Daryl Chin

The Strange Luck of Au Hasard, Balthazar

The following article was originally conceived as a newspaper piece; it was written in September 2003 just before the October 2003 theatrical run of Balthazar at Film Forum. The article is published here for the first time, with the kind permission of the author, who retains copyright. Daryl Chin is a playwright and critic, and was a co-founder of the Asian-American International Film Festival in New York. (Photo credit: Anthology Film Archives.)

ALTHOUGH Robert Bresson's 1966 Au Hasard, Balthazar instantly attained its status as a classic, the current revival run at New York City's Film Forum (October 17 – 30, 2003) actually represents the first theatrical release for the film in the United States. Au Hasard, Balthazar has continued to intrigue film critics and scholars (it missed placing in the Top Ten during the 2002 Sight & Sound poll of international critics, but it made it into the Top Twenty), but it is one of those classics that remains virtually invisible to the public at large, certainly in this country. (For the record, Au Hasard, Balthazar tied with two other films at Number 19: Truffaut's Jules and Jim and Antonioni's L'Avventura.)

The circumstances of the making of Au Hasard, Balthazar were anomalous in the extreme. Mag Bodard, the French producer whose company Parc Films was actually a very small, independent concern, had just had a huge international success with Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964); Demy was an avowed disciple of Bresson (Elina Labourdette, who played Cecile's mother in Demy's first feature, Lola, had been the ingenue in Bresson's Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne; stills from Bresson's film are used in Lola to represent the character's past); Demy put Mag Bodard in touch with Bresson for the express purpose of producing Bresson's next film. Since the mid-1950s, Bresson's dream project had been a film about the legend of King Arthur, but the budget for that project proved too much for Bodard's limited finances. Turning to an anecdote from Dostoevsky's The Idiot, Bresson came up with an original script about the turmoil of an adolescent girl in a small border village; the trick was that the story of Marie would be contrasted with the life of her pet, a donkey she has named Balthazar. The financing for the film would be part of a deal involving coproduction money with Svensk Filmindustri; the only requirement was that there had to be some Swedish personnel involved. (This was the same deal which also brought about Jean-Luc Godard's Masculine Feminine for George De Beauregard's Rome-Paris Films.) By the end of 1965, with a script ready and the film cast, Bresson set about the production of Au Hasard, Balthazar, only the second "original" screenplay of his career (his previous works had been adaptations of novels or nonfiction, with the exception of Pickpocket).

During the 1950s, Bresson had developed an intensely austere cinematic style, one which relied heavily on voice-over narration (Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, and Pickpocket); in 1962, he dispensed with the voice-over narration, but continued with the rigorous usage of editing, in The Trial of Joan of Arc. Bresson's notoriously ascetic methods, and his daunting high-mindedness, had not made him an accessible figure in French culture. By 1965, he had made only six films in a career of more than twenty years. Au Hasard, Balthazar would change all that.

Though by no means a box office blockbuster, Au Hasard, Balthazar had started out as a relatively low-budget film, and made enough of a profit that Mag Bodard was emboldened to produce further films by Bresson. This would inaugurate the most productive phase of Bresson's career: in a span of five years, he would make four films, Au Hasard, Balthazar in 1966, Mouchette in 1967, Une Femme Douce in 1969, and Four Nights of a Dreamer in 1971. Finally, in 1974, Bresson was able to realize his dream project of Lancelot du Lac. But it is with Au Hasard, Balthazar that Bresson's art would reach its apex.

For Bresson, Au Hasard, Balthazar would mark a new beginning. Previously, he had collaborated with the cinematographer Leonce-Henri Burel, who had begun his career with Abel Gance on such films as J'Accuse (1919) and Napoleon (1927). The famous collaboration, which spanned the films from Diary of a Country Priest to The Trial of Joan of Arc, was noted for the extreme delicacy and evenness in the black-and-white contrasts. But on The Trial of Joan of Arc, Bresson and Burel argued over the treatment of Florence Carrez; Burel felt that, without ruining the even visual schema, Carrez could be lit so that she would display the radiance Burel thought was essential. Bresson, never one to brook any disagreement (at all), refused to listen, and the Bresson-Burel artistic partnership ended.

