Au hasard Balthazar

Au hasard Balthazar (1966) movie poster

(1966) dir. Robert Bresson
viewed: 08/30/06 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The second of my Bresson double feature at the Castro Theatre was a predecessor and somehow, I guess, a partner with its featured partner, Mouchette.  Both films wind up in lists of “greatest films of all time”, those ridiculous things that show some collabarative opinion that is still an opinion.  In this case, though, it signifies, as both of these films, though painful and heartbreaking in many ways, are intensely beautiful even in their depiction of human ugliness, patheticness, and foolishness.

The title, I understand, translates to “Balthazar, by chance”, which seems particularly interesting in terms of the film’s attitude about life and experience.  Balthazar is a donkey, whose life is altered many times by chance and altering situations, from an idyllic childhood adored by children and annointed quite religiously with his name to a series of increasingly cruel, selfish, insipid “owners” who treat the animal with the animosity and cruelty that they approach the world.

Balthazar’s life parallels that of Marie (the stunning Anne Wiazemsky), who though human, seems to have as little control over her fate as the donkey, allowing herself and Balthazar to be used and abused by her heartless lover and other characters whose selfishness and cruelty enact far more power than any act of love.  Marie disappears after being apparantly gang-raped by her former boyfriend and his cronies, stripped bare and locked in an abandoned building.  This is the somewhat random cruelty of the world, and what control Marie had potentially to change things is incredibly hard to discern.  Balthazar escapes situations once or twice, returning to moments of freedom and ease.  But ultimately, he too, dies.

Balthazar’s death is highly symbolic and beautiful as he lies down among a flock of sheep and slowly lowers his head.  As one of the less cruel characters points out, he is a “saint” and his death seems highly Christ-like, very much a martyr.  It’s hard to know what to make of this on a personal level.  I certainly felt the sense of peace and beauty of Balthazar’s release from the physical world, but does his death, his life, his experience transcend the pain and tragedy of the world in which he lived?  What does this mean for Marie?  For the cruel ones?  For us?

Considering Mouchette’s death in the ending of the later film, I really don’t know what to say.  Death is a release from the physical world, the cruel, heartless, real world.  But what does that mean to a non-Catholic?  A non-Christian?  Is there something still to be understood?  The meaning is a significant emotional effect, a powerful vision, and an open-ended sensation, but one of great, great sadness, and questionable hope.

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