Old 01-14-2009, 07:49 PM
Robert Bresson's Au Hasard, Balthazar

Au Hasard, Balthazar (1966)

Long before Donkey became a popular character in "Shrek", Robert Bresson made "Au Hasard, Balthazar," in which the main character is a donkey. However, this donkey doesn't talk, so we have to interpret everything the donkey does through his actions. Bresson takes a big risk making his main character an animal and ends up putting the burden on the actors to make the story interesting, but if you know Bresson, you know that is not a smart thing to do.

The story follows Balthazar from his birth to his death. He is born on a small farm where two young kids, Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) and Jacques (Walter Green), fall in love. Balthazar changes hands from the farm owners to the local bread makers where he is used for deliveries. From here, he is given to the town drunk, Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert), who has a dark secret in his past. After enjoying a small stint at the circus as the Mathematical Donkey, Balthazar eventually returns home to the farm he was born. Marie has grown up and is now in love with Gerard (François Lafarge), but Jacques still professes his love for her. Balthazar is home at last, but will things ever be the same?

This is yet another example of a movie that is hurt by being served up episodically. Balthazar is handed off to so many different people that we are never given enough time to get to really know any of the characters. There is not really a central plot to the film either. We mainly follow the donkey around as he is handed off from person to person. There are hints of a romance given early on, but that romance never really goes anywhere and we never really know why.

I could take a guess as to why, but I would have to make up a new word for it. That word is "Bressonization." Ebert describes this process perfectly in his "Great Movie" essay on this film: "[Bresson] was known to shoot the same shot ten, twenty, even fifty times, until all "acting" was drained from it and the actors were simply performing the physical actions and speaking the words." This is what hurts Bresson's films so much. He doesn't allow his actors to show any emotions, therefore we don't know what is behind their dialogue and we don't know why the romance never went anywhere.

Ebert goes on: "It might seem that the result would be a movie filled with zombies, but quite the contrary: By simplifying performances to the action and the word without permitting inflection or style, Bresson achieves a kind of purity that makes his movies remarkably emotional." On his first point, Ebert is quite correct; when you drain all of the emotion from you actors, you end up with a movie filled with zombies. You might as well be watching blocks of wood perform.

However, his second point couldn't be further from the truth. Ebert tries to make the point that without having an emotion to assign to them, we will somehow be more emotionally involved by assigning it ourselves. But with all the acting drained from the scene, there is no way to tell what emotion should be given to it. Let's take a quick example. Say someone says "I love you" without any emotion, inflection, or style. Are they serious? Romantic? Heartbroken? Joking? Being satirical? Did they mean something else? Were they even talking to you?

With "Bressonization," there is no way to tell what anybody means at anytime throughout the film. Romances simply don't work when there is no emotion involved. When two people are in love, they don't say it without some kind of meaning attached to it. This was the same problem with the only other Bresson film I've seen, "Pickpocket," about a man who feels he is morally right in stealing from others. The lack of emotion worked for his "job," but when it came to his romance with a woman he supposedly falls in love with, there is no emotion there, making those scenes unbelievable and flat.

The other main problem here is that the main character is a donkey, a character who is incapable of showing any emotion. As stated earlier, this means that the burden is on the actors to make this an interesting story, but due to "Bressonization," that proves to be a huge mistake. This story does have a small emotional impact at the end when the donkey dies, but it needed much more of it throughout the entire film to make it work. Without the emotion, there's no reason to care about any of these characters or their situations.

Bresson must have had several emotions in mind when writing his screenplays. Why not just allow that emotion to infiltrate his films so that his characters will have some life to them? If this is what he has all of his actors do throughout all of his films, there seems little reason to explore any of his other works, because if I want to see zombies, I'll simply fall back on good old George Romero's far superior work. 2/4 stars.
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