Monday, April 11, 2011

Au hazard Balthazar (1966)

Au hasard Balthazar is the kind of film that gives art films a bad rap.  It is stoic and remote; none of the characters can express themselves and the only redeeming quality of the film is that Balthazar is an attractive donkey.  The film chronicles Balthazar’s life, from his young days to death, and we bear witness to the many cruelties inflicted upon him.  The concept is fantastic: examining life through the lifespan of an animal, but the execution is dull—painfully dull and pretentious.

I guess the main human character is called Marie.  As a girl she was friends, or even soul mates, with the son of the first owner of Balthazar, named Jacques.  When the owner’s daughter dies that summer, the family leaves, and Marie and her Father, caretaker of the land, are left to themselves.  Balthazar’s talents as a fieldworker are rendered useless with modern technology and he’s passed around several members of the community.  He carries bread to neighbors, guided by a mean young man named Gérard who becomes the villain of the story.  It is primarily in his scenes where the film displays a surprising lack of story development.  For one thing, every “villain” is always portrayed as a villain.  They’re never human.  Gérard rapes the grown up Marie.  This part I could relate to.  Marie, waiting for the boy who loved her long ago, the one who has disappeared, now accepts her fate with this loser.  It made sense because of her family background.  Her father is a proud, repressed man who turns down every opportunity for prosperity.  Someone takes his daughter’s virginity and the girl is so oppressed that she initially mistakes his rape as a form of love.

However, in addition Gérard harasses a drunkard throughout the film; he trashes a bar, steals, and is rude to everybody, including Marie.  I know people like this exist, but the film never allows him any other facets to his character.  He is always just bad.  Marie, after becoming a prostitute and destroying her family’s reputation, has her outlook on life changed.  She is dead on the inside, and when Jacques returns, she agrees to marry him after confessing her past sins.  Gérard and his cronies strip her naked and beat her.  Her father and new fiancée catch the men who abuse her but they don’t react to them.  They just stare into the window as Marie cries while the men get away.  In real life I would think their initial reaction is anger and they would want to kill these guys before even checking if Marie was okay.  But Au hasard Balthazar never plays fair.  It prefers to stylize its characters’ emotions to create a pseudo-artsy mood.  Another example: when her husband is about to die, Marie’s mother prays to God not to take him away.  Her words or rather her diction lacks any sincerity.  She’s just saying lines.  If the villains fare badly in Au hasard Balthazar, the bystanders are clueless, and the innocent are naïve and brain-dead.

Another thing that bugged me: I had to struggle to understand the relationships between the characters in the film.  They seldom speak, even more rarely do they speak to each other.  They don’t address one another by name or relation.  I didn’t know until the end that the old woman was Marie’s mother.  She’s so cold and distant in her earlier scenes that I figured her for the maid.  Only when she prays for her husband’s life did I understand.  My feeling constantly was that Bresson needed to lighten up.

Ingmar Bergman is one of the few artistic filmmakers.  He’s not really remembered today outside film circles.  In both “The Simpsons” and “Animaniacs”, two terrific satirical cartoons from the 90s, the most famous image from Persona—Liv Ullmann in extreme close-up in the foreground, Bibi Andersson facing her screen position in the background—has been parodied.  In both of the parodies, the characters speak in a fashion similar to the characters in Balthazar.  This really sums up the mainstream’s impressions of art films.  The reality is that Bergman was a very passionate writer / director.  Persona, and in particular the described scene, has so much humanity and sadness and the stoic mood generalized on it is the result of bad art films like this one.

I have to admit that this is the first Robert Bresson film I’ve seen.  My first few Godard films led to my initial negative opinion of the director, but as I discovered more of his work I gained new insights into JLG, and now I find Godard’s work fascinating, if still uneven.  Perhaps the same will happen with Bresson.  I will say though I was not impressed with Au hasard Balthazar.

I have something cruel to confess.  About halfway through the film when it became embarrassingly obvious that the donkey was going to eventually die, I kept waiting for Balthazar to kick the bucket.  Yes, the animal was cute and I didn’t like seeing him abused, but I was more depressed that I was watching a boring movie rather than at anything that was happening on the screen.  It felt like the movie would never end.  Then, in the final shots when Balthazar closes his eyes and finds his way to the ground, I was kind of struck, more so because an animal was dying than because of the journey the film took me on.

One final complaint, something I never understood.  Why were Gérard and his buddies always borrowing or stealing Balthazar?  It made no sense logically.  A heavy, slow donkey isn’t really the best animal to assist in a robbery.  Perhaps Gérard’s actions were meant to be symbolic.  I didn’t have the patience with this film to care.

Au hasard Balthazar (1966)
Director: Robert Bresson
Writer: Robert Bresson
Stars: Anne Wiazemsky, Walter Green and Francois Lafarge
In French
Runtime: 95 minutes

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1 comment:

  1. What?! Artistic films have a bad reputation, because they are mainly bad and utterly stupid, like ''artists'' themselves. I don't see this film as pretentious, I wouldn't even say it is artistic, because the sole word has a bad connotation for me. It is just a film, a visualized emotion and the absence of one.

    P.S. Is there such a thing as ''serious criticism''?