The Passion of the Donkey: Au Hasard Balthazar

donkeyI’ve been slow to get around to writing a review of Robert Bresson’s 1966 Au Hasard Balthazar, recently reissued theatrically in a brand-new print. The film opened March 19th for a limited run at the Varsity in Seattle.

In truth, it isn’t much fun to pan a film that’s seemingly the object of universal adoration. Certainly the denizens of a particular kind of universe adore it. “The most tragic and sublime cinematic passage I know,” gushes J. Hoberman of The Village Voice. Hoberman continues: “Bresson’s supreme masterpiece and one of the greatest movies ever made.” Jean-Luc Godard proclaims Balthazar, “…one of the most significant events of the cinema.” (What Godard doesn’t say is that he later married this film’s leading lady Anne Wiazemsky, a factor that possibly contributed to its significance for him.) And Molly Haskell, whose rave review from a 1999 issue of Film Comment is excerpted at length in the Balthazar press packet, hails Bresson’s effort as “one of the masterpieces of the 20th-century.” Other critics whose sensibilities repeatedly elude or run counter to mine (Manohla Dargis, Amy Taubin, Andrew Sarris) all chime in with a laudatory quote or a declaration that Balthazar belongs on some ultimate, cosmic, for-eternity top-10 list.

So, why then do I find Au Hasard Balthazar a work of overwhelming banality? I greatly admire Bresson’s 1950 film Diary of a Country Priest. The above-stated accolades might justly be affixed to this earlier work. Constant suffering runs rampant in both films, yet the miseries endured by the country priest and his flock were rooted in character, in situations, and in a sense of what David Hume calls inexplicable mystery. By marked contrast, Balthazar stockpiles improbabilities and atrocities; it’s a bunch of stick figures being mean to one another.

A clue to this film’s egregious one-dimensionality lurks in some of the answers Bresson gave in an early 1970s interview with the critic Charles Thomas Samuels. (This, too, has been reprinted in the press kit; laypersons, consult your public library for Samuels’s invaluable anthology Encountering Directors, which features sit-downs with De Sica, Renoir, and many others besides Bresson.) Noting that, “Something new enters your films in Balthazar,” Samuels muses aloud whether that ingredient might be Bresson’s “hatred for the modern world” or an “impulse to judge the age.” The auteur replies: “No. I don’t judge; I only show. Or rather, I show how the world makes me feel now.”

The world, in 1965, ‘66, must have made Bresson, hardly an optimist on human nature from the start, into one angry, unhappy camper. He bookends the film with scenes of pastoral bliss. In the first, children baptize a beautiful, gentle young donkey. They anoint his head in the name of the father, the son, etc. One youngster feeds Balthazar a few grains while reciting, “Receive the salt of wisdom.” At the end, a much aged Balthazar, having endured a lifetime of being beaten, whipped, set on fire, shot at, and forced to listen to bad French pop on a tinny transistor radio, lays down and peacefully dies in a meadow as a flock of sheep graze on either side of his fallen form. This latter instance does make a lovely scene—Ghislain Cloquet splendidly photographs the film in black and white—but I was responding less to Hoberman’s notion of sublimity than I was to relief that the torture fest had finally ended.

Most of the movie consists of a motorcycle gang assaulting the donkey as well as plying their trade on assorted humans. Early on, after Bresson stages a few of their pranks (greasing the roads to watch cars skid into each other) the director displays these thugs in church where, of course, their ringleader Gerard, clad in holy robes, sings at the altar. Nothing obvious about that use of irony. Gerard, a smirky, abusive prig, soon takes a cruel interest in Marie, one of the children who blessed Balthazar. Now grown, in body if not in mind, Marie accepts his advances stoically. One of the other children from that now long-ago baptism, Jacques, still loves Marie as he did when they were childhood sweethearts. The remote Marie, who’s something of a dumb animal herself, can barely respond to Jacques, and Bresson completely muffles what should be a clearly drawn delineation of how their once-close families fissured into antipathy. We’re told something about a lawsuit, then Bresson drops it until much later, and it’s impossible not to sense that the writer-director really doesn’t give a damn about plausibility—he just wants to put demons on the screen.

