REVIEW: Au hasard Balthazar [1966]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 95 minutes
    Release Date: May 25th, 1966 (France)
    Studio: Athos Films / Cinema Ventures
    Director(s): Robert Bresson
    Writer(s): Robert Bresson

The road cured him.

I was told that Robert Bresson‘s Au hasard Balthazar was a heartbreaking story that could stir the emotions of even the most jaded audience member. By the end, I guess I proved them wrong since it left me cold for the duration. I get it, though. This metaphorical depiction of Christianity by way of the seven deadly sins is constructed in such a way to demand a reaction. Tragedy after tragedy occurs as men refuse to see the error of their stubbornness and villainy before ultimately leaving the two most innocent creatures in this rural French border town near the Pyrenees utterly defeated with seemingly no road back to the idyllic hopes and dreams of youth. Reality rarely leaves room for such happily ever afters.

While Bresson directs the heck out of it and the cinematography is undeniably gorgeous, there simply was nowhere for me to grab hold. You cannot watch without feeling sorrow for Marie’s (Anne Wiazemsky) plight, but the film has no interest in letting us believe things might turn around. The moment we’re made to believe she was raped by Gérard (François Lafarge) and subsequently lost to his gang to be used, abused, and ultimately thrown away, the whole becomes trauma porn. Which man will be next? Which man will see her as an object to be wielded as a tool for his needs like the oft-abused titular Balthazar? How much more can her prideful father and crushed mother take? Bresson has an answer.

Is it a profound one? Not really. Take that with a grain of salt considering I’m watching it over fifty years removed from its release, but I don’t see it. Maybe that says more about me. Perhaps I’m too jaded to get beneath the surface and find something here that I haven’t already grown too tired of seeing outside my window on a daily basis. The misogyny. The callous abuse. The entitlement. Jean-Luc Godard wasn’t wrong when he said the film is “the world in an hour and a half.” I simply didn’t need to see it. I didn’t need to pretend to have to feel its suffering as though feeling it hadn’t already numbed me to its ubiquity.

I won’t lie and say the use of non-professional actors doesn’t help either. So often something happens that the characters just accept and move on. Marie tells her childhood crush Jacques (Walter Green) that she wants to have it out with her rapist and his gang before starting a new life with him and he just robotically turns around and walks off to let her do it by herself—despite being the only one who knows exactly what they did to her. The whole film is stilted in this way. Like it knows it needs to take liberties with the emotions of its characters to manipulate the emotions of its audience. I just couldn’t get on-board. Going through the motions wasn’t enough.

So, while I can objectively understand why Au hasard Balthazar is revered as one of the greatest films ever made, I cannot subjectively agree that it made me feel anything I didn’t already feel about the futility and horrors of mankind. If anything, it made me feel less than I already had considering its positioning of the constantly beaten down donkey as our surrogate watching the world reveal its true nature. Because if we’re supposed to believe he’s a saint for enduring it all and bearing witness, that means we are too. And if that’s the case, I want nothing to do with sainthood. Accepting the cruel fate that the best of us die tragically while the worst shirk responsibility for their actions is what got us here. I don’t see beauty in that sort of martyrdom. I see failure.

The craft is thus beyond reproach. Bresson has this thing chugging along at a fast clip with time fluidly progressing through context clues without the need to slow down for exposition. We know who to hate and who to pity (Marie and Balthazar are kind of on an island alone in this respect) and where to toe the line separating both with more complicated figures such as Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert). That everything is supplied so succinctly, however, did ultimately enhance my sense of being held at arm’s length. The script is so overt in its machinations and quick to move to the next set-piece that it’s tough to approach the material on any level beyond pragmatism. It just wasn’t for me, but I’m happy it is for most.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.