Tag: Robert Bresson

Au Hasard Balthasar (1966)

Au Hasard Balthasar (1966)

Bresson uses an animal to make a powerful spiritual point in a simple but insightful movie

Director: Robert Bresson

Cast: Anne Wiazemsky (Marie), Walter Green (Jacques), François Lafarge (Gérard), Philippe Asselin (Marie’s father), Nathalie Joyaut (Marie’s mother), Jean-Claude Guilbert (Arnold), Pierre Klossowski (Miller), Jean-Joel Barbier (Priest), François Sullerot (Baker), Marie-Claire Fremont (Baker’s wife)

Robert Bresson valued naturalism in his actors above all things. So much so he would make them rehearse even the simplest actions hundreds of times, to drain all artificiality and performance from it and make it as ‘real’ and controlled as possible. He worked best with non-professional actors, whose lack of training meant there was one less barrier of artifice for him to break down. So, its perhaps not a surprise that one of his best collaborators, in one of his finest films, was such a non-professional he wasn’t even human. He was a donkey.

Au Hasard Balthasar (or Balthasar, at random) also throws in Bresson’s other great strength: a profound, but not overbearing, spirituality, a mark of Christian faith that turned simple stories told on an intimate scale into searching and intriguing metaphors for the human condition. He achieves something quite remarkable here, with a film that places a donkey near its centre but then becomes a meditation on the human condition and our capacity for cruelty and selfishness. And the donkey himself becomes a passive, Christ like figure, undergoing his very own passion on the way to his own Calvary where he will literally die because of – and maybe for – our sins.

Balthasar’s life is one of seemingly random, disconnected movements from one owner to another, all of whose lives loosely entwine. First, the kindly Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) who, as a child, adopts Balthasar and brings him into her home. This blissful life lasts a short time before the donkey is palmed off to farmhands then a baker whose delivery boy Gérard (François Lafarge) is a tearaway and criminal. Gérard treats the animal poorly – largely because he envies Marie’s love for it. They enter into an abusive relationship, while Balthasar is taken on by alcoholic Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert) who uses him to guide tourists up the Pyrenees. Balthasar works as a circus animal and a beast of exhausting labour for a miller, while in the background the threat of Gérard and his malign influence on Anne and his abuse of Balthasar lurk.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Au Hasard Balthasar is how readily Bresson embraces the nature of the donkey. Balthasar is never anything other than a dumb animal. He has no insight into what is happening around him. Instead, he stands passively chewing. He only rarely seems to recognise and respond to people. Events happen to and around him, but there is no attempt to show them having any impact on him. He is – and remains – simply a donkey, incapable of anything other than what a donkey can do. Bresson allows not a second of anthropomorphism. Babe this isn’t.

Instead, what happens to this donkey tells us more about the humans he encounters around him. This gives us a stunning insight into humanity and how we treat those below us. To most the donkey is not a person or even a creature, it is just a tool. As the miller says, it will be worked until it can work no more and then it will be euthanised. Gérard sees it as a petty scab to pick, a chance for a bit of casual sadistic fun, tying fire-crackers to its tail and watching its distress. The closest to a companion he has, outside of Marie, is Arnold – and even Arnold works him incessantly and drags him back to servitude from a brief release at the circus.

What Bresson does with this, is invest this donkey’s story with immense spiritual impact. The events that happen to Balthasar parallel the stages of the cross, moments of tenderness from strangers and friends mixed with labours dragging his own cross and the mockery of those who watch him. He’s met with indifference and disregard so many times, that his suffering eventually seems to be providing some sort of chance of retribution for the deeply flawed characters around him, that by treating him well the might save their own souls. Instead, Gérard will drag him over the border carrying smuggled goods and he will, uncomplainingly, suffer the punishment for him.

We can but hope that it is to give Gérard a second chance. But I doubt it. Bresson’s impact with his actors, beating the ‘acting’ out of them gives them a flat naturalness – but also allows us to layer our own feelings on top of them. Gérard is a choir boy with an angelic voice – but he’s also a selfish sadomasochist and a bully, charismatic but naturally cruel. Nevertheless, he has a demonic charm. The baker’s wife willingly covers him his theft and showers him with gifts.

