Robert Bresson (1901-1999)

Remembering a Master of Precise Gestures and Cinematic Emotion

Au Hasard Balthazar is the film of my life, and not simply because I weep from beginning to end every time I see it. I also weep, though not as convulsively, at Bambi, which like Balthazar is about the cruelty of humans to animals. The comparison, however, stops there. Balthazar is a donkey who lives for the first year of his life in a kind of paradise. Marie, the daughter of the family that owns him, lavishes him with affection. He is her familiar, her alter ego, the love of her life. But their happiness is short-lived. Marie's father loses his livelihood and his pride will not allow him to accept help. Balthazar is sold to one cruel master after another. Marie not only watches as he's beaten and tormented, she fucks his abusers. Marie has inherited her father's masochism. She cannot reconcile sex and love. Her perverse confusion of pleasure and pain, which is shared by every person in the film, is what defines the difference between humans and beasts like Balthazar. It all ends badly. Marie is raped by her lover and his motorcycle gang, and Balthazar is killed when the same boys use him to carry smuggled goods over the border.

Unsparing in its depiction of sadomasochistic relations and the shame that accompanies them, Balthazar also offers, in its opening moments, a glimpse of paradise, the loss of which conditions everything that follows. Bresson's films are composed around this sense of loss. The fragmentation of sound, image, and movement testifies simultaneously to what is present and what is absent, to the world as it is and as it could be. Gravity and grace.--AMY TAUBIN

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