lack of naturalism in the acting. (Bresson called his actors 'models,' and explicitly told them simply to recite their lines and perform specific movements rather than acting them out.) The scene toward the beginning, with Marie and Jacques as children, sitting on the swing, where she says, "Jacques," and he says, "Marie" is perfect.

I love that Balthazar is a donkey. That he isn't anthropomorphized, and that the camera doesn't seem to imply that his traits are human traits. He's just a donkey. He eats and brays and he's afraid or hungry or content like a donkey.

But Marie's thoughts and motivations are maybe even less explicable or knowable than Balthazar's.

There's that scene where Marie stops by the side of the road when she sees Balthazar. She loves Balthazar, and she knows that Gerard is cruel to him. She's afraid of Gerard, and she hates him. She cries when he starts to grope her in her car, but then, when she starts to run away from him, she just crumples to the ground and stays there, and Gerard's reaction seems almost embarrassed for her or something. I don't know. The same thing happens later with Jacques, where she stumbles and falls for no apparent reason, then kisses his hand, like she's been subjected or something, maybe. I don't know. But that's when she starts to change, there by the roadside with Gerard. Before that, she is weak and timid and unsure of herself. She's different after that. She's got a bitterness about her, and she starts distancing herself further from her family and Jacques and Balthazar and everything else. When she stops her car at the side of the road and says "Balthazar" is the last time she shows him any real affection. She barely acknowledges him after that. And she starts going along with Gerard seemingly willingly. And by the time she shows up at that guy's house for food and shelter, she's pretty demanding. She seems to lose her last shred of hopefulness in there, and when she leaves, she doesn't even look at Balthazar.

Balthazar just sort of gets buffeted around by life, ignored, abused, and every now and again, truly appreciated. Marie loves him, at least sometimes. Arnold sees something in him and saves him, the carnival worker sees his worth, Marie's mother calls him a saint. There are a few times someone dresses him up with flowers and ornament. But he's still just a donkey. When he calmly walks away from Arnold alongside the cars on the street. When he meets the other animals at the carnival, and they look in each others' eyes one by one. When he lies down among the flock of sheep to die. He's a donkey.

There's the obvious religious symbolism as well, but honestly, I suspect most of that goes over my head. I'm OK with that. It's plenty overwhelming without it.

You know how sometimes a movie works its way into your head so that certain things become permanently associated with it? An incomplete list of things Au Hasard Balthazar has ruined me for include donkeys, livestock bells, Schubert's Piano Sonata No. 20, leather kiss clasp purses, and flocks of sheep.

OK. That's it for now, I think. Let's watch it again next week.
posted by ernielundquist at 3:22 PM on June 29, 2015 [7 favorites]

she just crumples to the ground and stays there

Hmm... I'm trying to place this within the "models" idea that Bresson was going for, but it just fits so naturally in this realm of screen-versions of women who literally swoon at any confrontation. She seems like a melodrama cliche in that moment to me. When she fell down, I was like, "what? the fuck?" Again, trying to hard to see this in the terms and at the time it was made...
posted by latkes at 9:09 AM on June 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

In my function as self-appointed Bresson apologist, he was pretty much an iconoclast, so while everyone is a product of their time and their environment to some extent, he was very thoughtful and meticulous, and was generally a crank about cinema at the time, particularly disdainful of melodrama. (If you wake up in the middle of the night to a spectral French guy with a hounddog face breaking your dishes or something, that is probably Robert Bresson haunting you.)

So I don't interpret Marie as being a generic or stereotypical female character, but as a specific female character who happens to be weak and passive. His female characters are as well rounded and varied as his male characters are, and Marie's traits aren't common to them. Just as a counterpoint, his Joan of Arc, released in 1962, is a distinctly respectful portrayal of the character. His version of Joan is confident, self assured, and nervous but stoic, and he doesn't resort to embellishment of her story, relying instead on facts in evidence. I don't know if I'd explicitly call him a feminist, but his female characters were as complex and as varied as his male characters.

