A film about an abused donkey in small town France, leading a saintly life that parallels that of it’s young owner Marie. An intriguing plot synopsis, one so specific that it could probably only be attempted by a master filmmaker. Bresson’ is a master indeed, expanding upon Eisenstein-esque montage theories to produce a uniquely film language, implying plot events with poetic edit choices and manipulating his untrained actors to be the conveyor of emotions for audiences to place themselves within, rather than forcing emotional performances onto audiences. His is an incredibly refined and deliberate style, one that screams to be studied by students and critics, and it’s probably unsurprising that he’s a favourite of film school courses worldwide. Also being one of the key influences on French New Wave filmmakers and subsequent followers such as Martin Scorsese or Terrance Malick, Bresson’s films deserve to be discovered by a wider audience – outside of just the elitist art house clique.
This is the 3rd Bresson film I’ve seen, and I’ve been lucky enough to have seen each of his on the big screen. The first being the prison break film A Man Escaped (1956), screened in Film Studies 101 in my first year of a Film and Media Studies degree as an example of a filmmaker using diegetic sound and uncommon camera framing devices to tell a narrative. Bresson spent over a year in a prison camp in WWII which gave him an experts knowledge to tell such a story. A Man Escaped is the most accessible and straight-forwardly entertaining I’ve seen of his and would be a good entry point. Diary Of A Country Priest (1951) was screened during a spirituality in film paper as an example of transcendent cinema. Transcendence being something above a normal earthly or physical level. The country priest of the title, known just as the Priest of Ambricourt, is a sickly man who struggles with his parish duties and become increasingly unwell throughout the film. His faith being tested, he receives no respite, and experiences a journey comparable to that of Christ. In his suffering Bresson insinuates he experiences transcendence of a sort.
I don’t know if the experience of watching a film can truly be said to be a transcendent experience – but this is something frequently stated about Bresson’s best films and their effect on the audience, and many critics state Au Hasard Balthazar as his best. Andrew Sarris exaggeratedly said of the film in 1970 – “No film I have ever seen has come so close to convulsing my entire being … It stands by itself as one of the loftiest pinnacles of artistically realized emotional experience.” Perhaps praising a film to that extent help to justify film as a serious art-form at a time when it’s reputation was still being solidified. But for a reknown critic and academic to be that passionate is perhaps a hint as to it’s place in the canon of classic cinema.
All of Bresson’s stylistic signatures are present in this film and perhaps mastered, but does that make the film groundbreaking or entertaining for a modern audience? In some ways yes, although research into the tools Bresson is using and his place in film history significantly increases an appreciation of the film, beyond a surface level. The use of untrained actors and the way in which Bresson directs he cast, filming take after take until the performance is diluted to it’s subconscious essence is in theory genius – rather than treating actors like stars, he uses them like a substance is diluted in homeopathy. During my initial viewing of Balthazar I could enjoy the performances as very naturalistic, documentary-like (neorealist perhaps) and understated. A character might say something dramatic, such as Marie refusing the love of her returning childhood sweetheart Jacques – but the lead actor Anne Wiazemsky talks as if she was hypnotized. As fascinating as this is, I would not have known the craft behind the performances without the research after watching the film.
As mentioned, the core narrative of the film concerns the saintly life of the donkey Balthazar, who suffers a life of servitude at the hands of it’s human masters, sometimes receiving kindness and sometimes abuse. Marie takes a shining to Balthazar and their lives are compared to each other, with the donkey’s life of abuse and mistreatment being paralleled by the somewhat tragic fate of Marie. The key sections of their lives are presented in separate segments almost like an anthology film. Within these segments, montage is used to imply meaning – to provide an example, a town drunk Arnold at one point takes owner ship of Balthazar. In one shot he says how he is going to quit drinking. The next shot is a close up on his hand holding a glass at a bar, the glass being filled with spirits. Such a cut caused laughter to erupt around the theater, showing that Bresson had a deft comic touch that is rarely noted.
Marie lives on a farm with her father and mother, known not by name, but they don’t own the farm. The farm-owners daughter dies in the opening sequence of the film, leading the family of the owner to leave the farm, which ends the brief childhood romance of Marie and Jacques (Jacques who is the son of the farms owner). Marie’s Dad is given responsibility over the farm and entitlement to the profits, yet the town bank enforces taking payments from the father which leaves the family in a state of destitution. A trouble-making gang of youths, led by Gerard (Francois Lafarge) soon enter Marie’s life, torturing Balthazar by tying fireworks to his tale, of which Marie does nothing to deter. Gerard seduces Marie, which is implied through his point of view gaze on her skirt, and a montage cut to blowing on a small horn in triumph, implying a successful conquest. Marie’s life becomes increasingly entangled with Gerard, which her family disapproves of yet is unable to dissuade. Gerard uses Balthazar for sometime, taking him from the family just as Gerard takes Marie.
Many crimes are caused by Gerard, and his at one point accused of a murder, yet this plot thread remains inconclusive. Arnold, the town drunk is also tormented by Gerard, yet later in the film Arnold surprisingly comes upon a fortune due to the death of an uncle. Gerard takes this opportunity to cause destruction to a bar, smashing mirrors and the entire collection of glass bottles, knowing Arnold will use his inheritance to pay for the bill. The scene of Gerard destroying the bar is one of the oddest of the film. The destruction is quite complete, and takes place around dancing townspeople. None of the extras dancing react at all to Gerard’s needless destruction. They have been directed not to show any awareness of it. Touches like this contribute to the dream or fantasy mood that Bresson conjures. Dramatic scenes occur, yet they do not occur as in real life, they take on more of a metaphorical role and therefore are more powerful, yet at the same time from a modern audiences perspective, are somewhat difficult to initially understand.
Balthazar at one point is sold to a local circus. He has a brief and seemingly successful career as an entertainer, and encounters other persecuted and subjegated circus animals – the eyes of an Elephant, Tiger and Chimpanzee staring mournfully back at Balthazar. Bresson apparently cared about the rights and lives of animals, sensibilities which fellow master director Ingmar Bergman apparently didn’t share. He famously said of Balthazar; “this Balthazar, I didn’t understand a word of it, it was so completely boring… A donkey, to me, is completely uninteresting, but a human being is always interesting.”
Brutal words, which serve to split Bresson and Bergman fans. Bresson ends the film with the saintly death of Balthazar, who expires surrounded by sheep, having been stolen by Gerard to steal goods – Balthazar’s demise occuring after being exploited one last time by the human’s who care not for his well-being. Marie’s narrative is left open, she at the very least escapes the village, but we are not if this is due to death or her own choice. The cruel characters of the film, notably Gerard never receive punishment for their deeds.
Is it a film that will still be regarded as a classic in 50 years time? That remains to be seen. It’s certainly an intriguing and well-executed premise featuring Bresson’s master touches in terms of cinematography, acting, editing and sound design. But it is very much a melodrama and the moments of comedy are overshadowed the main tragic plot of girl and donkey. It is perhaps most entertaining as a snapshot of life in mid-20th century small town France, with traditional village life ontrasted with growing modernity (such as Gerard carrying around his portable radio, playing Rock n Roll in an imitation of an american bad-boy like James Dean). It may be dated, but if you’re willing to invest in the film some time, you’ll find a more rewarding watch than just about everything else currently being produced for celluloid.