For Au Hasard, Balthazar, Bresson would begin his collaboration with Ghislain Cloquet, an adventurous cinematographer who also had done work in the United States (Cloquet was just coming off the black-and-white pyrotechnics of Arthur Penn's Mickey One). With Cloquet, Bresson would evolve a cinematic style of subtle, sun-dappled radiance; without extending the photography into extremes of chiaroscuro contrast, Cloquet would heighten the lighting so that even the greys would glisten. (This was a style that Cloquet would continue when he worked with Marguerite Duras on Nathalie Granger and with Woody Allen on Love and Death.) Cloquet's mastery was such that he was able to accomplish this radiance with only the use of natural lighting. In this, of course, Bresson and Cloquet would be continuing the experiments of the New Wave, particularly the work of the cinematographer Raoul Coutard with Godard (Breathless, My Life to Live, Band of Outsiders), Jacques Demy (Lola) and Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim), in which new film stocks were experimented with, as well as new camera equipment, for flexibility, naturalness, and vibrancy. With Cloquet, Bresson would create two of the most radiant black-and-white films of the 1960s, Au Hasard, Balthazar and Mouchette. After Mouchette, Bresson would work in color for his last five films.

Another significant change in Bresson's career would be the emphasis on youth. His previous films had been about young adults: the novice priest in Diary of a Country Priest, the prisoner of war in A Man Escaped, the apprentice pickpocket in Pickpocket. Joan of Arc had been a teen-age warrior, but the film had been concerned with the testimony of her final trials, when she was nearing adulthood. But Au Hasard, Balthazar would focus on Marie, a teenage girl; she would be the first of Bresson's portraits of disenchanted teenagers. (In this, Bresson's career would have similarities to Eric Rohmer's, many of whose later films have teen-age protagonists. As some directors get older, their interest in younger characters seems to increase.) The culmination of what would seem to be Bresson's interest in youth would be his epic of disaffection, The Devil, Probably (1977).

Robert Bresson was born in 1901, though for many years he claimed to have been born in 1907, possibly because film is an artform which seems to place a premium on youth. (When Bresson died in 1999, his widow, Mylene Bresson, admitted Bresson's deception.) Trained as a painter, Bresson started working in film in the early 1930s, first as a screenwriter, and then as an assistant director to one of the early masters of French cinema, Rene Clair. He directed a comedy short, Affaires Publiques in 1934, with the music hall comedian Beby. In 1943 (after a period in a German prisoner-of-war camp, an experience would he would recreate in A Man Escaped), Bresson was given the opportunity to direct a film for the Jesuits, with a screenplay written by Bresson in collaboration with a priest, Father Bruckberger, and the playwright Jean Giraudoux contributing the dialogue. The resulting feature, Les Anges du Peche, was heralded as one of the most significant directorial debuts in French cinema. This story of nuns struggling with adherence to their vows and with redemption had a cast that included many notable actresses, including Jany Holt, Sylvie, and Mila Parely. Les Anges du Peche was a stunningly controlled debut, with almost voluptuous black-and-white cinematography from Philippe Agostini, and a quietly pulsing score by Jean-Jacques Gruenwald. Les Anges du Peche was followed by Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, an ascetic, severe, austere romantic drama, with Jean Cocteau providing the dialogue, and Maria Casares, Paul Bernard, Elina Labourdette, and Lucienne Bogaert in the leads. Casares, one of the most celebrated stage actresses of her generation, would prove to be contentious; though her performance is nothing less than magnificent, Bresson was furious at her constant questioning, her attempt at artistic collaboration. From then on, Bresson would insist on working with nonprofessionals, people who would simply do what they were told. Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne would prove to be too severe, in fact: it was a financial disaster, which almost brought Bresson's career to a halt. But the failure of Les Dames would only make Bresson more determined to forge his own, singular style.

Bresson would also insist on a severe acting style: absolutely flat, almost expressionless, resolutely interior. His characters are engaged in the specificity of tasks: the endless parish routines in Diary of a Country Priest, the steadfast planning of the prison break in A Man Escaped, the painstaking thieving skills of Pickpocket, the ceaseless repetition of answers in The Trial of Joan of Arc. The focus on the tasks at hand prevents Bresson's characters from trying to be likable, seeking audience approval: their engagement is entirely interior, they are so completely self-contained.

