"Acting is for the theater, which is a bastard art." - Robert Bresson
Robert Bresson (1901-1999) produced one of the most singular and challenging bodies of work in the history of cinema. He ruthlessly flensed all the extraneous components from his films until only the most essential elements remained. Bresson's films are austere, meticulous and precise; the term "minimalism" does not do them justice, they can only be described as "Bressonian." Some view his films as slow and arduous while others see them as the "purest" movies ever made: the Bresson cult is a fanatical one, to say the least, and I proudly count myself as a member.
One of the most controversial and intriguing aspects of Bresson's work is his approach to acting. Bresson did not employ actors but rather used "models" – non-professional actors who he trained to speak and act as inexpressively as possible. The typical Bresson model has a blank, impassive look ("the Bresson face") and moves slowly and deliberately. Bresson shot numerous takes in order to exhaust his actors so that their lines and actions would become as mechanical and automatic as possible. He sought a performance style devoid of inflection; a model does not "look longingly" but merely looks, does not "stand nervously" but merely stands; the goal was action, not acting (method actors need not apply). Even in highly emotional moments, the characters speak and act perfunctorily, and sometimes their detachment seems at direct odds with the events being depicted. Furthermore, Bresson filmed these automaton-like models in flat, frontal stagings (almost always using a 50mm lens) with only minimal camera movement. These elements lend all his films, no matter when they are set, an early medieval quality.
What was Bresson's purpose in draining all the traditional elements of drama from his films? Critic James Quandt describes it best: "(Bresson) produced a cinema of paradox, in which the denial of emotion creates emotionally overwhelming works (and) minimalism becomes plenitude." Fanatical restraint and precision unleashes depths of feeling that cannot be accessed through standard drama and pathos, or at least that was his belief. The non-actor models are crucial to this endeavor; any signs of theatrical, self-conscious acting will break the spell.
Bresson found his ideal model in Balthazar, the donkey who is the protagonist of "Au hasard Balthazar" (1966), a central work by one of the greatest directors in the history of the cinema. Jean-Luc Godard famously claimed that the film was "the world in an hour and a half," and it could also be described as the world in a donkey's eyes. Balthazar's blank, impenetrable stare carries an infinite depth of meaning (if you fall under the spell of this strange and wonderful film) simply because it is so fundamentally unreadable. Balthazar is unlike any other movie animal you have seen, in large part because he is simply an animal. He is not cute or smart or quirky, he is not anthropomorphized, and he doesn't do any tricks; he is a donkey and nothing more.
Some have described "Au hasard Balthazar" as a film told from a donkey's point of view, but this is not accurate. The film does follow Balthazar's life from birth to death, but only in the beginning and end does the story directly concern him. Through most of the film, Balthazar passes helplessly from one sadistic or indifferent owner to another. At first, he is cherished as a pet by children who baptize him but his peace is short-lived as he is whipped, yoked and put to work, and it only gets worse from there.
His first owner Marie (Anne Wiazemsky, who, a year later, became the second Mrs. Jean-Luc Godard) dotes over him, but she is a lazy, shallow girl. In one scene, she decorates Balthazar with branches and flowers, making local tough guy Gerard (Francois Lafarge) jealous. He and his gang beat Balthazar cruelly while Marie watches in hiding; her affection for the animal does not extend so far that she would risk her safety for him. Later, Marie falls in love with Gerard (even in Bresson's universe, women always go for the bad boys) and forgets all about the poor little donkey.
Abandoned by Marie and abused by Gerard, Balthazar eventually collapses from exhaustion. Gerard volunteers to "end his misery," but the donkey is rescued by Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert), the local lush. Life gets better for Balthazar, but only briefly. Arnold is kind when sober but vicious when drunk, and he beats Balthazar savagely with a bottle. Balthazar escapes to a circus where he is briefly a star, but later he is sold to a wealthy miser who is so stingy that he barely feeds Balthazar at alland won't even buy him a proper saddle harness; it is more economical simply to kill the donkey if it gets too sick to work.
Through all these ordeals, Balthazar is merely a passive observer. The humans' stories spin all around him, and he takes no part in them; he merely hovers on the periphery of our perception. When the gendarmes come for Arnold, we see Balthazar through a window as he grazes in a field; in another scene Balthazar stands idly at a hitching post as rowdy youths set off firecrackers in the street. In fact, the stories could easily take place without Balthazar's presence at all, yet time and again Bresson returns to shots of the donkey merely standing and watching. He serves as a mute and uncomprehending witness (Bresson does not try to romanticize this aspect, Balthazar is just a donkey after all) to the human dramas that surround him and which, ultimately, determine his fate.
