The title of the film: "Au hasard Balthazar est la devise des comtes des Baux-de-Provence qu se disaient descendants du roi mage Balthazar" (L'Avant-Scène Cinéma, Janvier/février 1992). It is also a wordplay [o a.zaʁ bal.ta.zaʁ]. It means several things, among others in English: Balthazar at Random, and in Finnish: Sattumoisin Balthazar. My French is not good but I imagine the title means also At the Mercy of Chance / Sattuman huomaan, Balthazar.
A KAVI print (a vintage Suomi-Filmi deposit) viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Robert Bresson), 4 August 2015
Revisited Au hasard Balthazar, a turning-point in Robert Bresson's oeuvre. After a series of films about a quest for grace, Balthazar opens to a world where grace is hard to find.
Balthazar is about the fall from grace.
Balthazar is connected to Bresson's following film, Mouchette, and also to his final films, Le Diable, probablement, and L'Argent. They are about a world and a generation that seem to have lost spirituality. But Bresson's look is deeply spiritual.
Bresson's view on the external forms of the Church is reserved. Gérard sings piously in the Church choir, but he is a young man without a conscience. On his dying bed Marie's desillusioned father turns his back on the priest. Yet Balthazar is rich in religious imagery.
The account of reality in Balthazar is broader and richer than in Bresson's previous films which were much more tightly focused on the protagonist. Like L'Argent, Balthazar is a Querschnitt film. In L'Argent, money is "connecting people". In Balthazar it is the donkey.
The donkey's way is followed in seven stages: the birth and the happy childhood, the boulangerie, the vagabond, the circus, the mill, the contraband, and the death by the stray gunshot by the border guard. They are like the seven stages of life by Shakespeare, or perhaps like stages of the Calvary.
We are judged by the way by which we treat the weakest. Balthazar is tortured by fire at his tail. He is beaten. He is let freeze in the winter. At old age, he is forced to operate a heavy millstone. He is carrying smuggler's goods when the border patrol shoots him.
On the other hand, there is the brief happy childhood. Balthazar is caressed by Marie. He is saved from execution by Arnold who takes him to a health spa and revives him. He becomes "the sharpest brain of the century" at the circus where he solves difficult mathematical problems. (Shades of "the ingenious horse" in The Man Without Qualities). Towards the end he plays a notable role in a holy procession.
The parallel story is about Marie. Of the loss of the happiness of childhood she never recovers. Her father sacrifices everything to a property he does not own, turning from teacher to farmer, and is disappointed bitterly, fatally, lethally. Marie is estranged from her childhood boyfriend of the rich owner family. Instead, she is drawn to the company of the amoral and criminal Gérard, a man without a conscience. Marie is corrupted and demoralized.
Besides the several episodes, there are several continuities to reckon with: Balthazar's story, Marie's story, the story of the land, and so on.
It all makes sense, but there is a lot to digest, and instead of telling the story like in a classic novel, Bresson presents it in an elliptical way, with sharp cuts. A favourite device in Balthazar is that one thing is being foreseen, and in the next shot we see the opposite taking place.
Balthazar is a film that needs to be revisited. One of the best films ever made, it has always moved me deeply. It was a long time in the making. It is simple and sharp and full of mysteries.
The vintage print is complete, the visual quality uneven. In the beginning the image quality is less than perfect. (Can the first reel have been reduplicated at least partly due to wear?) Soon it becomes quite good. Ghislain Cloquet's lighting concept is refined, difficult and special, and in this print it can be appreciated. There are the regular signs of wear in the changeovers.
