29th Apr2019

‘Au Hasard Balthazar’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Anne Wiazemsky, François Lafarge, Philippe Asselin, Walter Green | Written and Directed by Robert Bresson

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Robert Bresson’s mid-career misery-fest is often cited as a masterpiece (it’s sitting pretty on a perfect Metacritic score), although having now endured Au Hasard Balthazar twice in my life I must simply be blind to its supposed power. Using the seven deadly sins as its backdrop and its equine star as a stand-in for faith, it’s an absurdly grim allegory, and one which feels like a chore even at ninety minutes.

The wisp of a plot follows the travails of the titular donkey, once a beloved pet of rural girl Marie (Anne Wiazemsky). Balthazar is effectively sold into slavery, and the film charts the parallel lives led by the pair: Balthazar into old age and Marie into her teenage years. It seems that, without the love of each other, both are bound for a life of hardship and abuse.

For Balthazar it’s a series of slave gigs, as he is whipped and kicked and beaten through a thankless, laborious existence. Marie, meanwhile, is victim to her father’s (Philippe Asselin) excessive pride; this results in a catastrophic shattering of self-worth, and she finds herself returning time and again to the cruelty of a vile local youth named Gerard (François Lafarge).

A succession of scenes depicting increasing heartlessness – Marie is raped on more than one occasion – the cynicism of Bresson’s worldview is so relentless that becomes difficult to take seriously. Sometimes he will tease a moment of potential respite – the possibility of a humane deed – only to deny our expectation of poetic justice. It’s the Game of Thrones of 1960s French arthouse.

The ugliness goes beyond the narrative, and reports of teenage Wiazemsky (in her debut role) having to fight off the sexual advances of 60-something Bresson on set have disturbing parallels with the in-film episode where Marie sells her body to a wealthy landowner – a man who believes one can take anything so long as they have money and a willingness to relinquish their pride. Indeed.

The juxtaposition between Marie and the dumb animal is a dynamic of victimhood. While Balthazar is not conscious of his situation (except for a very silly episode where he regards caged circus animals with apparent pity), Marie absolutely is, intimating that she is complicit in her abuse. There may be some broad truth in this, but the aggravatingly spare dialogue does nothing to illuminate her predicament; there’s no nuance to clarify why she continually rejects opportunities for happiness. It leaves us with the misogynistic suggestion that victimhood is merely an aspect of her female nature.

Bresson was known for his tendency to cast unknowns in his films, but far from delivering a sense of authenticity this decision is devastating to the film. No one is acting, at least not from the neck up. There is an eerie blankness in the face of every character – a blankness which contradicts almost everything they utter. Roger Ebert reckoned that, by giving us nothing, the actors are helping us to empathise. Well, I guess I just need a little more help, because the performances left me unmoved.

It’s like looking at waxworks. At one point, Gerard’s mother questions him about a police summons. We cut back to her and her face is entirely unchanged, except for the addition of fake tears. In another scene, I didn’t realise a character was steaming drunk until they slumped forward on their steed. For a story with such a human focus – Bresson’s typically restrained directorial style keeps everything suffocatingly contained in medium shot – this lack of recognisable human response is crucial, doing nothing to sell the supposed tragedy of events.

On top of this, there are frequent occasions where basic human responses are bafflingly absent. For example, why does no one in the dance café react when Gerard starts smashing the place up? Is this supposed to say something about society’s growing indifference to violence? It’s another absurd, misguided assumption that only distances us from the human drama.

Bresson has been celebrated from stripping away the layers, leaving the raw “truth” underneath. But his message is little more than an elaboration on the phrase “life isn’t fair”. His notion that we are all slaves to our nature – that we cannot resist our most self-destructive instincts through any amount of self-will – is so disingenuous from the start, that by the end it feels like any “truth” has been whipped from the bone.

Some may call it a singular, focused vision. But you could equally call it a narrow-minded lack of vision, because it neglects so much of the human experience. And in doing so justifies blind religious faith from a position of… well, bad faith. Humans are ill-natured at their core, Bresson says, so God is our only hope. I don’t buy it. It’s simplistic and it’s boring: misery porn of the most monotonous variety.

Special Edition Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
  • Interview from 2004 with film scholar Donald Richie
  • Un metteur en ordre: Robert Bresson, a 1966 French television programme about the film, featuring director Robert Bresson, filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and Louis Malle and members of Au Hasard Balthazar’s cast and crew
  • Trailer
  • Plus: An essay by film scholar James Quandt

Au Hasard Balthazar is out on Criterion Blu-ray from today, 29th April 2019.

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