Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Country life: Au Hasard Balthazar

A new-born donkey is baptised, loved, sold, beaten and cruelly abused over several years and is passed from owner to owner and, as director Robert Bresson intends, "through all the vices of humanity". Such is AU HASARD BALTHAZAR (1966) in a nutshell - what an experience to return to this which I had not seen since the 1960s.

The sheer simplicity of the tale and the presentation of the donkey from its happy days as a young foal playing with children as it grows up to be a beast of burden [as donkeys still are today] and then abused by some dispicable people, to finally it expires in a field, surrounded by sheep. Is it a parable about human nature and man's capacity for cruelty? The only love shown to the adult donkey is from Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) who is abused almost as much as Balthazar.  Balthazar, like most donkeys, suffers in silence and is finally released from suffering. I wonder how many donkeys were used and they were not ill-treated unduly - I mean that paper tied to his tail and set on fire looks authentic enough as the animal runs away ... one marvellous sequence is when he is working in a circus and we share his wonder as he stares at those other strange animals - a tiger, a bear, an elephant, a monkey - all caged.

Much has been made of the parallel between the lives of Christ and Balthazar (Bresson was a French Catholic). The donkey is baptised before suffering and dying for and at the hands of others. The narrative is elliptical; we do not at times understand what is really going on between those humans as we are treated to a litany of corruption - legal (a man is accused of fraud), social (provincial France has never seemed so mean and bleak), criminal (a gang of violent teenage smugglers), as well as a murder and suicide. . Is the brutality they mete out to each other overdone? Balthazar endures all kinds of treatment, being wilful and stubborn (well he is a donkey..., I love them) before succumbing to his destiny.

BALTHAZAR confirms Bresson's reputation as a fiercely morally-engaged director and a rigorous stylist but it is also perhaps his most sublime and lyrical film, as photographed by Ghislain Cloquet - over a period of more than six months in the Pyrenees.  Animals of course don't "act" - they simply are or can be trained to do certain actions - as I shall discuss further when commenting on De Sica's UMBERTO D before too long.
I did not care for Bresson's later films like LANCELOT DU LAC, but think I should now seek out those other highly-regarded items like his DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST, A MAN ESCAPED or PICKPOCKET. He directed 14 titles in all and had a great lifespan: 1901-1999, being a prisoner of war by the Germans in WWII.  He created a unique minimalist style in which all but the barest essentials are omitted, with mainly non-actors giving deliberately flat, expressionless performances. It's an intensely personal style, which means that his films never achieved great popularity while he was rated as one of the greatest artists in the history of cinema. AU HASARD BALTHAZAR packs it all into 90 minutes.

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