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PopGap #35: Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

PopGap #35: Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

Directed by Robert Bresson
Written by dorrk
11 January 2018

He's worked enough. He's old. He's all I have.

While Robert Bresson's directorial style is often described as "minimalist," Au Hasard Balthazar might qualify as "obscurist." Afraid that I had missed important context, I stopped after the first half-hour of Au Hasard Balthazar and rewatched it. Part of Bresson's technique in this film appears to be withholding expected narrative information; if this was done to focus the viewer on symbolism as opposed to story, the effect was the opposite for me: it focused me on the sometimes perplexing missing pieces. As it follows the sad life of its titular donkey, and the cruel fates of those who love him, Au Hasard Balthazar features some transcendent moments of beautiful filmmaking, but just as many instances of surprising clumsiness — Bresson seems especially far out of his comfort zone anytime he attempts to follow a movement from one shot to the next — creating an overall result that is more awkwardly unsatisfying than it is effectively tragic. I suppose some of my difficulty in understanding Bresson on his own terms in this case (I gushed over A Man Escaped a few years ago) is that this film, in particular, seems to be an allegory heavily informed by French Catholicism, for which I have only a casual familiarity. Would that context have helped me understand the plot thread following the vagrant suspected of murder, or the varying shifts in fortune that visit Balthazar’s various owners? Possibly. The one element of Au Hasard Balthazar of which I was not in doubt was its parallels between the donkey and Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), both of whom are adored and accepted by a wealthy family until they become stubbornly inconvenient, after which they are callously exploited by a sociopathic gang of youths, and ultimately abandoned. Wiazemsky has one of those haunting European actress faces that is immediately engaging, even while chronically forlorn. With her as a compelling anchor, Au Hasard Balthazar should have been heartbreaking, but Bresson’s own stubbornness in putting his difficult form so far ahead of his substance removed me just as far from understanding and feeling what his movie had to offer.

Au Hasard Balthazar was brought to the Potluck Film Fest by Wade McCormick. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #22 / 2873 (99%), making it his second favorite out of the 48 movies he's seen from Time Out: Paris magazine's list of the Top 100 French Films. It ranked on my Flickchart at #1526 (62%), putting it at number 26 on my chart of 37 movies from Time Out's Top 100 French Films.
PopGap #35: Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

Trailer for Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)