Combustible Celluloid
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With: Anne Wiazemsky, Francois Lafarge, Walter Green, Phillippe Asselin, Natalie Joyaut, Jean-Claude Guilbert
Written by: Robert Bresson
Directed by: Robert Bresson
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 95
Date: 05/25/1966

Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Beast of Burden

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Of Robert Bresson's feature films, audiences usually prefer his 1950s works: Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped and Pickpocket. Yet Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar (1966) is generally considered to be his masterpiece. Are critics merely being subversive, by deliberately avoiding the popular works, or are they onto something?

The key to Au hasard Balthazar is the donkey. Bresson introduces us to several deeply flawed humans, and we follow their actions throughout. But the donkey, Balthazar, anchors the film, and he anchors it by doing nothing. The donkey endures all kinds of suffering and/or indifference, and takes it all with the patience and endurance of a saint. In fact, Balthazar begins the film by being baptized, and by the end one character actually names him as a saint.

With his unerring patience, Bresson scrutinizes and underlines each trait displayed by the film's humans. Bresson wastes neither a single shot nor a single moment in Au hasard Balthazar, and each scene emerges as a minor miracle. Which makes the sum total an object of extraordinary glory.

Throughout the story, Balthazar changes owners several times. The first is Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), a kindly, passive girl who decorates Balthazar's muzzle with flowers.

Marie later forsakes her childhood love in favor of a no-good thug, Gerard (Francois Lafarge), who wears a leather jacket and drives a motorcycle. Gerard winds up using Balthazar in his delivery job, once lighting his tail on fire.

The town drunk (Jean-Claude Guilbert) inherits Balthazar and passes him off as a circus act, a donkey that can do times tables. Other owners whip him and bully him, or allow him to get sick or cold.

The magic of Balthazar is that he's the ultimate Bressonian character. Bresson famously used untrained actors in his films -- he called them "models" -- and purposely stripped away all vestiges of personality so that he photographed only a bare essence. With his dewy eyes, Balthazar gives absolutely no performance at all, and he effortlessly earns our sympathy. Any number of viewers can read any number of meanings into his presence.

The difference between him and us is that we're smart enough to understand our destiny without being able to control it. Balthazar has no such frustrations or illusions. He suffers, he lives and he dies. Bresson ends the film with a beautiful death scene in which Balthazar merely lays down in a field and shuts his eyes. He's surrounded by a flock of sheep, and they nuzzle around him, perhaps comforting him or perhaps accepting him.

But in the end, I was unable to forget the poor dying priest from Diary of a Country Priest, who realized: "What does it matter? Everything is grace."

DVD Details: Though Au hasard Balthazar is currently available as an import, I believe that this is the first time it has ever been released on video in the United States, including VHS and laserdisc. I've been waiting years to see it, and the payoff was worth the wait. The Criterion Collection presents the film in one of the most luminous transfers I've ever seen. Taken from the best possible source, the original camera negative, the film crackles with perfect clarity and glows with a warmth that only the most artfully composed black-and-white film can promise. The film has many fans among the critical community and among filmmakers, but no one stepped up to record a commentary track. Instead, Donald Richie (best known for his expertise in Japanese film) provides a video interview, and the disc includes a 60-minute television show from 1966 that interviews Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard, Louis Malle, the wonderful playwright Marguerite Duras, and members of the cast and crew. The disc also comes with a trailer, and the liner notes are by James Quandt, senior programmer at the Toronto Cinematheque.

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