Balthazar (Au hasard Balthazar)


I’ve no more tenderness, no heart, no feelings…

My final Robert Bresson film on the list had quite a bit of build-up to it. Various classic critics and modern reviewers alike have claimed that Au Hasard Balthazar has been, quite simply, the film to break through their tough exterior and pierce their heart, making them feel emotions they thought they would never feel about a film or its characters. They’ve called it a beautiful piece of art, capable of instilling such empathy (and sympathy) to the lengths no other film can match. Frankly, I don’t know what film these people were watching, because I felt nothing for any of these people, or animals. Now, I tend to be pretty detached when it comes to films, but this was detachment to such an outlandish degree that it actually made me wonder what kind of a soulless person I was, that so many others were getting so much out of this film that I wasn’t. Then I’d continue watching the film, and it would constantly remind me why it didn’t work.

The film is essentially the story of two creatures; one, Marie, a young girl growing up with her farming parents, and the other, a donkey they purchase that Marie quickly becomes close to, which she names Balthazar. Balthazar changes owners a few times, and other life events happen to Marie, and they ultimately end up on two different courses toward two different endings. I wish I could be more specific than that, but as I’ll explain, specificity seems to be a trait that this film deliberately eschewed in favor of, well, being a Bresson film. This seemed to be as pure a distillation of his method that Bresson had wanted to put in his films, and as such it contains everything that makes a Bresson film a Bresson film to the umpteenth degree, which is to say everything is as minimalized and stripped down as it can possibly be for the material. The actors barely act; indeed, it’s been said that Bresson would film single takes so many times that the actors would be depleted and thus they would no longer act, but simply go through the motions and lines like zombies on the screen. The cinematography is as washed-out gray as black-and-white cinematography can get. The editing is unbelievably sparse, and indeed doesn’t seem to cut very much out of the film; what with all the superfluous shots, and even scenes, that dot and pepper the film throughout that seem to serve no function or purpose, but are still in the film regardless. Even the story was as inconsequential as the piecing together of it. It pretty much consisted of random happenings that happen around the donkey and Marie, that somehow lead into other random happenings that are as unexplored as they are opaque. Things occur that have no bearing on the plot, and are then dropped in favor of the next shot or scene. And during all of this, we are supposed to be caring about the characters, and especially the donkey. Well, I’ll be the one to say it: Why should we? When nothing matters, and there’s no thread or narrative connecting the story together, then why should we bother to develop feelings towards those involved? Everything that happens to them is just going to be ignored five minutes from now, as if it never happened, or had any consequence or lasting impact on the story or the characters, because it doesn’t.

From all that I’d heard about this film before seeing it, I wished it would’ve been a better experience. Instead, all I got were robotic actors blindly going through the motions, without any feeling imbued into their characters whatsoever. I’d read so much about how the stripped-down quality of Bresson’s films lends this one a paradoxical upwelling of emotion, but all I got was exactly what the film gave me: nothing. Absolutely nothing. I honestly have to question how some people genuinely got the exact opposite reaction that this film tries so hard to instill; so much effort was made to make this film as cold and unfeeling as possible, that how could people honestly and truthfully say that they felt such a wellspring of emotion that they were in tears by the end of this? It literally makes no logical sense. Sure, the piano score helped in some ways where the rest of the film failed, but even that was so sparingly used that the times it was were made that much more inconsequential. This really bothers me; that so many people were genuinely moved by a film of such… nothingness. Who knows; maybe I’m just a cold, heartless bastard. But even if I am a cold heartless bastard, one would find it hard to argue against my position on this film.

Arbitrary Rating: 5/10


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