Bresson believed in predestination, and it is Balthazar's lot in life to suffer through no fault of his own. The film's title translates as "Balthazar by chance" and our "hero" wanders passively and helplessly from situation to situation, subjected to cruelty based on the whims of his masters, not as the result of his own actions. The humans, not even Marie, don't care about him yet they still control his entire world. Is Bresson suggesting a frightening parallel between Bresson's relationship to his master and our relationship to an uncaring but all-powerful God? Perhaps this explains why we can identify so strongly with Balthazar even though we never get a single shot from his point of view (except, arguably, a few shots at the circus).
The cruelty of the humans seems all the more terrible by the detached quality of the performances: Marie's slack-jawed look and slumped shoulders, Gerard's clipped movements, Arnold's near immobility at times. Likewise, the quiet dignity of Balthazar is all the more pronounced by merit of his complete passivity. Through its restraint, "Au hasard Balthazar" accumulates an extraordinary power, and Balthazar, even though he never actually "does" anything, becomes one of the most memorable characters in all of film, achieving a sublime grace through the terrible suffering he endures. This is Quandt's paradox again: the denial of emotion produces overwhelming emotionality. I think "overwhelming" is the key word here. "Au hasard Balthazar," like many of Bresson's films, possesses a potent affective force that will stick with you for days, weeks, maybe even the rest of your life.
Bresson's films demand an active, engaged audience. Bresson stated, "The flatter the image is, the less it expresses, the more easily it is transformed in contact with other images." The flat images can also be transformed by the audience: a key to the power of Bresson's work is that the emptiness of the image invites the viewer to fill it with his or her own meaning. Balthazar's big, empty eyes are the film's most enduring image and you will either see in them great profundity or merely the vacant stare of a dumb animal; which you see depends in large part on your degree of engagement with the movie. You cannot watch his films passively, or as a mere escape from reality. Bresson's films are living texts which change with each viewing and yield great rewards to the attentive, involved watcher.
Bresson was a master of rhythm and tone, and few directors ended their films on such perfect notes as he consistently did. I will not spoil the ending of this improbable spiritual journey save to assert that it is one of the most poignant and moving I have ever seen. On the first viewing, I was shaken by the final scene, and on the third viewing I wept openly, not out of sadness but from something more powerful. I can only describe it as the sense of witnessing the infinite or the ineffable (I have a similar reaction to the ending of "2001: A Space Odyssey which I have always thought of as a spiritual film for the atheist). Many critics have described Bresson as a transcendental director. I don't agree with this description, but if there is a transcendent moment in Bresson's films, it is here, as this gentle little donkey kneels down in a field, with a flock of sheep milling about him, the bells on their collars chiming a chorus. It is an ending both beautiful and terrible to behold, and one you will not soon forget.
The DVD is presented in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The black and white photography is crisp, with excellent contrast. Often when we describe cinematography as beautiful, we mean that the film offers gorgeous, ravishing imagery: sweeping landscapes, deep focus, etc. Such pictures would be out of place in a Bresson film, yet the photography is beautiful nonetheless and the new high-definition transfer more than does justice to it. This is another fabulous Criterion achievement.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. I did not even attempt to describe the soundtrack in my review because it would require at least another thousand words just to scratch the surface. Bresson made use of sound perhaps more effectively and expressively than any other director (only Kubrick and Lynch spring to mind as contenders) and it is probably not possible to preserve the full texture of the sound on a DVD, but this sound transfer is certainly an admirable effort. The sound effects are well-mixed and separated. The film makes remarkable use of Schubert's sparse and moving Piano Sonata no. 20 which sounds just right here. Optional English language subtitles support the audio.
If ever a Criterion release desperately called for a commentary track, it is "Au hasard Balthazar," but we do not get one here. However, the other extras are worthwhile offerings. A twenty minute interview with scholar Donald Richie (getting a rare chance to talk about a non-Japanese film) serves as an excellent introduction into the Bressonian universe.
"Un metteur en ordre: Robert Bresson" (62 min.) is a 1966 French television program about Bresson and the making of "Au hasard Balthazar." Godard, Louis Malle and the cast of the film also appear. It is clear from watching this extra that Bresson was already firmly established as a cult director whose status bordered on beatification.
In the spirit of Bresson, I will keep it simple: "Au hasard Balthazar" is a masterpiece.