Sunday, January 29, 2006

DONKEY LABOR. I blush to admit that tonight was the first time I had seen Au Hasard, Balthazar. I saw Bresson's L'Argent years ago, and never visited him again, but now I want to see all his movies. I understand this is a common reaction.

The story, such as it is, is probably familiar to you: a donkey's life, and the lives of the people around him, none of which go particularly well, but all of which are ennobled by the telling of the tale. I was amazed, after all these years, to recognize in Balthazar Bresson tropes from L'Argent: concentration on hands and legs, tears that appear without histrionic squeezing ("Don't mock my tears, Gerard"), and a benumbed performance style.

I had heard plenty about the Christian sensibility of the film, and it is unavoidable, but the donkey's role in the proceedings surely is not that of Christ, or at least not that of the exemplary Christ seen in most film treatments (to take the most noble example, Johannes in Ordet). Balthazar is beaten, persevering, and loyal, but his example neither teaches nor saves anyone. Even Anne, who loved him as a child, mostly ignores him after she has taken up with the silly moped gangsters. The drunkard is close in status to a mystic -- barefoot, misanthropic, prayerful, and given a second chance by a mysterious inheritance -- and at times he seems like the most natural companion to Balthazar, even in his superstitious cruelty toward him ("Satan! Jinx!"), but in the end merely falls, with a kind word, off Balthazar's back to his death.

What then makes Balthazar's presence so powerful in the film? Perhaps his necessity. Everyone needs Balthazar, to carry loads, to smuggle, to love (briefly), to perform in a circus, to draw well water. He is the ultimate supernumerary, suddenly and unexpectedly given his own storyline, and his prominence throws a new light on everyone around him. Everyone avails him, but only the audience sees Balthazar's importance, or cares about what happens to him, and only we (along with other beasts of the fields) are around to observe and mourn his passing. If Christ is in this picture, he is only in our reaction.

Balthazar reminds me in some ways of the subservient Schmurz in Vian's The Empire Builders -- but unlike the Schmurz, he does not come to collect his due at the end. (Maybe that would be Mel Gibson's Au Hasard, Balthazar.) He also reminds me, perhaps more appropriately, of Firs at the close of The Cherry Orchard. I think Chekhov wanted to create a moment there that would sharply and suddenly contrast the rich folks' struggle of vanities over the old and new orders, which comprises the rest of the play, with an earthier correlative: an old, enfeebled, abandoned retainer, lying down as if for a moment, but really for the last time, at the post. Maybe Bresson's insight was to build a whole work of art around that: the forgotten party, the "sound of a broken string," and the axes working in the background.

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