BEYOND THE JUMP BREAK: OUR PROGRAMME NOTE BASED ON GILLES JACOB
BEYOND THE JUMP BREAK: OUR PROGRAMME NOTE BASED ON GILLES JACOB
Maailma muuttuu mutta ei Robert Bresson. Balthazar on hänen suurin ja bressonilaisin elokuvansa, mutta ei pelkästään siksi että se sisältää kaikuja kaikista hänen aikaisemmista elokuvistaan. Se on suuri, koska sen sopusoinnut ja epäsoinnut henkilöiden (etenkin Marien) ja Balthazar-aasin välisissä suhteissa, kuvien ja äänten suhteissa ovat täynnä mahdollisimman dynaamista vuorovaikutusta, jossa kukin osatekijä rikastuu, muuttuu tästä kosketuksesta. Liike ja liikkumattomuus, toistuminen ja täyttymys ovat täynnä mahdollisimman dynaamista vuorovaikutusta, jossa kukin osatekijä rikastuu, muuttuu tästä kosketuksesta. Liike ja liikkumattomuus, toistuminen ja täyttymys, siirtymät jaksosta jaksoon, todellisuus vastaan fantasia, liha vastaan henki, kuva vastaan ääni: Bressonin tyyli toimii täydellisesti kuin hyvin öljytty kone paljastaessaan hänen hellimäänsä salaista, sisäistä liikettä.
Olettaen yleisönsä täysikasvuiseksi Bresson kieltäytyy selittämästä elokuvaansa tai korostamasta sen sinne tänne sijoitettuja avainkohtia. Läpi elokuvan orkesteroidut keskeiset teemat esitellään heti alussa. Näemme äitinsä imettämän aasinvarsan, lapsen hyväilevät kädet, viisauden suolan oudon kasteen, lasten leikit oljissa, penkin, keinun, pienen tytön kuoleman, matkatavaroilla lastatut vaunut; mumistun lauseen ”Ensi vuoteen”, jonka kohtalon ironia tekee merkityksettömäksi heti kun se on lausuttu (isällä ei ole aikomustakaan palata). Sitten nopea siirtymä: iskut satelevat aasin selkään, sitä kengitetään. Hyväilyn jälkeen työn ja vaikeuksien vuodet, hiekka on kärrättävä, pellot kynnettävä. Jakso päättyy kuvaan aasista epäoikeudenmukaisuuden ja tekopyhyyden ruoskan alla.
Jo tässä ovat esillä tärkeimmät teemat Bressonin konsertosta aasille ja orkesterille. Vaunut edustavat lähtöä ja pakoa, penkki vakiintuneisuutta (avioliittoa, perhettä, vaurautta – Jacquesin teema), keinu liikettä, jännitystä, riskiä (lihallista rakkautta, kapinallisuutta, kadotusta – Gérardin, Arnoldin, vanhan saiturin teema). Koko elokuva tapailee tasapainoa näiden napojen välillä: hyvän ja pahan, rikkauden ja köyhyyden, rehellisyyden ja epärehellisyyden, rakkauden ja vihan, uuden ja perinteellisen, pyhän ja maallisen rakkauden, modernin maailman hulluuden ja yksinkertaisen elämän viisauden välillä.
Balthazarin kärsimys ja Gérardin brutaali paljastus seksuaalisen nautinnon ylivallasta näyttävät tien Marien kohtalolle – sattuman kauppaa, ”au hasard de”. Tämä kohtalo täyttyy hänen joutuessaan nahkatakkijengin alasti riisumaksi ja sisään lukitsemaksi. Elokuva näyttää sen vähittäisen prosessin, jossa hänet riisutaan sekä kirjaimellisesti että kuvainnollisesti, fyysisesti ja moraalisesti; eikä mikään prosessi vastaa tarkemmin kuin tämä sitä kuvaa, mikä meillä on Bressonin koko estetiikasta. Epäilemättä Marie tulee siirtymään kädestä käteen kuin Balthazar, jonka seitsemän isäntää kukin edustaa yhtä kuolemansyntiä. Mutta mitä se merkitsee? Kovaksi ja tunteettomaksi kasvanut Marie ei herätä sympatiaa.
