A stark, unsettling vision of human cruelty, folly, and destructive behavior, leavened by an icon of innocent suffering, Au hasard Balthazar may be Robert Bresson’s most poetic, haunting, personal work — the culmination of the filmmaker’s style and concerns, the most "Bressonian" of films.
Unlike most of Bresson’s master-works, Balthazar is not based on a literary work; even more than Pickpocket, perhaps, its original screenplay is unmediated Bresson. Coming as it does somewhere in the middle of his career, it offers a bridge of sorts between the more accessible and transparently "transcendent" earlier works (Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped) and the grimmer, more difficult later works (Lancelot of the Lake, L’Argent), which seem almost despairing and devoid of grace.
The seemingly haphazard, loosely organized story follows the life of a donkey named Balthazar (traditionally the name of one of the three Magi), from carefree colthood, through the trials and vagaries of life, to a quietly sublime conclusion. Balthazar is bought and sold, caressed and abused, worked and even taught to perform, and throughout it all never knows why or what is coming next. His sufferings are mirrored in the lives of the humans around him, who may be more responsible for their own unhappiness as well as his, but frequently display no more insight into their condition.
Events are glimpsed in part, not seen in whole, and not everything is meant to be understood on a first viewing, or even after multiple viewings. Balthazar himself is an uncomprehending witness to human affairs, and we’re meant to see his world largely through his eyes — and possibly see ourselves in him.
The donkey has been described, perhaps partly tongue in cheek, as the quintessential Bressonian actor — or "model," rather, as the painter-turned-filmmaker called his performers. What Bresson wanted his (generally non-professional) actors to do was precisely not to "act," but rather to enact their roles with as little outward emotional display as possible. For Bresson, his "models" were not artistic collaborators, but media, resources with which to tell the story. It is perhaps the ultimate auteurist approach to filmmaking.
For many "Bressonians," the lack of overt feelings creates a powerful sense of internalized emotional struggle. For me, it seems to clear the way for a drama that goes beyond emotion, a drama of meaning rather than feeling. Certainly emotion is implied in Bresson’s films, and we’re meant to respond to them emotionally; but Bresson did not, I think, want the sympathetic, almost involuntary emotional response to outward displays of emotion. It is the situations, actions and circumstances to which he wants us to respond, rather than the nuances of a line reading or a facial expression; and that requires an active, contemplative response, not merely a passive emotional one.
Bresson is a demanding filmmaker, and Au hasard Balthazar is not his most accessible film. Newcomers might do well to start with Diary of a Country Priest or A Man Escaped as a point of entry to his work. Yet I suspect that Au Hasard Balthazar may be in a way the key to Bresson, and his most indispensable film. Watching it, I want to re-watch some of his other films… and I suspect that watching them will send me back to Balthazar.
Long out of print on VHS and unavailable on DVD, Au hasard Balthazar is at last newly available on DVD from the Criterion collection.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.