Sunday, October 11, 2015
Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)
In his book Watching Them Be, James Harvey calls Au Hasard Balthazar "probably the greatest movie I've ever seen," and goes on to quote a number of others, including Jean-Luc Godard, who pretty much agree with him. I can't deny the movie's excellence, though I wouldn't quite go as far as Harvey does. It's a film that will try your patience unless you're willing to take Bresson on his own terms, which means not spelling anything out explicitly about his characters and their relationships. You're left to surmise a great deal about what they're doing and why. In fact, the only character in the film who gets a more or less fully fleshed-out story line is Balthazar himself, and he's a donkey. As usual, the performers are people we've never seen before on screen, and as usual with Bresson, that works out well, especially in the case of Anne Wiazemsky, who plays Marie. Only 19 when she made the film, she brings a freshness and vulnerability to her role that radiates through the deadpan non-acting that Bresson imposed on his performers. (The following year, she made La Chinoise with Godard -- which may help explain the extent of his enthusiasm for Balthazar -- and became his second wife after his divorce from Anna Karina.) I happen to be somewhat averse to films that center on animals, particularly if they carry the symbolic freight that Balthazar (whom one character refers to as "a saint") does, but even I couldn't help being touched by his story. This was Bresson's first film with Ghislain Cloquet as cinematographer, and the contrast with his previous film, The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), shot by his longtime director of photography, Léonce-Henri Burel, is startling. Burel tended to follow Bresson's lead in providing austere images for austere stories, whereas Cloquet brings a romantic edge to his work. I think it only emphasizes the purity of Bresson's intentions.