Bresson's films do not break down into sequences; rather, Bresson atomizes his stories so that continuity comes from the constant progression of shots. What this means is that his films aren't structured so that there are major scenes; rather, his films are structured so that there are individual shots, which edited together create narrative continuity. In the films from Diary of a Country Priest to The Trial of Joan of Arc, a lot of this narrative continuity would come from the verbal information provided on the soundtrack; famously, in Diary, A Man Escaped and Pickpocket, this meant the utilization of a voice-over narration; in The Trial of Joan of Arc, this meant a reliance on the transcripts of the actual trials.

In the decades that he had worked on the script for Lancelot du Lac, Bresson would compress and fragment the narrative. The style he would chose for Lancelot would be in the style of modernist mosaic fragmentation, a style that had been used by Louis Malle in Zazie dans le Metro (1960) and Alain Resnais in Muriel (1963). (Malle would work for Bresson during the mid-1950s, just before beginning his own career as a filmmaker.) But his ideas on compression would reach fruition first in Au Hasard, Balthazar.

The credit sequence of Au Hasard, Balthazar remains one of the most startling in film history. Against a grey backdrop, the titles appear: the cast, the credits, the title, all in lower-case letters. This is accompanied by Jean-Joel Barbier's rendition of Schubert's Piano Sonata No. 20. So far, so good: there's the immediate establishment of tranquility, when suddenly, the braying of a donkey interrupts the music. It happens so fast and so sharply, that audiences frequently burst into laughter. But the braying continues, until the sound becomes relentless. The constancy, the insistence, the continuation beyond what would seem to be normal: this is the first indication that Au Hasard, Balthazar isn't going to be structured like most films.

The film begin with a shot of the baby donkey, though the shot seems slightly off-center; small hands enter the frame; there is a cut to a fuller picture, as we see two children caressing the baby donkey. The children ask for the donkey, a cut to a man who says, "Impossible." Then a cut, as the baby donkey is led away by the man, accompanied by the little boy and girl. The compression of this sequence is striking: a lot of the continuity is created in a very elliptical manner, with a great deal of inference being assumed for the audience. There are a succession of brief shots, which show children at play, one little girl who is sick, the family packing to return to the city, the sick girl dying, the children parting, one girl to stay in the village with her parents. In less than five minutes, an awful lot of "story" has happened, in the most compressed manner possible.

In this most rigorously edited of movies, cuts are used in a variety of ways: to join one image to another, to continue one scene from different angles, to displace time, so that the edits are used as either continuity or ellipses. Certainly, Au Hasard, Balthazar is one of the most elliptical movies ever made, with an enormous number of storylines, involving a wide variety of characters, condensed into an astonishingly compact 88 minutes.

What links all the characters is the figure of the donkey, Balthazar. His life and tribulations provide the center for a series of interrelated characters, from Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), to her father (Philippe Asselin), to Gerard, her boyfriend (Francois Lafarge), to Arnold, the town drunk (Jean-Claude Guilbert), to the grain merchant (Pierre Klossowsky). Marie's story is the most prominent, as she goes from innocence to willful rebellion, exemplified by her flirtation with the brutish Gerard. Gerard, with his black leather jacket and his motorbike, is the most implacable character in all of Bresson, yet, in Au Hasard, Balthazar, all the characters (with the exception of Marie) are characterized through one specific trait. The grain merchant, for example, is characterized by his miserliness, a hunched, pinched, wizened old man. His posture, the extreme curve of his back, and his sunken face, are his character.

There's been a lot written about Bresson over the years, yet for many years, there has been the myth of Bresson's inaccessibility. In September 2003, as part of the Howl! Festival of the Lower East Side, the musician and poet Richard Hell was among the presenters of a retrospective of Bresson's films at Anthology Film Archives. In 1998, James Quandt of the Cinematheque Ontario organized a complete Bresson retrospective, which traveled to a number of sites in Canada and the United States, including New York's Museum of Modern Art. These retrospectives have proven to be notably successful, with sizable audiences turning up for these films. There are indications that, in fact, the time might prove favorable for the release of Bresson's films. (Of course, with Bresson's luck, his death came just as the retrospective organized by Quandt was making its way across North America.)

