I'm not a fan of hyperbole. It's something you need to get out of your system while writing music reviews for the college newspaper (if you're me). If I were an artist being reviewed, I think I would dread a hyperbolic rave more than anything. By saying something is one of the greatest works ever/of the year/of the decade/of the century/of the week, you are as much as shitting on that work you profess to admire so much. Every flaw in that work will be magnified a hundredfold by anyone reading your review. That's why it makes me uncomfortable to write the next sentence. This is one of the greatest films ever made. I mention this because I don't think I can write about this film under the pretense of it being just another film, even just another great film. Additionally, only five people read this website, so I can make with the hyperbole like there's no tomorrow. Why is it so great? I won't be able to scratch the surface of that question. Jean-Luc Godard said Balthazar was "the world in ninety minutes," and he was right. The film begins with the birth of a donkey, Balthazar, and ends with the donkey's death. In between, Balthazar is passed around from owner to owner in a small French village. These owners are connected to each other, as most people are in a small town. Some of these people are cruel to the donkey, others are kind, but all are weak, and their weaknesses determine the course of the donkey's life. This is merely a plot synopsis, and a plot synopsis is getting me nowhere. I can see this while I write. Why is this film so good? How can a film about a donkey be one of the great artworks of our time? Maybe a discussion of Bresson's methods can get me closer to an impossible answer. Bresson had a severe formal aesthetic. Beginning with his third film, he only used non-actors, which he called models. He filmed scenes repeatedly until all emotion and "performance" was drained from the performance. He did not want his non-actors to "act." His "actors" perform actions mechanically, not reactions emotionally. Once Bresson worked with an "actor" once, he refused to work with him/her a second time. A handful of his non-actors became professional actors later, but most faces you see in a Bresson film you won't see again. You will never see a scene from a character's point of view in Bresson's films (including the donkey in Balthazar). His characters exist. They act and actions are performed on them. It is up to us to project our point of view on the action. This technique sounds cold and unemotional, and it is if you experience the films as a passive viewer. Paradoxically, the reactions a Bresson film provokes from an engaged audience are exactly the opposite of his techniques. It took me three of his films before I knew how to respond, but watching a Bresson film now is an almost overwhelmingly emotional experience. His films are holy moments. They have strange powers, and they shut down, cut off, and slow down the distractions and irrelevancies of the unnecessary parts of our existence. For two hours, Paris Hilton doesn't exist, never existed. Balthazar exists. He's a dumb animal. We see people beat him, stroke him, work him, feed him, and we see them do these things to themselves and others. We are not experiencing his reactions, his existence, nor theirs. We are experiencing our own. How many other filmmakers let us do that?
Let me also mention briefly what Bresson does with sound. Pay attention to his uses of natural noise and silence and wonder why so few others have followed his lead. You don't just watch a Bresson film, you hear it, too.
I've been thinking about three things Bresson said about this film:
1) It was inspired by a passage from Dostoevsky's The Idiot in which Myshkin talks about how happy he was when he heard a donkey bray in a foreign marketplace. Bresson filmed two Dostoevsky adaptations, so the influence is no secret, but this quote got me thinking about how Bresson is probably the closest cousin to Dostoevsky of any artist I've encountered in any medium. Maybe I'll say more on this later. I don't have much to go on for proof other than the similar effect their work has on me.
2) Bresson said the donkey was his version of Chaplin's Little Tramp character. This seems odd, initially, considering how far from comedy Balthazar is, but it makes a weird kind of sense. Again, I have no proof other than my gut feeling.
3) Balthazar is full of extremely unsympathetic characters, but the audience is never pushed into hatred, contempt, or scorn for anyone. Bresson said, in response to a question about the ugliness of the characters, that it should be as possible to love humanity at its worst as much as we love it at its best. That's a powerful thing for Bresson to say, considering that he spent a year in a Nazi prison camp for being a part of the French Resistance. Maybe this attitude is merely an extension of his devout Catholicism, but I find this statement, and the film, a maddening and beautiful way of looking at what we do and how and possibly why we do it.
I'll finish up with more Godard. I've been thinking about this movie almost constantly since watching it on Saturday, and I drew a conclusion that the character of Marie was also a donkey. Of course, I don't mean this literally. I'm talking about how the actions performed on and by Marie, and the use of her by others, parallel Balthazar's existence. I was going to develop this further, until I found out that Godard had said the exact same thing. I was a little pissed that he'd stolen my thunder, albeit several years before my birth, though the fact that we drew the same conclusion made me happy. Godard usually makes me feel stupid, so it was a nice little surprise when he made me feel smart. Godard later married Anne Wiazemsky, the woman who played Marie, but they divorced in the late seventies. Maybe Godard fell in love with a donkey, and got a woman instead.
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