And of course, Marie is drawn towards him with self-destructive yearning. She should love her childhood friend Jacques, but he’s a dull, uninspiring, sap. Gérard is rough, tough, wears a leather jacket and can sing like an angel and (you imagine) cuss like a demon. Their first encounter sees Marie torn between fear, fascination and attraction, as a roadside encounter leads to a sexual encounter in a car that has the whiff of lack of consent. Despite this, Marie returns again and again to Gérard, throwing away parts of her life and family to hang on his arm.

It’s only Balthasar it seems she can connect with. Perhaps because they are both sacrificial figures. Marie’s father loses his farm due to pride and stubbornness. She devotes herself to a bad man and rejects the one who idealises an idea of her. Marie’s motives defy logic to us – but maybe this is because she is closest to the donkey and, like him, content (condemned?) to lead a life where she is buffeted by events and people rather than controlling them.

Bresson plays this all out with a quiet, unfussy, contained camera, playing shots out in controlled takes and carefully selecting moments to cut to Balthasar. He avoids moral judgements but presents actions as they are. After all, shouldn’t a miller work a donkey hard? Shouldn’t a baker need him to walk miles? Don’t we go to the circus or zoo all the time and not think about the animals performing for us? Things are presented as they are and we are not pushed towards one view or another.

Except at the end as Balthasar makes his final sacrifice, lying down on his personal Calvary as Schubert plays on the soundtrack (the film’s only real sustained use of music). Quietly, life drains from this animal as sheep flock around him as if to pay tribute. It’s profoundly simple but somehow intensely moving – as if the pointless culmination of this life somehow sees the donkey transcend into something higher and more meaningful, and eternal symbol of virtue and sacrifice.

It’s what makes Au Hasard Balthasar linger in the memory. Bresson’s signature simpleness and restraint, his deliberate, observatory distance from characters and events leave it open to us to interpret what we will. Maybe it’s just a story about a dumb animal. Maybe it’s a story about all of us, about how we exploit things around us and how we treat each other with selfishness and greed. Eventually Bresson leaves it up to us to decide what we can take from it.

Pickpocket (1959)

Pickpocket (1959)

Bresson’s fascinating message of hope, simply but superbly deconstructs the addiction of a life of crime

Director: Robert Bresson

Cast: Martin Lasalle (Michel), Marika Green (Jeanne), Jean Pelegri (Police Inspector), Dolly Scal (Michel’s mother), Pierre Leymarie (Jacques), Kassagi (First Accomplice), Pierre Etaix (Second Accomplice), Cesar Cattegno (Inspector)

A man watches with fixed eyes, breathless and tense, as another man’s hands artfully dodge out from beneath his newspaper to caress the lapels of his fellow train passenger, coming away with a wallet clasped between the folds of his paper. It has a clammy sense of the illicit, a tempting underbelly of the world, where the normal rules don’t apply and the special can take advantage of others because they deserve the world’s benefits more. It’s about being a pickpocket, but it could be about any shadowy world just under what society permits, where the attraction is being part of the club more than any of the actual awards from the act.

No wonder pickpocket Michel (Martin Lasalle) starts to believe his own pumped-up hype: he’s no ordinary man, but a superman, an uber-mensch who has a right to help himself to the gains of others. Getting caught? It will never happen: after all just fools and little people stumble into that trap. Instead, Michel walks through the streets of Paris with the fixed glare of the addict, who can’t wait for his next stealing fix. He’ll take from anyone (even his own mother), ignore the pleas of friends, taunt a police inspector and hoard his gains in a secret nook under his bed. Even the glances that come his way from the daughter of his mother’s landlord, Jeanne (Marika Green), can’t win him away from his longing for the buzz of crime.

Bresson’s perfectly formed novella of a film (it clocks in at a trim 74 minutes) turns this into a profound journey into one man’s soul, where he will constantly dance between temptation and redemption. Loosely inspired by Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (the criminal who thinks he is a better man, the police officer he engages in a battle of wits), Bresson uses this underlying idea to craft a profound, articulate and focused study of the emptiness behind indulging our worst instincts.

