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Bresson's Profound And Moving Allegory,
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This review is from: Au Hasard Balthazar [DVD]  (DVD)
This 1966 work by Robert Bresson really is like no other work of cinema that I can recall. Of course, one of the well-established maxims of working in film (and TV) is never to work with animals or children, but here Bresson breaks both these 'rules', focusing on the story of a donkey, Balthazar, the trials and tribulations of whose life are portrayed as a spiritual allegory for the shortcomings of this 'beast of burden's' human counterparts. Not surprisingly perhaps, Bresson's film is not exactly a barrel of laughs, being shot in his trademark minimalist style and with largely deadpan performances from his cast of non-professional actors, but I found myself being increasingly drawn into what is a profound and moving (but fundamentally unsentimental) tale.
The sensorial appeal of Bresson's film is conveyed via Ghislain Cloquet's stark, black-and-white cinematography, full of Bresson-style off-kilter camera angles and truncated camera shots, and the haunting piano music of Schubert (with some 'modern' jazzy content courtesy of Jean Weiner), which is overlaid on Balthazar's tale, as he is passed between various owners (some kindly, but mostly not), thereby overseeing (and experiencing) the vagaries of humankind. Anne Wiazemsky's impressive, and deluded, daughter Marie, shows initial kindness to Balthazar, before being tempted by cruel, criminal gang member, Gérard (a similarly impressive performance by François Lafarge). The perils, and negative effects, of drunkenness are also convincingly brought home by Jean-Cluade Guilbert's portrayal of the wayward down-and-out, Arnold, whose wrath Balthazar is also forced to suffer.
Although Bresson's film suffers, to some extent, from his typically disjointed (and, at times, superficial) approach to narrative, for me at least, this limitation is overshadowed by his mesmerising portrayal of his central character. Not only is the donkey featured in some of the film's key scenes, such as those where (in a rare moment of humour) Balthazar is introduced to his circus audience as 'the most powerful brain of the century' and where he stares into the eyes of his fellow trapped (circus) beasts (tiger, polar bear, chimpanzee, elephant), but Bresson's camera repeatedly comes to rest on his protagonist's increasingly perceptive-looking eyes. It is via this 'all-seeing' presence that Balthazar seemingly conveys his (and Bresson's) dismay at the human frailties on display - of temptation, cynicism, materialism, hedonism, wantonness, love of money, family breakdown, the transitory nature of human infatuation and the general lack of spirituality. The religious connotations are obvious, and are initially foreshadowed by Balthazar's watery baptism at the hands of a group of children.
Au Hazard Balthazar is a film that, for me, grows in stature as it progresses (and on subsequent repeat viewings) and ranks as one of the finest works from one of cinema's most innovative creative artists. It is, in fact, a great shame that the latest Artificial Eye release of the film contains no extras on the making of the film.