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REVIEW – Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

May 1, 2013

BalthazarFilmJuice have my review of Robert Bresson’s art house classic Au Hasard Balthazar.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been lucky enough to review some of the great classics of European Art House film as they’ve been re-issued on DVD and Blu-ray. Aside from introducing me to some genuinely great films and directors, this process has also motivated me to fill some of the gaps in my cinematic expertise and Au Hasard Balthazar was definitely one of those gaps. The reason I never got round to watching it is that, while I had heard great things about the film, I knew it was basically an extended religious metaphor based on a donkey and this struck me as so totally ridiculous that I decided not to bother checking it out. Having now finally gotten round to watching the bloody thing, my view remains that Au Hasard Balthazar is an entirely ridiculous film but the ridiculousness sort of works…

Set in the French countryside, the film tells the story of a sickly young girl who grows up into a confused young woman. Trapped between a distant father and an abusive quasi-boyfriend, the young woman is ground down beneath the heels of the patriarchy until she eventually just gives up and dies. The fascinating thing about this plot is that while neither Bresson’s script nor the amateur actors offer any real insight into why anyone does anything, the presence of a donkey who suffers just as the young woman suffers somehow makes the film incredibly moving. Even more fascinating is the fact that while the donkey effectively suffers ‘for’ the young woman in the same way as Jesus died ‘for’ our sins, the peculiar metaphysics of this relationship seems designed to flush out people’s attitudes towards God:

While the link between Marie and Balthazar works astonishingly well, the link between Balthazar and Christ seems like a metaphor too far. Indeed, while the donkey helps us sympathise with the impassive and often incomprehensibly self-destructive Marie, the religious symbolism only serves to lend this suffering some sort of dignified legitimacy, as though the donkey somehow died for our sins. The beautiful thing about this failure is that a case could be made for seeing it as intentional. After all, what is the point of religious belief if not a palliative sense that all the world’s suffering serves some greater purpose? And what greater signifier of atheism than the feeling that such ontological apologism serves only to distract us from the sufferings of real people?

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to review Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins. These films were originally made almost on top of each other and used not only many of the same actors but also many of the same themes, by reviewing the two films at the same time, I was able to tease out the connections between those two films and see how a director approached a similar question from two very different perspective.  My review of Au Hasard Balthazar is similar to my review of Le Beau Serge in that, as well as reviewing Au Hasard Balthazar, I reviewed Mouchette… which explored many of the same themes as Au Hasard Balthazar but from a rather different perspective.

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