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Au Hasard Balthazar: The Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // Unrated // June 14, 2005
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Bill Gibron | posted June 10, 2005 | E-mail the Author
The world is a cruel place. Though we are loath to admit it, existence is a series of harsh realities, and even more brutal, unexpected shocks along that treacherous cradle to grave path. Life even begins with pain: in childbirth - in that sudden slap meant to startle our newborn system and force that first innocent breath. And it frequently ends in pain as well: a disease that eats you up from the inside; a malady that misdirects your physicality into never-ending aches and frailty; the quick and vindictive crash of cars. Moments of happiness aren't rare, just limited: metered out amongst the trials, tribulations, torments and tragedies. Too much joy would mean a kind of ethereal free ride through the facets of survival. The price for something as precious as life has to be greater than an always sunny sky or an always cheery disposition.

However, had we known how hefty the human cost would be, that the penalties paid would far outweigh the dribs and drabs of delight, it's hard to imagine anyone would voluntarily sign up for such a situation. But that's where life is tricky. Even though it assures us of experiences beyond our wildest dreams, it breeches more promises than it keeps. Indeed, there is no balance, no sense of true Karmic alignment or recalibration in being. The rich get richer, the poor grow more destitute, the pious are persecuted while the pervert goes unpunished. And all this happens without justification or fairness, sans a sense of purpose or practicality. Fate just keeps shoveling shit on top of our heads, and we have no other choice than to grin and wear it. This symbolizes what existence truly is – something rotten and revolting covering everything and anything beautiful or decent.

How innocence gets born into this malignant mess is a mystery for only an omniscient being to interpret. How it ends up corrupted is the basis for all manner of human enlightenment, from art to religion. No one combined the two better than filmmaker Robert Bresson. In his 1966 masterwork, Au Hasard Balthazar, the cool, considered director invents an allegory about purity and its place in the world. And in the eyes of his protagonists – a young girl and a faithful donkey – we get a disturbing, often callous illustration of life's true viciousness at work.

The DVD:
During one of those lazy summer days that children tend to remember forever, Jacque and his sister convince their father to buy them a baby donkey. The mule is christened Balthazar. Another child, Marie, who lives on the property with her father, grows very attached to the beast. And over the course of years, as time passes and situations shift, Balthazar ends up sold and/or traded to several different individuals in the area. Some treat him poorly, while others respect the work and the effort he puts into his labors. Though he occasionally falls back into Marie's care, the now grown girl appears distant, lost in her own oppressive world. She falls for a local gang member named Gerard (after he pursues and assaults her) and is hounded by a father who seems unnaturally attached to her presence.

Balthazar even becomes part of Gerard's devious designs, often suffering the consequences for failing to fulfill his evil plans. In the end, it appears there is no escape for either Marie or her mule. She is trapped, unable or unwilling to defend herself, even as Gerard and his pals grow more and more abusive. Balthazar too is becoming obsolete, as age and maltreatment render him nearly incapable of completing his tasks. A series of misfortunes will befall both of our innocents, cruelties crafted by life itself, destined to play out as existence planned. Marie is fated to fall. And burden is ordained for the beast known as Au Hasard Balthazar.

Though it plays like a fanciful fairytale in the old school tradition (read: lots of the horrific to go with the honorable), Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar is a surprisingly cruel picture. Not in its visual splendor, which is indeed awe-inspiring, or in its technique, which is equally immaculate. No, this simple story of a mistreated mule and the girl who befriends and defends him is an unflinching portrait of an amoral world running ramshackle over the innocent, the good and the noble. It's a movie that maneuvers between the sweet and the sickening, the terrible and the tremendous to argue for the value of transcendence over tragedy. Bresson appears to be arguing that all manner of misery in life can be overcome if one merely accepts and surpasses, rejecting the pain and pulling for something more ephemeral. Within its storybook structure, its iconic vignettes and undercurrent of corruption, we are presented with two portraits of the same painting; a vision of life's malice as cast amongst those who deserve it the least.

Though many may argue that Marie is not faultless and pure (this critic included), it is hard to lay the blame for her lot(s) in life completely on her existential doorstep. From the father who would literally die without her, to the roguish street gang thug who abuses her sexually, we are meant to see Marie as a conduit, a filter through which everyone in her life seems to channel their inner most misery. Without Marie, they would have no emotional punching bag. Without her, they'd be without a physical one as well. Some may see something bordering on the holy in her steadfast resolve to take all punishment with proper appeasement. But individuals hoping to be consecrated for their sacrifice usually have far nobler, recognizable intents. Marie seems simply downtrodden, not answering to a higher call so much as spending too much time listening to those in a substantially lower realm.