Balthazar toisaalta herättää. Inhimillisten lakien alaisena, toisinaan miltei ihmisyyden innoittamana se on samalla kertaa todistaja, tuomari, omatunto, sattuma (hasard). Useiden kohtausten perusteella on selvää, että Marien ja Balthazarin välillä on jonkinlainen yliluonnollinen yhteys – vapauden yhteys. Heidän elämänkohtalonsa näyttävät leikkaavan toisiaan väistämättömästi ja asian tekee vielä monimutkaisemmaksi muiden henkilöiden osallisuus. Bresson kertoo aivan yksinkertaisesti aasin elämäntarinan ja sitä kautta omistajien jatkuvan kierron: Marie-Gérard-Arnold-saituri. Kehä, joka saattaisi alkaa uudelleen, ellei olisi Arnoldia, jonka elämä hetkeksi rinnastuu Balthazarin elämään ja jonka kuolema ennakoi Balthazarin kuolemaa. Ja suurenmoisessa loppujaksossa se tapahtuu ikään kuin silkillä, hajuvesillä ja kullalla lastattu Balthazar, joka vajoaa mäenrinteeseen keskelle lammaslaumaa, hakisi jumalallista anteeksiantoa koko ihmisrodulle tarjoten omaa elämäänsä vastik-keeksi.
– Gilles Jacob (Sight & Sound, Winter 1966/67) ST. Tekijätietoa päivitti AA 22.12.2000
Au hasard Balthazar
By James Quandt (Criterion Collection)
Godard’s famous claim that Au hasard Balthazar is “the world in an hour and a half” suggests how dense, how immense Bresson’s brief, elliptical tale about the life and death of a donkey is. The film’s steady accumulation of incident, characters, mystery, and social detail, its implicative use of sound, offscreen space, and editing, have the miraculous effect of turning the director’s vaunted austerity into endless plenitude, which is perhaps the central paradox of Bresson’s cinema. So concentrated and oblique is Balthazar, it achieves the density, to extend Godard’s metaphor just a little, of an imploded nova.
Bresson’s twin masterpieces of the mid-sixties, Au hasard Balthazar and Mouchette—his last films in black and white—are rural dramas in which the eponymous innocents, a donkey and a girl, suffer a series of assaults and mortifications and then die. With their exquisite renderings of pain and abasement, the films are compendiums of cruelty, whose endings have commonly been interpreted as moments of transfiguration, indicating absolution for a humanity that has been emphatically shown to be not merely fallen but vile. Both “protagonists” expire in nature, one on a hillside, the other in a pond, their deaths accompanied by music of great sublimity: a fragment of Schubert’s Piano Sonata no. 20 and a passage from Monteverdi’s Vespers, respectively. (That these contravene Bresson’s own edict against the use of music as “accompaniment, support, or reinforcement” is significant; he later regretted the rather sentimental employment of the Schubert in Balthazar, and the film without it would be significantly bleaker in effect.) The representation of both deaths is ambiguous. The sacred music in Mouchette (Monteverdi’s “Magnificat,” with its intimations of the Annunciation), Mouchette’s three attempts to “fall” before succeeding, and the held image of the bubbles on the water that has received her body imply to many a divine, even ecstatic deliverance (and a perhaps heretical consecration of suicide). Similarly, Balthazar’s death, accompanied by the secular, albeit exalted, Schubert, as he is surrounded by sheep, suggests to several critics a glorious return to the eternal, a revelation of the divine.
A common reading of Balthazar, relying on an orthodox sense of Bresson’s Catholicism, on the Palm Sunday imagery of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on “the foal of a donkey,” and on the film’s many references to Dostoyevsky—especially The Idiot—ascribes to the animal a Christlike status. In this schema, Balthazar, after enjoying a brief, paradisial childhood, apparent in the image of his nuzzling his mother’s milk that opens the film and in his playful baptism by three children, lives a calvary. Passed from cruel master to cruel master, Balthazar traverses the stations of the cross, beaten, whipped, slapped, burned, mocked, and, in the concluding crucifixion, shot and abandoned to bleed to death, the hillside on which he slowly perishes a modern-day Golgotha. That he dies literally burdened (with contraband) suggests, in this reading, a sacrifice for humanity. This meaning is intensified by Balthazar’s sole, stigmata-like wound and by the sheep that flow around him, a tide of white that surrounds his dark, prostrate form. With their tolling bells, they evoke the Agnus Dei and thereby the liturgy, “Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.” Balthazar has died for the sins of those who have transgressed against him—the alcoholic Arnold, the vicious Gérard, the mean, miserly merchant—and of the few who have not, particularly the martyred Marie, whose fate parallels his.
