Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.
This week, they try to understand the symbolism of an ass in Robert Bresson’s truly excellent Au Hasard Balthazar. Is he all of us? Is he a savior? Or is he just, you know, a donkey?
In the #16 movie on the list, a beast named Balthazar is born on a farm where Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) loves him. Through the mutable circumstances of life, Balthazar and Marie are separated, but both make their way through a world where abuse is more common than kindness.
But why is it one of the best movies ever?
Scott: So Au Hasard Balthazar (literally, Balthazar at Random) sees a donkey passed between owners and abused alongside the story of a young woman who is also passed between abusers. Some guy named Jean-Luc Godard once stated that Bresson’s film was “the world in an hour and a half.”
But..is it? And if so, what kind of world are we living in?
Obviously your answer should be in 10 words or less.
Landon: The leather jacket in my closet, vespa in my barn, and my general asshole demeanor say this movie is highly resonant.
Oops, what’s the penalty for going over ten?
Scott: You get a flaming piece of newspaper tied to your tail. We’ll do that later, but even if it’s reductive, what’s your simple Yes or No response to the big question?
Landon: I’ll be a politician and say Maybe.
Scott: Spoken like a true academic.
Landon: On the one hand, even though I’m no great optimist, I don’t see the world this way. And I’m even a bit confused by the fact that Bresson might. But on the other hand, I was absolutely taken by this film by the end.
Scott: Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. This was the first time watching it for me (via Hulu’s Criterion page), and it was truly captivating. Even with the intentionally stiff acting, the film itself is a rewarding experience. That doesn’t mean it encapsulates human experience in 90 minutes. But for the sake of argument, if it did represent all of life, what does life boil down to?
A few kind moments and the guarantee that a bunch of people will be assholes for no good reason?
Landon: I’m glad we’re solving all the big questions through this list.
Scott: It’s not like it’s getting done anywhere else.
Landon: That’s the thing. It’s hard to see “life” as a binary between the virtuous and the victimizers. And if Godard thought it represented all life, knowing his protagonists, I’m confused as to who he might identify with…
Scott: How so do you mean?
Landon: This movie contains an incredible spectrum of human life. And we’re used to good characters in films eventually getting what they want/deserve. That’s why Au Hasard Balthazar is so heartwrenching and profound at times. Marie is certainly a much more complex character than Balthazar, but as your description goes, she’s largely in the same category of perpetual victim of others’ selfish needs repeatedly in the film. This is a film about bearing suffering. But the cycles of tragedy made it striking at times how characters fit in a binary of virtuous and victimizers.
I don’t know if that’s reductive or not, but I think it’s hard to come away from this film without a distinct emotional reaction of some sort.
Scott: Funny how a famous director’s comment about your movie can change the way people talk and think about it.
As if Bresson was actually trying to encompass all life in one story. Just like ending up on a Best Of list.
Landon: True. That quote is so well-known, but it’s probably unfair to Bresson despite its praise. What do we think Bresson was trying to do on his own terms?
Scott: First of all, to tell a good story – which he’s done. Although the film gets away with something massive: focusing on a central figure that’s a blank slate. For all the talk about Balthazar bearing his burden with quiet dignity or wisdom or whatever lofty phrases people lob at this, he’s still a donkey. He’s whatever we want him to be. So every interpretation is fair game.
Landon: Makes you wonder how ambiguous Homeward Bound could have been.
Scott: We imbue him with the characteristics we see, much like everything involving animals that we can’t help but humanize.
Now there’s an experiment – Homeward Bound without the voice over…
Landon: That’s the thing. This ending really took me by surprise, much more so than any moment before it. This was my first time seeing the film too, and for some reason, I found Balthazar getting barked at to be one of the most heartbreaking moments of tragedy in the film, even before he dies amongst sheep.
The sound of the bells and the interaction created here really was a perfect moment of filmmaking.
Scott: But let’s be honest here. The life that’s found in Balthazar’s journey is one of cosmic powerlessness. It’s a view that matches up with the idea that people in certain power structures are born and doomed to a life of thankless (often brutal) servitude. Balthazar is more than a donkey here.
Landon: He’s a martyr and a saint. Bresson’s faith is imbued through every decision he makes in this film (including the name of our donkey friend). But what does that add up to in the end? Is Balthazar somehow transcendant?
This may have to do with my lack of knowledge about catholic sainthood than anything else.
Scott: I’m pretty sure they vote on you.
It’s funny. My instinct is to continually go back to the simplicity of the story and deny any subtext to it, but that seems foolish. There are few films with as obvious a subtext, even when it’s being subtle.
I just don’t know if I’m ready to think of a donkey as a Christ-like figure. Or even, as his name implies, as a wise man worthy of looking upon the face of God.
Landon: Yes, but I’ll take it if the statement made is: most people suck; this donkey has more virtue than you assholes.
It’s the Rise of the Planet of the Apes of the French arthouse
Scott: Rise of the Planet of the Asses. It turns out we were the asses all along.
Landon: I imagine that movie exists somewhere and it’s not the movie we’re talking about.
Scott: Ersh. A fair point. Let’s not Google it.
Landon: I will assume that the “ass” pun only works in English and Bresson wasn’t going for something subversive here. It seems hard not to make sense of this film outside of a personal, emotional response to Batlhazar. I’m not a man of faith, I do love our non-human friends, and I had a hard time making that leap beyond the tragedy of Balthazar’s life.
Does one have to be amongst the faithful to be on Bresson’s level with this film?
Scott: Maybe. You certainly have to be in order to see the spiritual outcome of Balthazar’s empty-seeming life.
But even without religion, the film is a kind look at a dark reality. One where both Balthazar and our friend the school teacher work for someone else’s spoils. And what does he say? That it doesn’t matter because he and Marie will be happy.
Landon: More than anything, it seems to take “turn the other cheek” to its logical extent. It locates a virtuous life as one that doesn’t seek justice – or even reason – within the world itself.
This it what real pacifism looks like.
Scott: And it’s shocking how radical it seems.
It’s also a little ironic that we’re wrestling so hard with a film’s meaning when the wino’s statement about watching the same fools pass by on the road (as well as the entirety leading up to Balthazar’s pastoral ending) seems to indicate that existence is filled with moments where we try to force meaning into a natural order.
Sometimes, a donkey is just a donkey.
Landon: Yeah, it’s hard to take Balthazar as anything more than a symbol for seeking greater meaning. To ascribe him enough human agency to be a pacifist is quite the leap given the raw, realist style of this film.
I’m fine with Balthazar just being a donkey. It’s a beautiful film either way.
Scott: It’s way better than Homeward Bound.
Even without the voice overs.
Landon: That doesn’t mean I can’t watch Au Hasard Balthazar without playing recordings of Rip Taylor talking every time the donkey is on screen.
But I guess that’s my business.
Scott: Probably not what Bresson intended, but that’s what he gets for giving us a blank slate.