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« Moviegoing Update 1 -- "In the Cut" | Main | Moviegoing: "Kill Bill" »

November 03, 2003

Moviegoing Update 2 -- "Au Hasard, Balthazar"

Dear Friedrich --

I still make it to the art cinema occasionally. Are you ever nostalgic for the days of the Bleecker Street, the Thalia, and the Regency? Film History, eh?


Au Hasard, Balthazar: We caught up with this Robert Bresson movie at the Film Forum. It was probably the first Bresson I'd seen since college, and I was surprised by how happy I was to be sitting there watching a bleak, black and white movie about faith.

This is the famous (among hardcore film buffs, anyway) 1966 film that's mainly about a donkey. I hadn't remembered how orthodox a French Catholic Bresson was; the film is straightforwardly an attempt to make something like a medieval allegory about human degradation and our need for grace. The donkey represents our animal nature, humans are the most vicious and selfish of all the beasts, and pop culture is blasphemy against God and love. And that's it -- nothing more or less.

It's a vision I find dismal and ungenerous, and there's a side of the movie that made me want to whip the filmmaker; when the human actors torment the poor donkey by kicking him or tying a flaming newspaper to his tail, Bresson shows them actually doing these things -- no fakery or fancy cutting. Calling 1-800-ASPCA: some animals were definitely hurt in the course of making this film. But (this isn't a justification) all this is very, very French Catholic too -- you torture the beast until it yields something transcendent, which you then adore. I kept thinking of the French love of submission, tears, and martyrdom, and of the way they stuff geese in order to create foie gras. The donkey here finally becomes a saint, by the way.

All that said, I was touched and moved to be watching the film. As you know, Bresson -- who's famous for his elliptical style, the intensity of his faith, and his austerity of means -- is one of those landmark filmmakers whose work you simply have to have seen. He's like Bergman, Welles or Fellini in that way. It doesn't really matter whether you like his movies or not; if you want to know the extremes of style that the cinema has been pushed to, you simply have to have seen a few of them.

For me, watching the movie was like revisiting my hometown. I felt tender feelings; I enjoyed spending a few hours back in Film History-land. For a while, I remembered that I'd once really loved movies. But I also found "Au Hasard" a very beautiful (if semi-intolerable) movie. I loved the way it was thought out in classic movie-language terms, and I loved its expressive pacing. I found it fascinating to watch Bresson's muffled, hooded way of shooting and cutting, and the awkward, plain style he imposed on his performers. I may never get the spiritual high that true Bresson freaks get from his movies, but I'm still attached enough to Film History to find it funny-sad that kids are becoming filmmakers these days without having seen a Bresson movie.

If Amazon is right, the only Bresson on DVD is "Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne" (buyable here), though there are a whole bunch of his movies available on videocassette. Which would you suggest that a Bresson newcomer start with? I guess I'd recommend "Mouchette" (here) or "A Man Escaped" (here) myself. Here's a good, brief intro to Bresson and his work by Alex Jacoby.



posted by Michael at November 3, 2003


I wouldn't say I loved Bresson, but you're right--there's something terrific about the deliberateness of a Bresson movie. (He hit some kind of artistic Pareto Optimum there--if you want to get more of one quality, you have to give up some of another.) I got a kind of a kick out of Pickpocket. Do you remember seeing Lancelot du lac with me or is my memory going? I remember very striking shots of armored knights swinging broadswords and knocking off their enemies heads, helmets and all. It sounds sensationalistic, but it was anything but, and certainly a more anti-"realistic" treatment is impossible to conceive of. I'd actually like to see more Bresson if I could swing it; I never saw "The Diary of a Country Priest" or "Mouchette."

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 4, 2003 1:00 AM

I've seen two and a bit of Bresson's films, those being Country Priest, A Man Escaped and a bit of Mouchette. Based on my experience of those and what I've read about Bresson's other films, I've been generally content to bypass his oeuvre. That said, when Lancelot du Lac was screened on TV here recently, I decided I should probably watch it just to see if I'm missing out on something, so I somewhat grudgingly put a tape in the VCR to tape it (I was busy doing something else at the time, no doubt pissfarting about online). I still haven't watched it, months later, and I have no idea what tape it's on. Likely as not I've taped over it.

Posted by: James Russell on November 4, 2003 4:06 AM

Mr. Russell:

I wasn't suggesting that Lancelot du lac was one of Bresson's better movies; I've forgotten more or less everything except those decapitation shots, which, oddly, I remember probably once a month.

Michael Blowhard:

What do you think the French of the current day think of a filmmaker like Bresson? If he was still alive and kicking, could he get a movie like Au Hasard, Balthasar made today? Somehow, it seems unlikely, although I'm sure he worked on a tiny budget even in the 1960s.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 4, 2003 9:29 AM

Godard got "Eloge de L'Amour" made in 2001. So I suspect the government-controlled French film industry could still finance something like "Au Hazard Balthasar" as well. But among French filmmakers, who would have the chops (and the audacity) to make it?

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on November 4, 2003 2:39 PM

I saw Lancelot du Lac when it first came to this country, about a million years ago, part of an extended French movie binge. Bresson appeared to want to grind away whatever romanticism anyone might have about knights and Arthurian legends, and I remember that both my then girlfriend and I felt thoroughly ground after watching it. Does anyone else remember the continual and loud clanking that accented every movement by a knight in the movie?

