au hasard Balthazar
Director / Screenplay: Robert Bresson / Editing: Raymond Lamy / DP: Ghislain Cloquet / Music: Jean Wiener
Cast: Anne Wiazemsky / Walter Green / Françcois Lafarge / Jean-Claude Guilbert / Philippe Asselin / Marie-Claire Frémont / Pierre Klossowski
The Rhythm of a Saint...
A confession, while I’m in the mood.
au hazard Balthazar was my first Bresson. There’s a time for everything of course, but this was the duck I chose to break today. I’ve been aware of Bresson-the-Director for decades, since I caught a glimpse of his dreamlike Lancelot du Lac (1974) on late night TV, back in the Eighties. Of course, what this pimply youth knew then of Cinema wouldn’t cover a postage stamp. How could I know, that Robert Bresson represented the apogee of an austere kind of film-making that, even now, has few equals?
All that was to come in time, yet samples of his actual filmography continually eluded me; there was always something else. Something shinier.
Which brings me to Criterion’s accomplished re-release of au hasard Balthazar… Background reading can only tell you so much about a Director, of course. At some point, you’ve got to sit down and experience their vision.
Today then, I began with the film that stands alone in Bresson’s surprisingly lean catalogue.
Balthazar lends itself to many interpretations. An unsentimental picture about the life of a mistreated donkey. A mystical parable about man’s inhumanity. The analogous retelling of the life of Christ… All these – and more – are true. It just depends on the viewer’s sensibility, as to which they’ll buy-into.
Bresson opens his account early, during the titles, by splicing a donkey’s bray into a Brahms piano concerto; less a ‘carnival of the animals’ than a levelling between equals. He then reveals a donkey foal – at this stage nameless – suckling at its mother. Bresson then pulls back, revealing two children and a man we take to be their father. They’re pleading with him to take the foal: and he does; stealing it from its mother with a guilty furtiveness, every inch the measure of the anguish Bresson induces in us, the helpless viewer. He’s challenging us; asking us to question who we take to be the villains here: the children for having pleaded for the donkey, or the man, for succumbing to them. It’s such a simple, plain conceit, yet Bresson is also asking us to side with the donkey’s POV. He’s not doing anything in that regard: he’s doing everything.
We are powerless witnesses to the end of innocence on all sides…
Once home, the boy – Jacques – and girl – Marie – conduct a quasi-religious ceremony in which a name – ‘Balthazar’ – is bestowed in a naïve christening; again, it’s no accident that they chose the name of one of the Three Wise Men. Nor is it anything less than deliberate, that we see a third figure: Jacques’ mother. She’s gravely ill. Balthazar was brought to cheer her up, though to little avail, as it turns out. With her swift passing, we come to see the bigger picture. Marie is the daughter of a local schoolteacher & close-friend to Jacques’ family; she and Jacques are childhood sweethearts and pledged to each other. But his mother’s death changes everything and once Jacques and his widow’d father move away, Marie’s own father is left to farm the land attached to ‘the big house’. Turns out it’s easier to plough with a new-fangled tractor and ‘science’ than with beasts of burden…
Balthazar is now surplus-to-requirements and a drain on now-scant resources, so is sold to inscrutable, walnut-skinned locals, who shoe his hooves and ‘break-him-in’ for the ‘harsh, brutal and short’ life to come.
A brief inter-title reads: ‘Years go by’. It’s not kidding, for when next we see Balthazar, he’s now full-grown and pulling a waggon over-loaded with hay. Its driver has enjoyed a ‘liquid lunch’ and, in the glare of the afternoon sun, the waggon’s hypnotic rhythms have lulled him to sleep; Balthazar trots-on, oblivious. When the inevitable accident occurs, tipping the waggon over, the embittered driver can’t accept the outcome to be his own fault. Instead, he returns with a posse to beat his tormentor: only for Balthazar to trot off, out of sight. What’s so effective here, is that throughout this sequence, Bresson is using no dialogue and a minimal ambient soundtrack. Instead, he’s relying on the universality of the image.
His refuge turns out to be Jacques’ old house, now up for sale. It’s familiar to Balthazar. He has a memory of a time there when he wasn’t being beaten or starved. He finds his own stall and brays in what might be contentment at the memory (though I’m conscious of ascribing human feelings here).
Marie’s still here, too. Now played by Anne Wiazemsky, she’s become an aimless, passive young woman adrift in an isolated community with too many familiar faces she’d rather avoid; some of them are in a moped gang, led by Gérard (played with chilling abstraction by François Lafarge). Their idea of ‘fun’, is to empty a can of motor-oil onto a bend in the road and watch – impassively – as cars skid-off (and into) each other. Gérard’s also noticed Marie – because of course he has. He wants her, but is incapable of revealing anything of his true nature (even IF it turns out to be a banal strain of ‘evil’), so he dominates her as only a bully knows.
After Marie has made a ‘crown of wildflowers’ for Balthazar (yet more religious symbolism), her father succumbs to his own pride; a stubborn reluctance to defend his innocence in the teeth of local gossip that has him defrauding his absent friend, the widower. It’s a stubborn vanity that will eventually lead to his unraveling: the first tile of which to fall, being the sale – once again – of Balthazar, this time to a local baker: Gérard’s father. He intends for his son (and our villain) to use our uncomplaining hero to make deliveries, but it quickly descends into a battle of wills between Master and Servant; the former only ‘winning’ when he ties newspaper to Balthazar’s tail and sets it alight. Gérard’s also a soloist in the church choir and when he sings, incongruous in his leather jacket up there in the stalls, Bresson catches him staring, fixedly, down at Marie with chilling malevolence.