The interpretation is tempting in its simplicity. That Balthazar passes through the hands of seven masters suggests to some a numerical trace of the seven words from the cross, the seven sacraments of the church formed by Christ’s Passion, or the seven deadly sins. The mock baptism performed by the children and the auditory equation of church bells with Balthazar’s bell indicate the animal’s divinity; Marie’s name suggests the mother of God, and the garland of flowers she makes for Balthazar is reminiscent of Christ’s crown of thorns; the strange bestiary in the circus implies the ark; the smugglers’ gold and perfume are the equivalent of the offerings of the magi; Gérard’s band of blousons noirs represent Christ’s tormentors (or, as Gilles Jacob has suggested, the thieves of Ecclesiastes); the wine that Arnold drinks and the bread that Gérard delivers both suggest transubstantiation; Arnold is in many ways a Judas figure; and so on.
But Bresson’s art never proceeded by strict or simple analogy—he is no C. S. Lewis, no Christian allegorist—and he always resisted such a reductive reading of Balthazar. While the name “Balthazar” alludes to that of the third magus and thereby to the birth of Christ, for instance, one wonders if Bresson, who began as a painter and was inspired by Chardin, among other artists, also had in mind the art historical references conjured by the name: Balthazar appears in several Adoration of the Magi paintings, by Dürer, Mantegna, Leonardo, et al., often portrayed as the African or Ethiopian king, following medieval custom. And just as the pale, sculpted face of Marie’s father reminds one of a Bellini doge, her garland of flowers, which returns as an ornamental spray on Balthazar’s harness in the circus sequence, certainly also suggests the feathered or jeweled turban of the third magus that was a common index of his “exotic” origins in these paintings.
A transcendental reading of the film also ignores the pessimism of Bresson’s vision—what he preferred to characterize as lucidity—which was to intensify in his subsequent films. Indeed, one is reminded more than once of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s acidulous Le Corbeau in Bresson’s insistence on the iniquity and malice of French provincial life, in particular with the anonymous letters sent to condemn Marie’s father. Resolutely turning away from the spiritual or metaphysical subjects of his previous films—the belief that “all is grace” in Diary of a Country Priest or that the hand of God guides humanity to its predestined fate in A Man Escaped—Bresson here begins the trajectory to the materialist world of his last film, L’Argent (in which Yvon Targe’s cellmate, echoing Marx, calls money “le dieu visible”). In Balthazar, little is numinous. We are placed in a hard, corporeal world of rucked, muddy fields and of things and objects, some of them signifiers of a modernity Bresson finds wanting: cars, carts, coins, benches, guns, tools, booze, jukeboxes, telegraph poles, deathbeds, transistor radios, and—especially—official documents (police summonses, audits, wills, orders of sale) and instruments of control and incarceration (harnesses, bridles, chains, muzzles). The latter manifest the film’s theme of liberty and freedom, of Balthazar’s and Marie’s parallel captivities. She, too, passes from master to master (her father; Gérard, into whose subjugation she willingly enters; and Jacques, the childhood sweetheart who sustains an ideal image rather than any real sense of her), but there is no release from her suffering. She simply disappears near the end of the film, one infers into a universe of servitude.