Jacques disappears for a long stretch, only to return for a late encounter with his former girlfriend. (A wooden bench outside the decaying family manse still bears their initials carved into it from when they were kids.) Marie, who impassively accepts being raped and degraded by Gerard, sets-up Jacques for humiliation. She listens to his affirmations of love for her and questions him over and over whether he can or will take her as she is. When he answers yes to all her rhetorical devices, she states to the effect, “Well, Jacques, I could never marry a man who isn’t appalled by what I’ve become.” Or to paraphrase Groucho Marx, Marie wouldn’t join a club that would have her for a member. Watching this rug-pull-out-from-under interrogation, I couldn’t imagine why Jacques—so clean and handsome and decent—would still want Marie when she so mechanically condemns him for loving her. As with the violent punk briefly glimpsed singing in church, there’s something too blatant and pat in Bresson’s assessment of society. Marie isn’t a character; she’s a vacuous mouthpiece for unearned cynicism. (The fact that the talent-free Anne Wiazemsky, who plays this cipher, vaguely resembles the equally wispy Scarlett Johansson doesn’t help: guilt by visual association.)

Another example of Au Hasard Balthazar’s wandering ludicrousness: Gerard, after terrorizing a number of beings, receives a summons from the police. A myopic old woman (she doesn’t have a name—the credits list her as “the baker’s wife”) who unaccountably believes in Gerard’s worth, supplying him with money and presents, tells him to make a run for it, to cross the border by night. Savvy Gerard, knowing full well that local law enforcement is a farce, parades down to the precinct with his gang in tow. The youths are booked, then promptly let go. At the police station, we’re introduced to Arnold, a pale, thin, hermit-like drunk who’s supposed to be a farmer. Something he says to the police detective gets the boys set free, and as his reward, the gang follows him to the countryside where they administer several swift kicks and blows to this frail-framed vagabond. (I have to wonder if these images influenced Kubrick in bringing Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange to the screen a scant 5 years later.) An even more over-the-top sequence transpires when Arnold suddenly comes into a huge and unexpected inheritance, then dies after a single night of drunken revels. In case we’re missing any points about the debasement of humankind, Bresson has Gerard smash the bar they’re debauching in to smithereens. Every bottle and mirror smashed in close-up. Gee, don’t you get it?

Except for those opening and closing scenes of serenity, everything about Au Hasard Balthazar is attitudinizing, distasteful, and dishonest. It’s an ax in search of something to grind.

Yet you can appreciate neither the awfulness of the film nor the Emperor’s New Clothes lunacy of its admirers, unless you’ve read Molly Haskell’s afore-referenced panegyric in the June/July 1999 Film Comment.

Beginning with that last scene wherein a savagely mistreated Balthazar gives up the (holy?) ghost among the sheep, his torn gray coat in arresting contrast to their white, cottony fleece, Miss Haskell declares, “…this final image is an epiphany…in its true religious sense. The accumulated agonies of a lifetime find release as the donkey dies for our sins and the Divine is revealed to man, with an emotional immediacy that is guaranteed to awaken the dormant Christian in anyone who’s ever passed over the baptismal font on the way to secular perdition in the loss of faith.”

That’s quite a mouthful. First of all, Bresson’s idiotic appropriation of Christian symbolism is as nonsensically pasted-on as Gerard’s victorious viciousness. The donkey dies for our sins? The donkey… is Jesus? (It’s hard to tell who’s the bigger put-on artist—Miss Haskell or Bresson.) And how and where is the Divine revealed? As for “emotional immediacy,” Bresson’s method here can only be named willful obfuscation. “Guaranteed to awaken” is hack writing; my infinitely dormant Christianity experienced not so much as a ripple. And how many prepositional phrases can Miss Haskell awkwardly cram into a single sentence anyway?

Her ineptitude in thought and expression continues: “The two or three things we know about Bresson [her play on a Godard title registers as pedantic, not clever] are so singular and distinctive that we feel we ought to be able to erect a scaffolding from which to view and understand and classify all of his work.” If you can understand and classify Miss Haskell’s sentence, then surely you deserve your own scaffolding. Leaving aside the why of “we feel we ought to be able to erect,” how does prose of this disorder find its unedited path into Film Comment?

I could cite several more examples of this drivel. Let me conclude, though, with Miss Haskell’s statements about the martyred donkey’s brief career as a circus act, “…when Balthazar eyeballs the circus animals in their cages, and we glimpse that mutual recognition that both includes and excludes us…We are on the threshold of understanding everything, and are then confounded by mystery. It is a moment beyond words, so lucid, so familiar, yet so unrevealing. The way Balthazar pricks up his ears at certain moments: Does he know more than us? Does he hear the music of the spheres?”

Most of my readers can probably guess how I would answer those last two questions. Suffice to say, the film’s limitless appeal to poseurs (The Stranger’s Charles Mudede also heralds Au Hasard Balthazar as a masterpiece) should be evident. – NPT

March 21, 2004