Such studied cruelty takes real skill to convey on-screen, without evoking vocal passions in the viewer. Bresson’s secret, is to pursue a theme of ‘Pure Cinema’; a stripped-back austerity in his film-making that transcends the page. I’ve already mentioned his reliance on the Image as its own storytelling device, but Bresson goes further. Famously preferring to use unknowns from early in his career, he would film take-after-take, in order to ‘flatten’ performance; reducing an actor’s delivery to exercises in-rote. In this way, Bresson captured a pure movement & response, devoid of actorly ‘tics’ that might otherwise betray the intent; often focussing on an actor’s feet or hands at the knowing exclusion of everything else. His dialogue is also incredibly sparse. As a result – if this example is any guide – his narratives are a masterclass in ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’. Characters are little more than inexpressive mimes; their movements choreographed to realise Bresson’s vision as our responses rise and fall in simpatico.
Bresson can’t help but let his camera (under the watchful eye of DP Ghislain Cloquet) linger on Gérard for it both loves and hates the man; not because of how he’s involved in bad deeds, but that he’s doing them at all with such detachment! He’s just as emotionally inert as Marie, the only difference being, that she’s yet to fall from grace. Later, Gérard spots where his father hides the key to the bakery’s cash-drawer and you just know it’s only a matter of time… His parents – well, his mother – forgive the theft, even presenting him with a new moped and a transistor radio, whilst pleading with him to give up the girl, but both Marie and the contempt held for his own parents, prove hard habits for Gérard to break.
Gérard’s arc is capped with a genuinely sinister incident, in which he surprises Marie by taking the passenger seat in her 2CV. He acts wordlessly, reaching out for her belly, her nape. She accepts him – naturally – with a dumb, resigned passivity that one might also attribute to Balthazar. It’s as if, in their affection for each other, the girl has become the mirror of the donkey and vice-versa; both are suffering abuse from the same man. Both are trapped; resigned to their fates.
Bresson cuts-away before anything is seen, but an inference of violation is there. Our worse fears are confirmed in the next shot, as she drives away, leaving Gérard to blast a triumphant note on the horn he uses to tell customers that their bread’s arrived; this is as much outward expression as we’re going to get from him.
There’s more to come for Balthazar. After Gérard, life is filled with an astonishing, though short-lived turn as a mathematical prodigy in a circus; Bresson’s camera lingering on a caged tiger and other animals, as they regard with placid curiosity this fluffy black newcomer. Again, we’re invited to study the tiger as it regards Balthazar. Bresson’s teasing us. For the duration of this long sequence, our response ranges from imbuing the big cat with a genuine curiosity, to watching it gauge Balthazar as would-be prey, to staring with a blank gaze underpinned by nothing (or nothing more than equal resignation).
Then there’s the question of who’s really caged: the animals or their keepers? Moreover, it seems Bresson believes in the old saw that not every cage has bars; there are some we can’t see, that we carry around with us. Once again, the director’s doing nothing to suggest any of this, but my response – as opposed to my reaction – is being stoked to consider the possibilities. It’s quite a thing, to
realise remember that a film – a mere film – has such potential.
Next, Balthazar’s the on/off companion of Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert), the town’s mean drunk and itinerant fool; a man who (correctly as it turns out) is believed by Gérard to be a murderer. Yet Arnold has a chance for redemption. He inherits a large sum of money, but Gérard knows him better than himself. At a party held in Arnold’s favoured bar, Gérard casually trashes the glassware with studied boredom (knowing all-the-while that it’s covered) before mounting the by-now inebriated Arnold onto Balthazar and sending them out into the night.
For his part, Arnold has a moment of clarity out there in the moonlight. He senses the end – the inevitability of it all – and kisses Balthazar as a true friend – perhaps the only one he’s ever had – and slumps to his death. Again, Bresson is telling us so much about the ability of one person to manipulate another. About how we’re never in-control of our paths. And, into and through all these damaged lives, walks Balthazar like some confessor. A Tabula Rasa for characters too ignorant to see they even needed one.
Finally, after a spell with a spiteful miser who whips Balthazar as he turns a water-pump, he returns to Gérard who, by this time, has become a smuggler of nylons and perfume over the Pyrenees into Spain; Balthazar is his carrier-of-choice. Except that, on this night, Gérard and a colleague are met by a customs patrol up in the mountains. Shots are exchanged. Balthazar is struck in the leg. Abandoned to his fate, he wanders up onto a high pasture, like a pilgrim approaching his goal. Next day, his last moments are shared – witnessed – by a flock of sheep.
Make no mistake, this is NO Disneyesque animal movie, balancing as it does, cruelty with an implacable – yet inescapable – viewpoint. In the final reckoning, it’s as if Bresson has found the ultimate blank canvas, knowing we will project our own anthropomorphic tendencies upon it. By eschewing the trappings of what we ‘think’ of as Cinema, he reveals something new: a saintly overview.
Watching Balthazar, there were times when it felt I was witness to something profound, as if a universal truth had been revealed; one hidden in plain sight all along: isn’t Bresson telling us that we’re all enslaved, in the end? Aren’t we all as trapped by circumstance as the donkey? As bereft of options for freedom – real freedom – whatever that means?
And aren’t we all going to go out, not with bangs but with whimpers? In pastures of our own design and making? I think Balthazar is giving us permission to ‘feel’. Its human characters are all (Jacques excepted) emotional silos. They experience but do not feel. Bresson is saying that it’s okay to reach out and share. You might not have to die alone; that redemption is there for the asking. That, by living a ‘better’ life, one might be redeemed: isn’t that Balthazar’s purpose, then? To hold up a mirror to what we can’t see – or have forgotten?
And remember this: Balthazar dies surrounded by sheep; not that they know it, but they’re in the same fix. But they see him. He sees them. We see him.
We ARE him.
No need. I’ll do him in when the rains come.