Since Bresson made his last film, L'Argent, in 1983, successive generations have come, influenced by his rigor, his austerity, and his incredible ingenuity in making complex films on extremely low budgets. The American independent film scene is almost literally littered with the remains of Bresson's epigones, including Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, and Mark Rappaport. So perhaps the time for the theatrical run of Au Hasard, Balthazar is fortuitous.

Among specialty audiences, the interest in Bresson's work has been intense: the first retrospective of Bresson's films at The Museum of Modern Art in 1970 was quite successful, with capacity audiences for most of the screenings. My own interest in Bresson's work dates from my seeing Diary of a Country Priest and Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne during the summer of 1964, at the old Thalia Theater; at that time, I hadn't yet reached eleven, and that summer was the first one where we stayed in the city. In New York City, certainly from the 1940s until the mid-1960s, the first show at many second-run and revival movie theaters could be priced at twenty-five cents. For a movie-mad child, this was heaven: for a dollar, you could see four double-bills a week, just as long as you went to the first show at noon. By 1966, when I got to see Au Hasard, Balthazar at the New York Film Festival, I was a devoted fan, but I wasn't prepared for the revelation of the work.

Looking back, it is hard to explain exactly why. It's too easy to just reach for the standard critical apparatus and toss around words like "ecstatic" and "sublime" and "profound" in describing one's reaction. I did that when I was eleven: there must be a better way.

In one of the best essays on Bresson that I know, P. Adams Sitney's "The Rhetoric of Robert Bresson" (reprinted in the Cinemathque Ontario's monograph on Bresson edited by James Quandt, which accompanied the retrospective), Sitney notes that Au Hasard, Balthazar is one of the most ambiguous, elliptical, and concentrated films that Bresson ever made, and then he enumerates a number of the ways this is accomplished. Sitney cites the way that the film fragments information, so that, ultimately, no one person serves as the protagonist; by deflecting attention from the humans in the story to the donkey, Bresson is able to provide a constant presence as the center of the film, without resorting to standard characterizations. One reason I'm citing this essay is that, in the course of discussing the ambiguities of the film, Sitney had occasion to cite me: "Bresson extends the ambiguity to the very identity of his characters. When I first saw the film, I assumed without question that the woman living with Marie's father late in the film was an intimate housekeeper. It was only after I heard her referred to as the mother by a critic of the film that I considered that possibility. According to the script, published in Italian translation, she is Marie's mother, yet subsequent reviewing of the film does not clarify this ambivalence within the context." When P. Adams Sitney and I discussed the film, I told him that Bresson couldn't be that ambiguous, that the linearity of the structure made certain implications logical. A famous instance of this is the last scenes of Marie: she is shown going to an isolated cottage, where she has been told to meet Gerard. She explores the cottage. Then there is a cut, as Gerard's gang runs out of the cottage, waving and throwing her clothes around. Then there is a cut, to shots of Marie's father and Jacques, her childhood boyfriend, approaching the house. They see a crowd of young men, looking into a window. They approach the house, and the young men scatter; as they look into the window, there is a shot of Marie naked, crouched in a corner. The audience infers that Marie has been set up, that she has been raped and beaten; when she no longer appears in the film, the implication is that she has left the village.

What made Bresson's film so exciting was that, by the extreme compression of the narrative, Bresson was allowing the story to build. It's as if Bresson were giving you only enough information for you to grasp the essentials of the story: the rest is up to you. But the intellectual rigor of Bresson's film still won't tell you about the incredible visual beauty: no matter what happens in the film, the images are some of the most glistening and genuinely radiant ever put on film. Au Hasard, Balthazar is an overwhelmingly sensual film; coupled with its narrative complexities, for audiences willing to follow Bresson's logic, there's no end to the film's fascination. (In his essay, P. Adams Sitney joked that Jean-Luc Godard had succumbed to the magic of Au Hasard, Balthazar by marrying into it; indeed, Anne Wiazemsky would follow her performance in the Bresson film with her performance as the archetypal student radical in Godard's La Chinoise; afterwards, she and Godard would marry, she would appear in many of the films made during Godard's radical "Dziga Vertov Group" period, such as Sympathy for the Devil and Wind from the East, in addition to working with such directors as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Marco Ferreri. Wiazemsky would continue her interest in radical politics throughout the 1970s; in recent years, she has turned to writing, as indicated by her excellent screenplay for Claire Denis's film, U.S. Go Home, in 1996.)