Posted by: Rashomon on November 4, 2003 6:33 PM

FvB -- Bam, crash, clonk. Remember how "Lancelot" ended with the final knight collapsing on top of a heap of dead knights in armor? The image seemed meant to make us think of a junkpile. Part of what was fun about seeing "Au Hasard" for me was how different it was to be watching a Bresson movie at my age than it was to watch one as a college kid. Back then, what mattered all too much to me was whether I liked it or not (and to my shame I remember spending time ridiculing "Lancelot"). These days, my opinion doesn't matter nearly as much to me as it once did. It's just part of the experience, rather than the defining thing of the experience. So I found "Au Hasard" much more fascinating for itself -- you're right, Bresson does a certain thing about as far and well as that thing can be done. Let me know how you react if you do get around to watching one. The Bresson videocassettes on sale at Amazon aren't all that expensive -- 20 bucks or so, the cost of two adults at the cineplex.

James -- But you actually saw a few Bressons. You know what the Bresson thing is. That puts you many clicks up on today's typical film buff. You've had the experience and tasted the style and its results. Your horizons are broader and your range of references is more solid. Good things, no?

Tim -- Did Godard get his financing from the French state? I thought I'd read many accounts of how he was scaring money up from this backer and that backer. And isn't he a Swiss citizen? But maybe the French consider him a national treasure or something. Anyway, I'll check out the upcoming bio and let you know.

Rashomon -- "Lancelot" was all inexpressive clanking and clonking, wasn't it? I'm trying to remember a movie I saw 25ish years ago ... And the masks of armor hiding the expressions of the performer even more than Bresson usually did. Didn't the knights seldom take their armor off in the movie too? A fascinating, weird, manical movie...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 4, 2003 6:59 PM

That's Anna Wiazemsky in the picture with the donkey, by the way. I think this was her first movie. If I remember right, she was the niece (or some such) of the novelist Francois Mauriac, went on to star in Godard's "La Chinoise," and was one of the kids who helped radicalize Godard. (I seem to remember that she was a philosophy student and that Godard was always hungry to be instructed in philosophy.) I forget if she and Godard had a romance or not. Anyway, looking at her, is anyone else struck by how much she resembles Shelly Duvall? Kind of a luscious, David Hamilton-ish, coltish version of Shelly Duvall?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 4, 2003 7:15 PM

Did Godard get his financing from the French state?

Now that I think about it, probably not -- if the French government had financed the film, it might well have provoked an international incident. The primary governmental controls on the French film industry involve quotas on foreign imports, which is why so many French films are mediocre (they know they won't have to compete against anything).

The French still consider Godard and Bresson national treasures -- even though, now that you mention it, I seem to recall something about Godard's becoming a Swiss citizen, too.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on November 4, 2003 11:08 PM

something about Godard's becoming a Swiss citizen, too

He apparently became one during WW2 (his mother was Swiss). I was under the impression for years he was actually born in Switzerland, but IMDB insists he was born in Paris.

Posted by: James Russell on November 6, 2003 4:35 AM

A quote from the upcoming Colin MacCabe bio of Godard: "It would be hard to overemphasize the extent to which Godard is both French and Swiss, both a cultured and cosmopolitan member of elite Parisian society and a solid Swiss burgher." MacCabe says that Godard was born in Paris but grew up in the Swiss canton of Vaud. More later, when I actually get around to reading the book...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 6, 2003 11:38 AM

Or rather if I happen to get around to reading the book ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 6, 2003 3:28 PM

Just saw Au Hasard, Balthazar in restored 35mm print, new subtitles, the works at American Film Institute in Silver Spring MD. HATED THE FILM. More accurately, hated the story. No, that's too mild -- I despised it. What the hell do people see in this depressing, morose, one-dimensional suicide note? All of the characters are so one-dimensional: the girl acts retarded, her bad boy boyfriend is completely evil for completely inexplicable reasons, the donkey suffers irredemebly for the sins of mankind BUT TO NOBODYS PROFIT. A coldhearted film, with no message of redemption, none of the cathartic insight into suffering that comes with good tradgedy. Just a portrait of a bunch of clueless, blind, ignorant sinners whistling past their graves.

Posted by: markus rose on February 17, 2004 1:47 PM

Saw Lancelot du Lac at last (it was on TV again last night).


I can't say that I hated it because there was nothing to hate. There was, frankly, nothing at all... lots of shots of legs, lots of clanking armour, no passion whatsoever (I am with the IMDB commenter who said this is a story full of emotion, so why doesn't Bresson let anyone express any? The person playing Gawain is particularly bad on this count). If there was some sort of "spiritual high" to be had from the film, I'll be damned if I could see where it was.

Posted by: James Russell on April 4, 2004 11:21 PM

Anyone know where I can buy this movie on DVD?

Posted by: Anne on April 9, 2004 2:18 PM

I agree with the first reviewers' writings about "Au Hasard, Balthazar," which I finally had the opportunity to see this weekend. Though I am lucky enough to live near Boston, where the Harvard Film Archive recently did a special series on Bresson, I had never had the opportunity to see "Balthasar," which is, of course, absolutely legendary.

I found this movie touching, thoughtful-provoking and remarkable in a way that I have found few movies and I heartily recommend it to anyone who may have the opportunity to see a newly restored version that's making it's way around the country.

In reading up on Bresson, it quickly becomes clear that a particular strain of French Catholicism -- Jansenism -- influenced all of his work, but probably nothing more than "Balthasar." One key aspect of this strain of Catholicism stresses man's distance from God, and the pettiness, selfishness and sloth depicted alongside Balthasar register loud and clear. At the same time, there is clearly a Christ allegory happening with Balthasar, and in fact, the donkey dies for man's sins at the end. At least, that's why I think...

Posted by: Lou on April 11, 2004 11:31 PM

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