Of course, the true symbol of a catalyst to cruelty is the title character himself. While it may seem that Bresson is attempting a kind of callous kids film, using a donkey as his main muse and metaphor, Au Hasard Balthazar is not your typical animal film. It is part of this filmmaker's plan that his beast of burden become a literal representation of same, a creation of God teased and beaten by Satan's own emissaries on Earth. We never see Balthazar with a truly good owner. Those incidents of kindness and years of potential happiness are breezed over quickly so that we can get to the heart of Bresson's message. In essence, the director wants to explore the nature of corruption, why man is so easily swayed toward brutality and harm and away from sympathy and compassion. He wants to understand why most people are sinners, while a chosen few are saints – and why neither state of being is not wholly noble or truly ignominious.

Balthazar is indeed blamed for many problems that people, themselves, won't face up to. Gerard, the delinquent, takes his lack of social and sexual advancement out on Balthazar, kicking him when he won't obey, lighting his tail on fire when he won't run the delivery route faster. Arnold, an accused killer with a great deal of luck and a massive drinking problem, uses Balthazar as a whipping boy, holding him responsible for his trips to the tavern, angry when the mule is not there to serve as drunk tank transportation. Even a miserly old farmer beats the donkey during his daily chores, praying for the rain that will allow him to "end" the old animal's more or less useless life (and free him from having to wield the crop in the blazing, stifling heat). Like a Rosetta Stone to inner redolence, Balthazar sparks nastiness in the souls of his owners, and Bresson wants to make sure he captures each and every act of malice.

The connection to Marie is more tenuous, but equally intended. Because of the young girl, a landowner's son will always live in the shadow of unrequited love. Because of the child, a father will steal and embezzle to prove his worth to her. Because of a daughter, a mother will debase herself into begging and exploitation, merely to hold her family together. And because of her frail femininity, she inspires lust - and the lawless actions inspired by it - in the local gang of hoodlums. If she is meant to represent some manner of martyr, or symbolize a state of grace that few humans can ever achieve, Bresson occasional fumbles such a point. Since he fails to make Marie a truly likeable character, we can't completely condemn her torments or tormentors (though Lord knows we should). Instead, we begin to get hints at a possible subtext in the director's design, a means of explanation as to why, to put it in clichéd terms, bad things happen to seemingly good people.

The answer in Au Hasard Balthazar is two-fold. First, evil visits the virtuous because that is the way of life. In Balthazar's case, he is a donkey, bred to be a farm animal that actually works to cultivate and support the agricultural system. Along with the horse, the cow, the chicken and the dog, we view these creatures as the backbone of any working rural system. But as a wild animal, domesticated in the most basic definition of that term, a mule must be made to move from and in spite of its normal stubborn nature. It has to be poked and prodded – and when taken to extremes – beaten and whipped. Bresson is arguing that this is, to coin a phrase, the nature of the beast. As animals 'of burden', they are meant to carry any and all loads placed upon them. That is what they were made for. That is their purpose – or at least, the function people place upon them.

But Bresson has an even more startling statement to make about the nature of evil and its ability to visit itself upon those seemingly unworthy of its trappings. In Marie, the filmmaker argues for a kind of personal propensity toward abuse. Marie is never seen as an active character. She is totally and completely passive, almost inert most of the time. She appears incapable of defending herself and lets others use her mercilessly. Her sole response, which requires the most desperate of circumstances before she will utter it, is that she wants to run away. But even then, she doesn't want to do it alone. She wants someone, ANYONE, to help her do it, begging them to sweep her up and whisk her off to somewhere safe and peaceful. Of course, all that does is give the manipulators and the deviants of the world a chance to mistreat and malign her even more. In Marie's actions – or lack thereof – Bresson appears to condemn the child, arguing that if she could just stand up for herself, take charge and realize that she has a worth and a right to live, that she would at least be defending her own honor. Instead, she gladly drops her guard again and again, and this in turn twists her life into one torment after another.