Because that’s what Michel is doing. He’s clearly smart enough to find a proper job, casting aside the offers of his friend Jacques to fix him up. But he can’t raise the passion for a normal life. Bresson, whose style embraced the rawness of unnatural performers, almost literally plucked Martin Lasalle from the streets. Carefully tutored by Bresson, all artificial effects were hammered out of him, leaving Lasalle a blank and exact performer. It works perfectly for Bresson’s concept of the criminal as a dysfunctional human, unable to relate to or understand others, unable to engage in the world, coming to life for his crimes and plodding through the rest of time with monotony and a striking lack of emotional engagement. (It admittedly works less well for those scenes where Lasalle must demonstrate emotion, which he plays with a mechanical dutifulness.)

Michel can’t bring himself to see his dying mother, dropping money off with Jeanne to pass over for him (money, it later transpires, he had stolen from her in any case). His friendship with Jacques sees him go blandly through the emotions. We constantly see him trudging up and down stairs, opening and closing his door, moving his few possessions around, all of it with clockwork regularity that seems relentless. He falls in with fellow pickpockets but doesn’t even learn their names. The most he ever seems engaged is during his sly exchanges with a police inspector (avuncular Jean Pelegri) who seems certain he’s a thief.

Perhaps Michel is so relatively animated in these exchanges because he’s desperate to be caught. Because how can you be a superman, if no one can really see what you are doing? The bitter irony is, your genius for theft can only be publicly acknowledged by being caught, the greatest failure of any thief. But Michel longs, in some part of himself, for recognition, praise and to stand-out. His life – in a grimy bedsit, wearing the same ill-fitting suit (which hangs about him, as if exaggerating his blankness) – is strikingly un-special. His best attribute as a pickpocket is that he’s a non-entity you wouldn’t look at twice. Is there a bigger slap in the face for the man who would be king, that his greatest strength is his ability to not be seen?

It must be particularly harsh, as Bresson makes clear Michel isn’t even a particularly adept pickpocket. He fluffs his first few attempts, his heart pounding so much that he can’t bring about the steady hands needed. His early crimes are clumsy and ineffective. At a race meet that opens the film, he filches cash from a lady’s handbag and only a lack of evidence saves him when he is immediately picked up. When he is finally found by his expert accomplice (played by real-life thief, and master of sleight-of-hand, Kassagi), his crude techniques are ruthlessly exposed.

This would-be superman never reaches the heights of Kassagi. Bresson’s shooting of the pickpocket’s crimes are edited like the greatest heist thrillers, tense moments of balletic beauty. We see hands carefully unbutton jackets from behind. Wallets knocked out of pockets and caught as they slide down a person’s body. Wrists are clasped and stroked as watches are removed. The pickpockets work in a team of three: one takes the wallet, passes it to a second who palms it instantly to a third who escapes. All this is caught by Bresson with all the grace of Gene Kelly. It’s exciting, dynamic – and also (you can’t escape it) sensual. You can see why Michel gets such a thrill out of it.

But he’s also the least of his team of three – and when the other two get nicked, he really should take the hint. He practises at length to make his fingers more supple, his ability to grasp watches and wallets more fluid. But his movements are never quite graceful enough, his face always a little too sweaty, his eyes flicking a little too much as if worried about being caught in an assignation. Later he travels to London but returns penniless, too inept to keep hold of his cash from card-sharps.

Bresson’s film reaches, gently but highly effectively, for a spiritual message. What joy or grace is there for Michel? Crime and the dreams of being someone special fill a void in his life. That void has no room for friends or family. Not even for God, who he’s touched by “for three minutes” at his mother’s funeral. Even the (to us) evident love of Jeanne can’t really touch him enough to change his ways. Or at least, perhaps not until he hits rock bottom where, like Paul on the road to Damascus, he will have a sudden vision, trapped behind bars, that life can be different.

To give that impact, Bresson has to show (and understand) the lurid temptation of a life beyond the rules and the norms. Pickpocketing was his tool – and it perfectly conveys the addictive glamour of feeling superior to others – but really it could have been the buzz of any addiction, the thieves hunting each other out with the knowing eyes of fellow addicts. These sensual delights are false though, engaging and absorbing as they are. Told without melodrama, it’s a stunning, hard-boiled thriller that ripens into a profound, subtle and intelligent parable, assembled with a cool, exact genius that makes filmmaking look simple.