The elliptical, sometimes clipped rhythm of Bresson’s editing, the physicality of his sound world (the skidding cars, Balthazar’s braying, the clanking chains with which Gérard is repeatedly associated), and his fragmentation of bodies through truncated framing—the focus on torsos, legs, and hands, in particular—amplify this sense of materiality. Money and its equivalents (bread, land, contraband) are insistently shown, alluded to, and invoked, especially in the grain dealer’s speech about loving money and hating death. This avaricious miller is played by writer Pierre Klossowski, expert on de Sade and older brother of the painter Balthus, and he briefly takes the film into Buñuel territory as he surveys the shivering Marie, who swats his hand away from her neck and hungrily spoons compote from a jar. He offers her a wad of francs for sex, fulfilling the command of the young man who danced with her at Arnold’s party: “If you want her, pay!” In this monetary setting, Balthazar’s circuitous journey to death suggests less a traversal of the stations of the cross than an exchange of value, like the passing of the false note in L’Argent. His transit from hand to hand does not unleash “an avalanche of evil” as the trading does in the latter film, but just as determinedly reveals a world of moral and physical barbarity.
Using a rhetoric of reversal, in which a prayer or promise or characteristic is bluntly contradicted, sometimes within just one edit (a cut or dissolve), Bresson repeatedly depicts religion, or at least the church, as false, ineffectual. The casual criminal acts of Gérard, which Gilles Jacob says “introduce a satanic element” in the early sequences—slicking a highway with oil so that cars spin out of control and crash—are immediately followed by a sequence in which Gérard sings angelically at church, inciting Marie’s enthrallment with his beatific evil. Arnold cries to Christ, the Virgin, and all the saints that he will never drink again but within a quick edit is once more slugging back the booze. And as Marie’s father lies dying from grief at the end, a priest tells him, “There must be forgiveness for all. You’ll be forgiven because you have suffered.” The ailing man turns his body away from the priest and the latter reads from the Bible: “He may punish, yet he will have compassion. For he does not willingly afflict the children of men.” Even as we wonder what compassion we have witnessed in the film, aside from Marie’s tender ministrations toward Balthazar—the dubious kindness of the baker’s wife toward Gérard, perhaps?—Bresson all but ridicules the priest’s teachings. Outside, the dying man’s wife prays: “Lord, don’t take him from me too. Wait. You know how sad and miserable my life will be.” The priest’s hand beckons her through the window. She goes in. Her husband is dead.
The mourning wife tells Gérard, who wants to borrow the donkey for a smuggling operation, that Balthazar is “a saint,” much, one assumes, as Bresson’s gaunt, alcoholic country priest had become a saint, through his ceaseless suffering. In his famous essay on Diary of a Country Priest, André Bazin notes “the analogies with Christ that abound toward the end of the film.” A transcendental reading of Balthazar relies on a similar proliferation of signs: the donkey’s death, serene and glorious, sanctified by the Schubert andantino; the sheep and their pealing bells; his physical burden and spurting wound; and the silence that engulfs him before the screen fades to black. But Bresson’s lucidity sees the death differently, as the prolonged expiry of an old, abused animal, too wounded to bray, too exhausted to do anything but collapse to the earth, his value depleted.
James Quandt is senior programmer at Cinematheque Ontario, Toronto. He is the editor of monographs on Robert Bresson, Shohei Imamura, and Kon Ichikawa and is a regular contributor to Artforum magazine. He has recently published essays on Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Abbas Kiarostami, Manoel de Oliveira, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
This essay was adapted from one that first appeared in The Hidden God: Film and Faith, edited by Mary Lea Bandy and Antonio Monda (2003, The Museum of Modern Art, New York).
The Criterion Collection, posted on June 13, 2005
Schuberts vorletzte Sonate: Klaviersonate Nr. 20, A-Dur, D 959
Andantino in fis-Moll, Form: A-B-A .
Scherzo: Allegro vivace – Trio: Un poco più lento.
Rondo. Allegretto – Presto.
