Directed by Robert Bresson
Starring Anne Wiazemsky, Francois Lafarge, Phillippe Asselin
Opening up an envelope to find a Criterion DVD puts a hop in my step and a goofy grin on my face. Especially when it is a film I have wanted to see for years. Criterion recently released the film classic Au Hasard Balthazar directed by Robert Bresson in 1966 on DVD.
The film opens as Balthazar the donkey is nursing from his mother. Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) and Jacques (Walter Green) are instantly taken with him upon first sight. Marie takes him home with her and a lifetime bond between the two begins immediately.
However, as Marie grows into an adolescent, her concerns change from Balthazar to those of a teenager. She becomes interested in boys and one boy in particular: Gerard (Francois Lafarge). However, Gerard isn’t the type of boy that a parent dreams of their daughter becoming infatuated with.
Gerard is intermittently cruel and kind with both Balthazar and Marie. Marie’s family decides to sell Balthazar because of Marie’s disinterest. Balthazar begins a journey of being passed from one cruel owner to the next. Balthazar finds himself attached to a grain merchant, a criminal and even performing in a circus.
Even though Balthazar and Marie have been separated, their lives seem to follow the same paths. Both are experiencing cruelty at the hands of someone they trust; Balthazar by his various cruel masters and Marie by the hand of her gang leader boyfriend Gerard. Both spend their days suffering and feeling powerless and seem to pay for the sins of the so called “humanity” that they come into contact with in their daily lives.
While the twist and turns of life catapult Marie and Balthazar in many directions, their paths do cross again, albeit briefly. The love that they feel for each other still exists and they enjoy the brief moments of happiness they share before their paths separate once again. Unfortunately, Marie and Balthazar have a lot more trials and tribulations to endure before the credits roll.
The performances by Anne Waizemsky as Marie and Francois Lafarge as Gerard are effective with Waizemsky bringing the right amount of pathos to her performance as the long suffering Marie and Lafarge bringing the right amount of indifferent cruelty and sliminess to his performance as Gerard. And although the donkey that portrayed Balthazar is not listed in the credits of the film, he should be. Perhaps it is just me, but when you look at his big moist brown eyes, you can see his disappointment in the treatment he receives from the humans that surround him and the reluctant acceptance of his fate reflect in his eyes.
Bresson is the absolute master of understatement and subtlety. There are segments of the film that are executed almost as an ethereal silent film. Au Hasard Balthazar seems to me to be much more than just a film about a girl and her much beloved pet; it is truly a channel for the cruel nature of life to be displayed in all of its ugliness and randomness. Jean-Luc Godard described Au Hasard Balthazar as “the world in an hour and a half”. That is a perfect description of this movie. Life can be merciless and evil can visit the least deserving, both animal and human without explanation or reason. I am not trying to state that life is all sadness, neither is Bresson in my opinion. We all get to have our moments of happiness during our lives; it is just that we receive our portions in small helpings in comparison with burdens and difficulties we all face. The bad stuff can outweigh the good stuff most of the time. It is how we react to this fact that determines the quality of our souls and our lives. This fact of life has never been expressed so profoundly or beautifully except within the flickering frames of this film.
Au Hasard Balthazar is an exquisite film that simply must be seen and experienced. It is everything I hoped it could be and more and now takes its place in the top ten list of my favorite films. I feel frustrated sitting here writing this review today because I feel that I cannot find the words to adequately describe the immense affect this film has had upon me. I can only hope I have gotten reasonably close. And if you are not moved to tears during the closing scene of this film, you must have a space for rent in your chest where a heart should readily beat.
Au Hasard Balthazar is presented in anamorphic widescreen. The black and white image is very clean, crisp and is positively resplendent. The overall image has a nice amount of detail and I only noticed a very inconsequential amount of grain. This film hasn’t looked this good in years.
Au Hasard Balthazar is presented in its original mono in French with English subtitles. I did not notice any hiss or distortions at any time and the dialogue is crystal clear. While it is not the most dynamic presentation of a film, it is suitable for this film.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
Au Hasard Balthazar is presented in a standard amaray case with a wonderfully ethereal portrait of Marie and her pet Balthazar as the cover artwork. A beautiful cover to accompany a beautiful film.
A few bonus features await the eager viewer. First, we get an interview with noted film scholar Donald Richie discussing the film and his feelings regarding it. Richie is familiar to film enthusiasts as he is considered one of the foremost experts regarding Japanese cinema. As expected, Richie’s comments are insightful, intelligent and he has a way of describing his feelings about the film so eloquently that I am jealous of his ability. A nicely edited and executed featurette that clocks in at almost 15 minutes.
Un Metteur En ordre: Robert Bresson , coming in at over an hour in length is a 1966 French television show about Robert Bresson and Au Hasard Balthazar. Jean Luc Godard, Louis Malle, Francois Riechenbach and even Bresson himself are assembled to talk about all things Bresson cinema. While the condition is rough in comparison with the film, it is great to hear these famous directors describe their admiration for Bresson and his film.
There is a trailer to view and an detailed essay by film scholar James Quandt is included as an insert.
Overall, a first rate presentation of a tremendous film.
Overall ( Not an Average) 9.5/10
The Movie 10/10
The Video 9/10
The Audio 8/10
The Packaging and Bonus Features 9/10
Overall (Not an Average) 9.5/10