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JULES DASSIN stupor Powered By Docstoc
					                  AU HASARD BALTHAZAR
                    - RIALTO PICTURES PRESSBOOK-


Au Hasard Balthazar remains, for me in the late Nineties, as
overwhelming an experience as when I first saw it with a rapt audience at
the 1966 New York Film Festival. In the intervenening years, nothing
has come close to the convulsive beauty of the ending, in which the long -
suffering donkey crumples to his death among a herd of sheep. Echoing
the beginning, when a baby Balthazar was suckled by his mother in the
paradisal world of childhood with a belled sheep grazing in the
background, this final image is an epiphany – that most overworked
word – 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.

Godard, interviewing Bresson, called Balthazar the “most complete”
Bresson film. That judgment, which we surely all felt at the time, has
been borne out by the subsequent films.

The two or three things we know about Bresson – his aversion to actors
and any kind of theatrical trickery, his obsession with sound and
preference for addressing the ear rather than the eye, his Christian
background and concerns – 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.

For me one of the greatest moments in Balthazar is almost parenthetical:
when the vagabond Arnold, knowing that he is dying, says farewell to the
road marker, then the telephone pole. Conversation with inanimate
objects is of course habitual with alcoholics, but Arnold’s bonding with
his surroundings acknowledges the way we all invest objects we love with
a kind of sacred life; they become precious precisely because they will
outlive us, and that is why when a loved one dies, the furniture, the
paintings, treasured objects come to seem inhabited by their spirit.

In Bresson’s shallow visual field, things and people coexist in a
nonhierarchical order, just as the sounds of life – Schubert’s beautiful
piano sonata and Balthazar’s braying – reverberate in ongoing dialogue.
We see and are more acutely aware of the backs of legs, of doors opening
and closing, than we are of faces, and when we do see faces, hands
                  AU HASARD BALTHAZAR
                    - RIALTO PICTURES PRESSBOOK-
usually precede and upstage them. Images of pale white skin next to the
rough textures of wood and stone, earth and homespun materials, the
sacred and the profane in a rhythmic jumble. Loaves of bread, coins in
the cash drawer of the boulangerie, the crisp, plain cotton of Anne
Wiazemsky’s blouse: we are always aware of the shape of her body
beneath her clothes, or the contrast between a cover – the quilt the miser
throws to her when she has removed her wet clothes – and her shivering,
pale skin, the jam that the starving girl slurps down, the way she swats
[the merchant’s] hand off her shoulder as she would a fly – not really
decisively, knowing that it will return, and she will give him what he
wants. Images of surrender – and its cousin, death – have become more
compelling than affirmations of life. One of the most painterly, and
morbid, images is that of Wiazemsky’s in the barn, in a nocturnal
reunion with Balthazar – she in a white flannel nightgown, caressing his
flower-crowned head before she allows her hand to slide along the
wooden bench for its ill fated meeting with the hoodlum Gérard’s.

In Balthazar, first a shiny pup of a donkey, then – as “les années
passent” and successive owners inflict various instruments of torture,
whips, bottles, flames on his skin – a beast of burden slow of hoof,
Bresson has found a sublime metaphor for the human condition.
Through his biblical and mythological, but always earthbound donkey,
he leads us a journey through the valley of the shadow of death, our only
insulation being that early memory of birth, baptism, and infant joy.

Andrew Sarris pointed to Bresson’s habit of holding the camera on a
scene long after the people have departed. In direct repudiation of the
theatrical tradition that dictates a stage never be empty of people,
Bresson forces us to see a world without us, and realize it will be here
long after we have gone. If Au Hasard Balthazar is the high point of
Bresson’s cinema, the figure of Balthazar is crucial to the film’s success,
enabling us to bear the vision of our own unimportance.

During the fifteen years that Bresson stored up images and experiences
that would become Balthazar, he also wanted to make a film called
Genesis, and another about St. Ignatius. He failed to do either, but
clearly much of the momentum, the hopes and thoughts of those two
projects, went into Balthazar, which embodies the story of life from the
beginning, and a saintliness unrecognized.       The parallel figure of
Wiazemsky’s Marie is more difficult to love, stubbornness and passivity
being less appealing human traits. Her coolly rendered passion for the
cruel Gérard can be exasperating, even faintly humorous, until we accept
                  AU HASARD BALTHAZAR
                    - RIALTO PICTURES PRESSBOOK-
it as kind of a calling, a voluntary martyrdom, in which she is both
architect and victim. In embracing the mortification of the flesh, she
joins the legions of saintly women who have endured, heroically,
becoming martyrs to love, or to their own need to love. Between them,
she and Balthazar cast a spell – perhaps even a stupor – transfusing us
with their patience, initiating us into the meaning of endurance.

Most artists struggle to enable us to see more clearly, to illuminate the
dark shadows of the psyche. Bresson forces us to look at the world and
confront all we don’t know – about each other, about our lives on earth.
Hiddenness is a sacred principle, his truth, opposed to what he sees as
the false clarity of professional acting, of faces thrust into the camera
giving us the illusion of psychological explanation. The most mysterious
moment, possibly in all of Bresson, is when Balthazar eyeballs the circus
animals in their cages, and we glimpse that mutual recognition that both
includes and excludes us. Like Prince Myshkin we feel the force of our
kinship with all living things, yet at the very same moment confront the
idea that they may be totally, inconceivably other. Something known

and yet unknown, reverberating from some primordial past up through
the unconscious: thus Freud’s sense of the uncanny. 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?

This final puzzle may be why Au Hasard Balthazar, Bresson’s greatest
film and one of the masterpieces of the 20th century, nevertheless has
very little to say to and about the rest of cinema. As the high priest and
conscience of French cinema, Bresson has come to occupy a place
similar to that once held by Mallarmé. The saintly and revered poet,
though he wrote and published little, exercised an enormous influence
on his fellow Symbolists, who were attempting to create an art that
aspired to the music. Indefiteness was the goal – in the sense of not
supplying meaning, but inviting readers to see and imagine for
themselves. The search for purity, even the use of symbols as a disguise
rather than a direct transmission of ideas, seems of a piece with the
austere aesthetic Bresson has followed. If it is not a path that leads to a
greater understanding of our existence, it does take us up a steep
mountainside of artistic and spiritual expression that leaves us giddy
and lightheaded with a feeling of discovery. – excerpted from Film
Comment, June/July 1999

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