Bresson is also not subtle with his desire to parallel Balthazar with Marie. Even though he appears, on occasion, to be miles away from his original home, the donkey always seems to find his way back into Marie's care (or sphere of influence). Even when he travels to the city, or temporarily takes the stage as part of a circus, the maligned mule is centered on the girl and her grave circumstances. The same can be said for Marie. Everyone she knows, everyone she associates with or has some connection to is also linked to the donkey. As a result, a unique little world is created, an insular place that instantly makes itself known, playing by its own rules and recognizing its own sense of justice. This furthers the notion that, in some ways, Marie and her mule are the intended, natural targets for such torture. In the presumed pecking order of this fabled fairyland, they are the oppressed. And with no way to change their lot in life, they are destined to remain that way.

While it may be difficult to think that Bresson, a very humanistic director, would have such indirect contempt for his leads, the evidence appears to weigh out in favor of such a finding. Indeed, there is no integrity in Au Hasard Balthazar, no sense of wholesomeness honored and vileness corrected. People who deserve death are instead rewarded with sudden wealth, while criminals who are nothing but heartless and cold are continuously given free reign to maintain their miscreant ways. Immorality always finds satisfaction in the film, while virtue remains vanquished and rarely vindicated. This doesn't make the horrid individuals in the film 'good', or the decent people depraved. In Bresson's world, they all merely represent reality. Existence is filled with dishonesty and deceit. And the individuals populating this time and place simply become the everyday elements that the dignified and the chaste have to put up with and suffer for.

There is a negative aspect to this cinematic approach. By never giving into the audience's sense of outrage, by never allowing the wicked to be punished or even put out, Bresson keeps us at arms length from a true emotional epiphany. As the narrative pushes toward its end, and we soon realize that all the suffering and pain will be for nothing – no grander cause, no gracious intent – we start to question the movie's motives. We begin struggling to find a deeper meaning to what seems to be an inherent meanness in the overall manner of presentation. It could simply be that Bresson wants to show the dichotomy of life: a traditional enough tenet of all cinema. It could also be that the filmmaker has no hope, no belief in existence as anything other than spiteful and heartless. He could be trying to turn the tables on us, asking that we either except or reject his filmic statement, our reaction being the reason he made the movie in the first place. Or he could just be so caught up in the self-righteous suffering of Marie and Balthazar that he losses sight of the true significance in what he was trying to say in the first place.

Whatever the case may be, a lot of Au Hasard Balthazar's misgivings can be absolved, thanks to Bresson's brilliant craft behind the camera. This is not an actor's showcase, but an honest vehicle for screening the beauty and elegance that is nature. The country has never looked as inviting, or as enigmatic, as Bresson paints it. His images combine a control of detail (a pair of hands, a slightly sloping hill) with an artist's knowledge of where to seat the action for maximum impact. Since he chooses to tell his tale with very few words (Au Hasard Balthazar occasionally plays like a superb silent movie) plotting is precipitated on pictures. To that extent, this film is an abject lesson in the mastery of visual storytelling. We learn more with a look, a minor montage, or a single sensational shot, than a ream of dialogue dripping with exposition could ever tell us.

Like several of his neo-realist Italian counterparts, Bresson relied on untrained, non-professional actors for most of his cast. Their natural authenticity really shows through. They just aren't playing the parts – they ARE the parts. As Marie, Anne Wiazemsky is a troubling, timid thing, an actual performer whose entire range of emotion is borne out in her almost always down-turned face. Indeed, Marie barely lifts her head the entire film, a challenging choice for any actor. That we feel any connection to her at all is as much Bresson's doing as Ms. Wiazemsky's. The rest of the leads – Francois Lafarge as the hateful Gerard, Philippe Asselin and Nathalie Joyaut as Marie's parents - all seem subdued, even in scenes where their emotions and their motives are filled with volatility. This may be part of Bresson's passion for passivity – everyone in Au Hasard Balthazar is remote and reserved most of the time. But it could also be a more stylized way of showing us that life is usually languid and tranquil, cruelty inherent in its multifaceted fabric, not the evil exception.

This is what makes Au Hasard Balthazar so powerful, and yet so distant. It asks as much of its audience as it does of its characters, requiring you to open up your own sentiments and ethos, placing them against those within the film. It is a movie of tremendous visual beauty (especially the heart wrenching finale, which plays like both a eulogy and a celebration at the same time) mixing the fanciful with the factual to create a kind of decisive dream state. Within the confines of the narrative we truly learn the lessons of the universe – the evil that lurks in the hearts of men, the ennui that keeps us subservient and suppressed. This is more than just a movie about a donkey. It 's a meditation on all animal instinct and how denying the brutality of the world only leads to more misery. Sometimes, we have to resign ourselves to our fate, to accept that the process of existence will be made up of moments both beautiful and baneful. While we can fight, and we can flee, we can also soldier on, knowing that at the end, there is a greater reward than what lies on the secular plane. This is the Gospel according to Balthazar. This is the truth according to Bresson.

