SteelCity99's Movie Review of Au hasard Balthazar

Rating of

Au hasard Balthazar

Au Hasard Balthazar
SteelCity99 - wrote on 04/28/18

Before the French New Wave could be formally established, a director named Robert Bresson suddenly appears for the sake of French cinema and starts to consolidate his overwhelmingly unusual direction style, a style that would earn him worldwide recognition and a strong Catholic sensation throughout his filmography that first began in 1951 with his film Journal d'un Curé de Campagne (1951) and that would be utterly strengthened with a possibly intentional human condition trilogy consisting of his three most powerful masterpieces: Pickpocket (1959), Au Hasard Balthazar and Mouchette (1967). Au Hasard Balthazar is arguably his definite and most representative cinematic masterwork and his most emotionally compelling piece of work. Representing the second part of a trilogy, Bresson, perhaps forcedly, attempts to create an epiphany and self-reflection for the film's varied and challenging audience through an element that could be related to the religion of Catholicism and that could easily be a reflection (or a clear representation) of purity, innocence and transcendence, a main purpose that would be mirrored with the character Mouchette in his next film.

Intentionally, Au Hasard Balthazar follows the story of an unfairly mistreated donkey, initially christened under the name of Balthazar, that goes through different hardships it inevitably has to face as it is being passed from owner to owner, becoming a beast of burden. Its chaotic events that lack all sense of peace and justice are paralleled with those of Marie, the first owner of Balthazar, who also is brutally injured, physically and psychologically, by the force of fate. Robert Bresson won the OCIC Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1966.

Bresson's seemingly simple direction style can be justly classified as an underlying epitome of giant dramatic proportions rather than unrealistically dull. His beautifully composed frames and almost surrealistically written screenplays consequently represent the complexity of life itself, a life that tends to be crueler and more complicated as our own preconception tends to perceive it. Perhaps unconsciously having directing characteristics of the ones Jean Cocteau (La Belle et la Bête [1946], Orphée [1950]) and Henri-Georges Clouzot (Le Salaire de la Peur [1953], Les Diaboliques [1955]) possessed, Bresson focuses more on the plot development and the catastrophic consequences that human actions tend to attract, whether we are ready to accept them or not. Just as the proudly European filmmaker Bresson is, his greatly noticeable Catholic influence is used as a positively cooperative factor that only serves to enlighten its shocking, but true message. Purity and innocence will have everlasting life.

The witty and skillful editing present in Pickpocket (1959) is finally simplified, but beautified at the same time, contrasting its natural fluency with an even improved cinematography, thanks to the remarkable work of Ghislain Cloquet (Nuit et Brouillard [1955], Love and Death [1975]). A most poetical soundtrack is offered for the first time within Bresson's filmography, resorting to both cinematic classical music and the Piano Sonata No. 20, by Franz Schubert, an unusual technique considering the director. This element only helped to heighten the honesty of the feature film, contrasting the modern times (in the case of the film, the 60's) with rural landscapes depicting a simpler life, yet also irrevocably corrupted, thus daringly portraying the human nature. Once more, Bresson seeks naturalness in his cast formed by nonprofessional actors. Curiously enough, the performances did not end up in stiffness and unrealism, but in honesty and fully developed characters, including the untrained donkey, an animal that became a real challenge for the director to handle.

Stepping aside from the French New Wave in a similar way Alain Resnais (Hiroshima mon Amour [1959], L'Année Dernière à Marienbad [1961]) did, Bresson intended to construct an influential and independent oeuvre. Passing from Dostoyevskyan literary inspirations to the undeniable power of the true religion, Au Hasard Balthazar is no more than a powerful essay on saintliness and Catholicism, not mentioning a project that passionately supported transcendence and virtue. Without being a strictly religious film, the donkey Balthazar is used as an element of injustice, resembling a Christlike figure, a living being that suffered and was mistreated thanks to the sins of man, but that bravely and nobly accepts its unstoppable destiny. Marie is not a character name being by coincidence, since such statement is strengthened by the fact that Marie is its first owner, the one that baptized Balthazar and is inevitably separated from his "son". The fortitude of the easily corruptible human soul is masterly mirrored by an animal, leading to the conclusion that human beings are animal beings as well from a biological (and spiritual) point of view, despite our ability to develop intellect. It is this same intellect and exaggerated feeling of self-empowerment the one that leads to a catastrophic corruption of the spirit, thus executing a fascist and manipulative will over those individuals that, under our false and pretentious perspective, are inferior to us.

As a part of a trilogy, it is a very interesting chapter. Culminating with one of the most beautiful endings ever filmed along with Mouchette (1967), Au Hasard Balthazar has two very different protagonists. Whereas the fate of Marie is left unclear, the fate of Balthazar is not, a fate that is completely surrounded by a Gospel-like symbolic connotation where the lambs seemingly accompany Balthazar in a heartbreaking ending sequence. People are described by Jesus as confused lambs without a shepherd, being God the shepherd of his sons. Mary does not accompany Jesus during his passion; Marie departs ways with Balthazar. Whereas Michel's fate in Pickpocket (1959) is also left to uncertainty, Mouchette's fate is tragically shown on the face of the spectator in a wonderful parable form of trial and error. Skeptical people also sought Jesus in order to see Him perform miracles and understand what they were not meant to understand, Faith being a concept that surpassed their comprehension. Balthazar is, in one particular sequence, used as a form of circus entertainment and amazement.

As an obvious middle chapter and certainly the most reflexive, Bresson wrote and directed a powerful commentary against the non-modifiable influence of a surrounding society, no matter where it is located. It is the saintliness and the strength of the human spirit the one that can be used as the most powerful and non-harmful weapon against a world that has already submitted itself to sadism and injustice. That is why Au Hasard Balthazar is one of the most heartbreaking and influential French films of all time. Ultimately, it is an unforgettable movie and a strikingly prophetic filmmaking sample of Claude Berri's Jean de Florette (1986).


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