Monday, 4 February 2019

Balthazar (Au Hasard Balthazar) (1966)

Hvad med Balthazar?

The last movie of 1966 is “Au Hasard Balthazar”, a movie by Robert Bresson.

This is, at surface value, another one of those movies that does not seem to be about anything.

A girl, Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) and a donkey, Balthazar, go through life suffering evilness from people, life, family and random events. Marie and Jacques are childhood friends, then Jacques has to leave. Marie and her father live on a farm but he is in some unspecified trouble because he is too proud (??). Marie is terrorized by the local bad boy Gérard, but then she submits to him and becomes his girlfriend. Gérard does a lot of stupid and mean things and Marie defends him. One of these things involves an older drunkard Arnold who eventually dies. 

In the end Marie is stripped naked and dies. 

Balthazar is always there in the background with changing owners who usually treat it badly. The only one who seems to care about it is Marie, but eventually it also dies, in the mountains surrounded by sheep after it has been made a saint.

In this perspective this is an immensely boring movie made even worse by the artificial acting, the nonsensical actions and a stilted, sparse dialogue.

The clue here is of course that all this is just symbols for the real story. Without being able to claim that I fully understand it, it has something to do with innocence and goodness in the face of evil. Something about sainthood. Marie and the donkey are good, and Gérard and his ilk is the devil and nobody cares about her and the donkey while they take the pain of the world upon themselves. Something like that.

The problem for me here is that Bresson is so eager to tell the symbolic story that he does not really care about the apparent story. I am all for that there is a deeper meaning, but in this case the emphasis on the symbolism makes what we see obscure and sometimes outright stupid. Marie in particular makes very little sense and is thoroughly artificial. It is a shame, because I can actually see where this could go if Bresson had gone for a more naturalistic expression. We saw something similar in “Diary of a Country Priest” so it is a Bresson feature, but he also made “A Man Escaped” which works great.

According to Wikipedia there are people who absolutely love this movie, while others like Ingmar Bergman apparently did not. He said "this Balthazar, I didn't understand a word of it, it was so completely boring... A donkey, to me, is completely uninteresting, but a human being is always interesting." I tend to agree.

This is a difficult movie to recommend. It is very polarizing, and I am not a fan, though I am certain others will be of a different opinion.

And thus ends 1966. On to 1967…


  1. Regarding your comment near the end of your review, there are absolutely people who love this movie supremely; its got a 4.0 out of 5 on Letterboxd, which basically means a ton of people ended up giving it a 5-star rating and the average is swung dramatically toward the high end of the scale. You can read some of the 5-star reviews on there to get a better picture of how beloved and affecting this movie is to a lot of people.

    But not to me; I hated this.

    At least you got a little more out of the subtext than I did when I watched this, but I totally agree with how empty and devoid this was, and I couldn't understand how a film of such emptiness and void could somehow create a huge swelling of emotion in people; it was a massive paradox that I could not reconcile in my head.

    Yeah, you're not alone in feeling nothing towards this.

    1. It does seem to be massively polarizing. Based on some of those sweeping reviews I expected to be blown away and instead I got this. To me it is a classic example of a director getting too preoccupied with the subtext to make a watchable movie. I am okay with movies that are difficult to decode if at least what I see is interesting and this just was not.

  2. Now you are a whole year ahead of me. Not that it is a competition! Hope I will find a way to get back in the groove. The mid-60's are mostly totally uninspiring to me. 67 is a great year if I recall correctly.

    1. I have been worried for you, Bea. If having problems getting into the groove is all it is then I am less worried. That is something you can control. My suggestion would be to cut away movies you can see up front will be misery to watch. Godard for example. That should make the remaining far more appetizing.

      I am looking forward to 67. Sure, there are crappy movies there as well, but also a lot of excellent movies.

    2. Just saw your comment on Steve's blog on the Sci-fi list. I will comment on those I find on your blog, though some of them I have already reviewed. So far we did The Voyage to the Moon, Himmelskibet, Aelita, Paris Asleep and Metropolis.

    3. I've been out of town for a week. Skipping Goddard sounds like a great idea! I didn't really start reviewing films on the blog until the year 1934. After that I've tried to catch all the scifi I could find.