The Video:
Without a doubt, no one handles monochrome cinema better than The Criterion Collection. Their near-perfect 1.66:1 presentation of this remarkably stunning work of art is, arguably, one of the best black and white offerings from the company. Bresson trained as a painter before taking on the medium of film to fulfill his artistic intentions, and Au Hasard Balthazar is filled with his gorgeous, gratifying imagery. Thanks to the work of those premiere digital preservationists, the sequence where Balthazar visit his fellow "captives" in the circus reveals the detailed majesty of the tiger's stripes, the comic curiosity of the chimpanzee, and the sad-eyed empathy of the elephant. There are so many remarkable moments in the film, visuals where Bresson works the celluloid like an old master at his easel, that you can't help but be moved by the silent story they tell. While you can question its core concepts, you can't argue with Bresson's eye. The print of Au Hasard Balthazar provided by Criterion explains why, with sparkling, sensational results.

The Sound:
Relying on classical music as well as an original score by Jean Wiener, Au Hasard Balthazar is as stunning a work of aural excellence as it is a visionary feast. Bresson is one of the few filmmakers who understood the power of silence, how it can punctuate emotion better than a soundtrack loaded with syrupy strings or a cacophony of clichéd conversations. He also knew that any and all moments of quiet made the sequences where sound existed that much more authoritative. Though it is offered in a Dolby Digital Mono mix that is intermittently distorted and often thin, the attention to sonic detail that this director visited on his narrative is not to be missed. If it's possible to paint with resonance, as well as brushstrokes or shot selection, Bresson truly excelled on the auditory canvas.

The Extras:
Though we are not given a full-length commentary track or extensive Behind the Scenes featurette, Criterion has added a true cornucopia of contextual insights and interest to this release. When the movie was screened in 1966, French television created an hour long celebration of it and its creator. Entitled Un Metteur en Ordre: Robert Bresson it combined discussions of Au Hasard Balthazar by such fellow filmmaking luminaries as Jean-Luc Godard and Louis Malle, with in-depth interviews with Bresson and his stars. The program centers on almost every aspect involved in the making of the movie. Godard is especially vocal, hailing Balthazar as a brilliant deconstruction of life, while Malle is sympathetic to the director's humanistic design. The director details how he came up with the story and where he purposefully mimicked the works of Chaplin. He also tries to clarify the motivations behind Marie's actions, or lack thereof. As weighty as an alternate narrative track, but with more scholarship and substance than most, this is a fantastic feature to have as part of the Au Hasard Balthazar DVD.

Equally impressive, in a much more minor way, is film critic Donald Ritchie's 12 minute dissertation on Au Hasard Balthazar. Explaining explicit facets of the film that resonate with him to this very day, as well as his humbling reaction to meeting Anne Wiazemsky at a Bresson festival, we learn a great deal in a very brief period. We also come to realize how deeply a film like this can connect with and affect anyone who comes in contact with it. There is also some of this in James Quandt's enclosed essay (as part of the DVD booklet). Focusing mainly on the elliptical nature of the narrative and themes, Quandt also argues for the sanctification of the title character. He sees sainthood in Balthazar, believing this mule a figure of religious purity. And after absorbing the analysis presented as part of Criterion's bonus features, one can't really argue with such a considered conclusion.

Final Thoughts:
While it may appear unlikely, there is some hope at the end of Au Hasard Balthazar. Not the traditional kind, the variety forged out of justice and a sense of real retribution. No, the optimism here is derived from a more indirect lesson. Marie always wanted to escape her life. In the end, it appears that she has. Balthazar longs for the days when he was a young and carefree donkey, playing in a field surrounded by other members of the farmland community. In the end, he essentially gets his wish. Bresson suggests that life will eventually give you a rest - you just have to be careful what manner of respite you long for. Prayers always go unanswered while certain requests made in the heat of the moment will get immediate, fatalistic redress. And it's all because people cannot change who they are, for better or worse. The wicked will remain vile, the childlike will always be unable to fend for themselves. And the basics of being will never change either. Existence will always be pitiless, and there is not terribly much we can do about it. Perhaps we should just learn to relish the bits of happiness that happen to come our way and silently suffer the rest. Otherwise, we will simply stay tormented. That's life. That's just the way it is.

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