Bresson's manner of casting should be noted. He never liked to try to hunt down people. Rather, he used his particular social standing as a renowned French cultural figure to put him into contact with people. He would often meet his prospective cast members at social gatherings, public receptions or dinner parties. For that reason, no matter what the social standing of the characters, his performers (he always used the term "models" rather than "actors") invariably came from the upper reaches of French society. Obviously, this was the case of Anne Wiazemsky, whose grandfather was the novelist Francois Mauriac, and whose uncle Claude Mauriac was a famous film critic; the grain merchant was played by Pierre Klossowsky, a writer and artist whose wide- ranging activities included translating Nietzsche and Heidegger into French, as well as writing essays on Sade and Nietzsche. Klossowsky's brother was the painter Balthus. (During the 1950s, all of the leads in Bresson's films were university students, none of whom had any interest in acting; following Au Hasard, Balthazar, Bresson's casting methods would be noted in Antoine Monnier in The Devil, Probably, always cited as the grandson of Matisse, and Caroline Lang in L'Argent, the daughter of the then-Minister of Culture, Jack Lang.) Bresson's casting became part of the publicity lore of his films: anything that could be used was used as an attempt to make his films more accessible to audiences. In this regard, the trailer for Au Hasard, Balthazar is a highlight: the trailer focuses on the character of Gerard, making Au Hasard, Balthazar seem like a Gallic version of The Wild One.

In 1969, two young men from Yale, Thomas Russell III and Martin Rubin, started a film distribution company called Cinema Ventures; Au Hasard, Balthazar and Mouchette were their first acquisitions. But, unfortunately, they were never able to actually release the films theatrically. The rights soon lapsed, and, quietly, were bought by Dan Talbot of New Yorker Films. By the time New Yorker Films had the rights, the time to provide a theatrical run for that pair of films seemed to have passed. Instead, the films played dates at the various revival houses in New York City, such as The New Yorker Theater, the Thalia, the Carnegie Hall and the Bleecker Street Cinemas. But Au Hasard, Balthazar never quite had a theatrical run, so the possibility of an audience for the film never had to be faced. The repertory engagements (a day here, maybe two days somewhere else) seemed to indicate that there might be an audience, but there hasn't been a real test until now. When he was working for the New York Times, Roger Greenspun took one of these repertory house engagements as an indication of a theatrical release so that Au Hasard, Balthazar could get an official review in New York City's paper of record. In 1970, when Anthology Film Archives opened in its first home at The Public Theater, Au Hasard, Balthazar was part of the "Essential Cinema" collection, with an unsubtitled print frequently shown as part of Anthology's cycle of screenings.

In 1970, I was privileged to help with that first retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art. Donald Richie, then the curator of film, gave me the honor of allowing me to talk to Bresson by telephone. Actually, there was an ulterior motive: since I was 16 years old, I think Donald thought if I invited Bresson to come to New York City, Bresson might be more hesitant to refuse a child. Bresson was made of sterner stuff: he'd made up his mind, and he wasn't going to change it. He spoke English, which wasn't surprising, as I had heard that he was fluent in the language. He didn't speak slowly, so much as deliberately. I remember two things. I had read all sorts of interpretations of Bresson's work, and there had been discussions of whether or not Bresson believed in predestination. Whether or not on a philosophical level he did, I couldn't say, but on a practical level, he did seem to believe in luck (which is why he came up with the title Au Hasard, Balthazar). In 1970, he was in the midst of the production of Four Nights of a Dreamer; as noted, this would be his fourth film in a five year period, and he mentioned that he felt he could not take the time to divert his attention from his work, because he had never been blessed with such intensive productivity, and he didn't want to take the chance that his luck would change. And when I asked if he would come to New York, he replied, "I have made many mistakes in my life, but coming to New York will not be one of them."

Whatever mistakes Bresson may have made in his life, Au Hasard, Balthazar certainly isn't one of them. end block

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