Au Hasard Balthazar | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Au Hasard Balthazar 

Beast of Burden

Robert Bresson might be the greatest master filmmaker most people have never heard of. Seldom screened even at art houses, his 13 features have acquired a semi-legendary status among cinephiles.


Now here's Pittsburgh's first big-screen chance in years to see not just a Bresson, but what some critics consider his best: Au Hasard Balthazar, a 1966 masterpiece that testifies to the beauty and singularity of Bresson's vision. It's about a donkey.


Of course, it's not just about a donkey, nor is Balthazar just a donkey (though he is that, too, one of the paradoxes that makes Bresson fascinating).


The film follows Balthazar from his infancy in the French countryside through his acquisition by a family, his fated life of servitude and abuse -- as well as a little love -- from various humans, and his demise. His story is woven with that of humans including: his first owner, Marie, who dotes upon him as a girl, then loses him but as a young woman gets him back; Marie's father, a stubborn, honorable schoolteacher-turned-farmer; a drunken vagrant named Arnold; and Gérard, a cruel young man who loves Marie and violently resents her affection for the dumb beast.


Bresson's films are often called "austere," and superficially that's true of Balthazar: It's shot crisply in black-and-white, with actors who underplay almost as much as does the lead donkey, music limited to a beautiful Schubert piano sonata, and a story pared to a series of vivid, telling yet elliptical (and occasionally baffling) episodes.


On the other hand, Bresson (1907-99) was a religious man, and this film is at one level a kind of Jesus story about a donkey, complete with a mother/fallen woman named Marie, a mock crowning and concluding Passion play. And while Bresson's view of human (and animal) suffering is as unsentimental as a farmhand's, it's hardly detached: His thematic concerns are grace and predestination, responsibility and culpability, all with a mere donkey as mute, bridled, innocent witness.


Moreover, just below its skin, Balthazar is gorgeous cinema, a brilliantly shot and edited dance of images and sounds. Indelible: Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) walks barefoot in a nighttime patch of woods (Bresson showing just her feet), picking flowers for a garland for Balthazar. Bresson has a genius for seizing on the nightmarish images that flash through our lives -- a hand drawing grotesquely back from a window on which it's just tapped, for instance, or a donkey, its dull square teeth bared, rearing up under the whip. When, late in the film, the glare of a miser's lamp sweeps across a dark barn, almost incidentally noting Balthazar in the shadows, it's a chilling punctuation to Marie's acceptance of the greedy man's invitation to come inside. It also reveals a narrative filmmaker working at the highest levels of the art -- with light, with motion, beyond words. In French, with subtitles. 4 cameras



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