Robert Bresson, The Sublime Minimalist Part 8
#297 Au hasard Balthazar
1966 // France // Robert Bresson
Recently I rewatched Au hasard Balthazar the third time, it is a restored version screened in theater instead of the old decent Criterion DVD I have owned for couple of years. Should I use the (overused) word “transcendent” to describe the experience? Frankly, I don’t know. The film is beyond sheer comprehension, and I find myself approaching Bresson’s film empathetically instead of analytically, relying on sensibility rather than intellectuality. Thereby I’m often bewildered by the relevant essays written by film scholars and how they analyse and speculate the associated elements of the film as an art, an art that Bresson called “cinematography” and took it as a form of writing in comparison to “cinema” which, under the eyes of Bresson, is a photocopy of theater and a false art. Pragmatically, one not necessarily arrive a consensus with the man behind the camera before immersing completely in the film. The ellipses and the use of offscreen sound are the exemplary style of Bresson, but without knowing it, one could still enjoy the film. With a masterpiece like Au hasard Balthazar, the enjoyment is accomplished through suffering.
It is the suffering of a donkey that sweeps my sympathy. The film placed the eponymous animal as the central protagonist and registered its identity in the same stages of a man’s life, in Bresson’s own words, from “childhood (caresses); mature age, then talent or genius (work); and finally, the mystical period that precedes death.” Arguably, it’s an autobiography of a donkey, starting from the first image of a young Balthazar suckling to the last image of the dead body of Balthazar lying on the ground. As an animal, not the personified Dumbo or Bambi in Disney animation, Balthazar’s passive nature is what Bresson always strived for in a cinematographic model, the least self-conscious identity. How we connected with Balthazar is through the actions enacted on him, mainly abusement or less often, affection bestowed from Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), Balthazar’s first owner since childhood and the parallel character to Balthazar.
Unlike the misogynistic punishment constantly befallen upon the protagonist almost too intentionally in Lar von Trier’s films, Balthazar’s sufferings are tended to be induced by chance (as the film title is directly translated as “By chance Balthazar“) due to human sins. Balthazar is the embodiment of innocence and tenacity, as he is transferred from one owner to another, he suffers for their sins. The human characters exhibit the seven deadly sins: Marie’s father (Philippe Asselin) is guilty of pride which spurs him to go to court with his employer instead of mending the relationship with the help of Jacques (Walter Green), the employer’s son who proclaims his love to Marie ever since childhood; the grain dealer (Pierre Klossowski) of covetousness who abuses Balthazar and deprives him of food; Gérard (François Lafarge) of anger and lust who is closest to the manifestation of diabolical evilness; the baker’s wife (Marie-Claire Fremont) somehow envies Gérard’s relationship with Marie and repeatedly overlooks Gérard’s condemned behaviour; lastly Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert), the alcoholic vagabond, is guilty of gluttony and possibly sloth when drunken.
Asides from Balthazar, Marie is the only one in the film closest to innocence, until she loses her virginity by Gérard whose harassing seduction and subsequent abandonment traumatised Marie greatly. The sufferings of Marie achieve a parallelism with Balthazar, and in the scene where Marie putting flower over Balthazar’s head and kissing him vaguely suggests eroticism beyond a mere association. Bresson utilises the character Marie as the dramatic drive and a projection of innocence in a corrupted world whereas Balthazar, as Marie’s mother (Nathalie Joyaut) professes to Gérard near the end, is established as a saint and an image of Christ figure. The suffering for human sins, the garland of flowers as Christ’s crown of thorns, Balthazar’s last journey to his Calvary with bags containing the contraband from Gérard, all these are suffused with Christianity allegory. Bresson is never didactic in his works, he’s more concern of the manifestation of the interior, the depth. As such, divinity is achieved at the death scene of Balthazar, surrounded by sheep, accompanied by the second movement of the Schubert piano sonata, the ambience is secular and serene. Au hasard Balthazar sits right in the middle of Bresson’s filmography, dividing the first half, in which the power of faith is tenacious enough to overcome despairs and corruption, from the second half where a bleaker view is exhibited with the absence of that power. Au hasard Balthazar is that transition in which there is still hope of spiritual redemption to be holding on.