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DVD Pick: "Au hasard Balthazar"

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If you're interested in cinema as art, rather than as entertainment, then you'll certainly want to see Robert Bresson's French-language "Au hasard Balthazar" (1966). It's ranked 19th in "Sight & Sound's" 2002 critics' poll (tied with "Jules and Jim" and "L'avventura"), and it's available on DVD from Criterion Collection. For me, watching "Au hasard Balthazar" and the accompanying bonus materials on DVD was a profoundly moving experience.

"Au hasard Balthazar" is so unusual that I have difficulty writing about it in a way that properly sets expectations for those who have not seen it. Let me begin with a pair of quotations from a French television program included on the DVD. There filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard describes it as "a film with a dreadful vision of the world and the evil in it, but at the same time we experience it with a kind of Christian mildness." In that same program, Bresson states, "'Au hasard Balthazar' is about our anxieties and desires when faced with a living creature who's completely humble, completely holy, and happens to be a donkey."

The film's protagonist is a donkey named Balthazar who lives in a hardscrabble rural community. But he is not a cute Hollywood movie animal—he must get through life as best he can, mostly laboring as a beast of burden. People occasionally treat Balthazar well, but in the main he is dealt with harshly, and sometimes cruelly.

Balthazar has only very limited control over what happens to him, and I believe Bresson was using the donkey's situation as a metaphor for the human condition. The French term "au hasard" is roughly equivalent to "by chance" or "at random."

The most important human character in "Au hasard Balthazar" is a troubled young woman named Marie (Anne Wiazemsky in her debut). She is attracted to a petty criminal who is rotten to the core. Other major characters are the town drunk and a disagreeable merchant. I believe Bresson intended for the viewer to take this dreary community as a microcosm of the world.

I should warn you that Bresson's narrative is elliptical. He often supplies no psychological motivation for his characters' actions, and there are gaps in the story where we are left to speculate as to what may have happened. But I think that works well in "Au hasard Balthazar," infusing it with an air of spirituality and mysticism. And this film has what I consider to be one of the most emotionally powerful endings in all of cinema.

The DVD contains an hour-long 1966 French TV program devoted to "Au hasard Balthazar" that I found to be outstanding. (This is the program from which I drew the quotes given above.) The program is called "Un metteur en ordre: Robert Bresson," and the phrase "Un metteur en ordre" translates loosely to "An Imposer of Order." When you watch the program, you'll see that its title comes from the filmmaker's response to the interviewer's question: "What's Robert Bresson's profession?"

The heart of the program is an interview with Bresson, during which he talks specifically about this film. He also gives his ideas on filmmaking in general. For example, here's how he wants his performers to learn their dialogue: "I ask them to learn their lines ignoring their meaning, as if they didn't have a meaning, as if the words were just syllables. As if sentences weren't made of words but of syllables."

Also appearing in the TV program are actress Anne Wiazemsky, the actors who play the petty thief and the disagreeable merchant, directors Jean-Luc Godard, Louis Malle, and François Riechenbach, and novelist Marguerite Duras.

The only other bonus material of any consequence on the DVD is a 13-minute 2004 English-language interview with film scholar Donald Richie, and I also thought this was very worthwhile. He starts off by saying, "I've read so many accounts of what 'Balthazar' is about, and each one is about a different movie. One says it's an animal picture, and the other says the animal's really Christ—it's an allegory. I think one of the enormous strengths of this picture is that it is all these things at once." Then Richie goes on to provide insightful analysis of the film.

Packaged with the DVD is an eight-page pamphlet, four pages of which are taken up by an essay written by film scholar James Quandt. The essay quotes Godard's claim that "Au hasard Balthazar" is "the world in an hour and a half" and discusses interpretations of this ambiguous film, trying to balance transcendental readings with the pessimism of Bresson's vision.

Below I've listed all the special features of the "Au hasard Balthazar" DVD.

DVD Details:

Release Date: June 13, 2005
Feature Run Time: 1 Hour 35 Minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Full-Screen (1.66:1), Black-and-White
French Monaural
English Subtitles
Donald Richie on "Balthazar" (13 min.)
"Un metteur en ordre: Robert Bresson" (1 hr. 2 min.)
Original Trailer
8-Page Pamphlet

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