And, of course, his 'no acting' rule* can make all of his characters seem sort of passive, I suppose. I can't even really nail down what I love about that style where characters simply recite their lines and go through the motions. In fact, think I can better understand why someone else would hate it than I understand why I love it. That's a big reason I love talking about him, to try to figure out what it is that appeals to me so much.

The falling down scenes are definitely weird, and it happens twice, once with Gerard and once with Jacques. It comes across as a kind of defeat or humiliation, which is consistent with her story. She is consistently getting ground down until she is just, as her mother puts it, 'gone.'

* Celebrity gossip! Once Bresson really developed his unique style, he didn't hire professional actors. However, Anne Wiazemsky, who plays Marie, did go on to pursue a career in acting after Balthazar, and was married to Godard for quite a while, although she's primarily a writer.
posted by ernielundquist at 1:04 PM on June 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

Not since Joffrey Baratheon have I hated a fictional character as viscerally as I hated that little shit Gerard. One of the things you hear a lot when discussing Joffrey is that Jack Gleeson must be a great actor to provoke such strong emotions. And I agree! But the guy playing Gerard was so convincing as a contemptible prick that when I try to give him the same benefit of the doubt, I go all Grumpy-Cattishly "NO."

(Especially in light of Bresson's "no acting" rule...! If he's not acting, that must be what he's really like, I tell myself.)

Also, I really liked Marie's comments about her dad's misfortune being due to pride, but in the sense that now he's proud of his misery. It reminds me of a Dalai Lama (!) quote: "A man will give up his happiness without a fight, but will hold onto his suffering until death."

Yes, this is all coming weeks late...part of doing this film club with me is realizing that sometimes it's gonna take me a month to finally sit down and type up what I thought about the film. Hell, I'm still trying to finish my DAISIES commentary!
posted by Ian A.T. at 7:52 AM on July 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm really sorry — and a little embarrassed to admit — I've let this one sit because I said to myself, "Yeah, yeah. It's a masterpiece from a famous director, but it's about a friggin' donkey. How good can it be?"

Now that I've finished it, I'm not sure I can put my feelings about this movie into words. One thing I'm not sure Bresson meant to say with it, but that came through loud and clear to me is, people are cruel to each other as a matter of course, but one mustn't be cruel to animals.

The one thing I couldn't figure out is what exactly was the connection between Gerard and Arnold.
posted by ob1quixote at 1:22 AM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm really sorry — and a little embarrassed to admit — I've let this one sit because I said to myself, "Yeah, yeah. It's a masterpiece from a famous director, but it's about a friggin' donkey. How good can it be?"

I am in your sorry and embarrassed club, because that is exactly why I didn't see this movie until a couple of years ago. It sounded like a kid's movie with an anthropomorphic donkey or something, and I only watched it because I had decided that I was going to work my way through the top movies from those Sight and Sound polls and the Criterion collection to find things I'd missed. I had really low expectations for it going in, and it ended up being a prime example of why I decided to do that in the first place.

I should say at the outset that I do not know much about theology in general or Catholic theology in particular, but Bresson was a very devout Catholic. As I understand it, though, his theology was kind of idiosyncratic, so I can't say whether it makes sense based on traditional Catholic doctrine.

But, while Balthazar and the other animals are just animals, at some level I believe they represent a sort of sinlessness. The world is cruel and capricious, and it corrupts the humans because, unlike the animals, humans are corruptible. Marie's slow descent, as she becomes more cruel and selfish in response to the cruelty and selfishness around her, is paralleled by Balthazar's consistency of spirit. He stays the same because he is incapable of anything else. He has emotional reactions, like when he panics at the sight of Arnold at the carnival, but he doesn't internalize it, and it doesn't change who he is, which is why he doesn't resist going with Gerard at the end.

And yeah, I dunno about that thing between Arnold and Gerard either, but it did sort of remind me of that device from neorealism, where the story kind of bleeds out the edges, so you get little snippets and hints of other stories happening around you, but they just kind of dip in and out without resolution or explanation as you follow the main storyline.
posted by ernielundquist at 10:42 AM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

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