Friday, March 06, 2009

Au hasard, Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)

(Some old articles I never got around to publishing; a couple of more Bressons in the following weeks)

Gift of a Magi

What's so remarkable about Au hasard, Balthazar is that Bresson uses the simplest things--a donkey; a girl; a camera that tends to look at things askance; some piano music--and with them creates (as Godard puts it) the whole world, or about as beautiful and complex an evocation of that world as anything I've ever seen.

Bresson eschews most special effects, most camera moves, uses only one lens for the entire film (50 mm), doesn't resort to surrealism or trick cutting or even makeup, yet what he creates is as immediate as anything by de Sica or Rosellini, and as strange as anything by Bunuel or Godard. His lead actress hardly twitches a muscle throughout the film, yet you feel you know her inside out; his lead actor--a donkey--has at most a pair of darkly liquid eyes and a head of unkempt fur yet you're moved by his predicament, and ultimate fate.

Bresson throws in the story of a man accused of murder who comes to believe he is guilty (even if he isn't), and it's of a piece, as integrated into the film as if the film had wrapped roots around the man's story and just kept on growing into maturity. From an encounter between an old miller and the film's heroine (insomuch as the film actually has a heroine) Bresson manages to sketch an outline of the girl's father without the man being present, just the miller contrasting the father's philosophy against his own (honor vs. material wealth; pride vs. avarice); with every word he speaks the miller condemns her father's philosophy, then, for good measure, his own. In the end the girl succumbs to the miller, corrupt and decrepit as he is, partly because she must (he's taking her in for the night), partly because it appeals to her sense of perversity, her need for degradation. All this psychologically plausible, the simplest realism, yet somehow poetic, stylized, cinematic.

Bresson believes he's trying for a film where everything "is in its place," and cites the story of Bach reacting to a student admirer, saying what he does is not all that special: he just hits a note at the right time, and the organ does the rest. Bresson claims to be doing the same infuriatingly simple, mysterious act: he points the camera, then glues the resulting footage together. The projector, or so he would like you to think, does the rest.

The classic reading of the film is that the donkey stands for Christ, and all who abuse it are the sinners of the world. Recent critics think otherwise: the village folks' cruelty and vice, the village priest's ineffectuality contradict a strictly Christian interpretation and suggest, among other things, that the donkey is more the victim of an unfeeling materialist world. Bresson immerses us in the textures and sounds--the materials, in effect--of that world, presenting to us through Ghislain Clouquet's crystalline photography the rough weave of the characters' clothes, the crudely hewn rocks that make up their houses; his soundtrack emphasizes specific sounds--clacking cart wheels, clanking chains, Balthazar's defiant, pathetic bray.

If I may throw in my own two centavos (into a pot probably brimming over with currency): Balthazar's behavior in the film is like a base line for all living creatures; the animal acts the way man would act, bereft of human intelligence and given only a basic level of consciousness--move when able, resist when tired, ignore pain when struck, flee when the pain is unbearable. Simple yet, I would say, sane.

The donkey reacts as any animal would react; everyone else reacts differently, self-destructively you might say, because they're cursed with self-conscious intelligence and are capable of doing things against their immediate interest. They are for much of their lives insane, and the film continually compares the donkey's behavior with theirs to sometimes comical, sometimes tragic, effect. The girl sleeps around, her father refuses to compromise, the boy who loves her allows himself to be humiliated, the boy she loves is allowed to humiliate her, the accused man drinks heavily, the miller counts his virtues as covetously as he does his money; through it all Balthazar ambles along, a braying, four-legged condemnation of humanity's perverse craziness. If the donkey dies, that's because the world itself, or the part of it infested by human civilization, has gone mad, and no sane, sensible creature can long survive in it.

August 26, 2007

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