Sonata in A major, D. 959
Opening of the Sonata in A major
I. Allegro. The sonata begins with a forte, heavily textured chordal fanfare emphasizing a low A pedal and duple-meter stepwise diatonic ascent in thirds in the middle voices, followed immediately by quiet descending triplet arpeggios punctuated by light chords outlining a chromatic ascent. These highly contrasting phrases provide the motivic material for much of the sonata. The second theme is a lyrical melody written in four-part harmony. The exposition follows standard classical practice by modulating from tonic (A) to dominant (E) for the second theme, even preparing the latter tonality with its own V – the only first movement to do so in the mature Schubert. Despite this traditional approach, both exposition themes are built in an innovative ternary form, and in each resulting 'B' section a highly chromatic development-like section based on the exposition's second phrase modulates through the circle of fourths, only to return to the tonic. This novel structure creates a sense of harmonic movement without actually committing to a thematic modulation, and is one of the techniques Schubert uses to achieve a sense of scale in the movement. The development proper is based on a scalar variation of the second theme heard at the end of the exposition. Here, in contrast to the striking modulatory excursions nested in the exposition, the tonal plan is static, shifting constantly between C major and B major (later B minor). After the development theme is finally stated in the tonic minor, the dramatic retransition has the unconventional role of only shifting to the major mode to prepare the recapitulation, rather than fully preparing the tonic key (which in this case has already been established). The recapitulation is traditional – staying in the tonic, and emphasizing the tonic minor and the flat submediant (F major) as subdominant tonalities. The coda restates the first theme, this time in a much more 'hesitant' manner, pianissimo and with further allusions to subdominant tonalities. The movement ends with serene arpeggios; however, for the penultimate chord, Schubert chose a striking Italian sixth on ♭II, instead of the more usual dominant or diminished seventh chords. This choice is not arbitrary – it is a final statement of the chromatically-based ascending minor second motive that pervaded the movement, a motive that will be reversed into a descending minor second in the following movement.
II. Andantino in F-sharp minor, A–B–A form. The A section presents a sparse, lamenting, poignant melody, full of sighing gestures (portrayed by descending seconds). This theme, despite its vastly different character, references the opening bars of the Allegro, an aforementioned source of much of the sonata's material – the Andantino's first measure shares with the fanfare a second-beat bass note 'echo' after the downbeat on A, creating an audible rhythmic affinity; additionally, the quiet close of the A theme features the fanfare's characteristic pattern of stepwise thirds in the middle voices enclosed between tonic octaves. The middle section is of an improvisatory, fantasia-like character, with extremely harsh modulations and sonorities, culminating in C-sharp minor with fortissimo chords. The chromaticism, triplet emphasis, and modulatory patterns of this section are all reminiscent of the developments nested within the Allegro's exposition. After the C-sharp minor climax (according to Fisk, a key of great importance in the cycle due to its relation to Der Wanderer), a recitative section with startling sforzando outbursts emphasizing an ascending minor second leads to a serene phrase in the major mode (C-sharp major), which in turn leads (as the dominant of F-sharp minor) back to the A section, here somewhat transformed, with new accompanimental figuration. The final bars of the movement feature rolled chords that prefigure the opening of the following Scherzo.
III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace – Trio: Un poco più lento. The A section of the scherzo uses a playful leaping rolled chord figure that is rhythmically and harmonically reminiscent of the opening bars of the sonata. The B section is dominated by the juxtaposition of two distant tonal realms. It commences in C-major for a rollicking theme that is abruptly interrupted by a downward-rushing C-sharp minor scale without any modulatory preparation, in a striking cyclic reference to the climax of the preceding movement's middle section. Following this outburst, the B section quietly ends in C-sharp minor a grace-note melody identical in contour to a figure from the theme of the Andantino (2–1–7–1–3–1), before modulating back to the movement's tonic. C major returns in the concluding A section, this time more tonally integrated into its A-major surroundings, by modulatory sequences. The ternary form trio in D major uses hand crossing to add melodic accompaniment to the chordal theme, and is rhythmically and harmonically based on the opening of the Allegro.
IV. Rondo: Allegretto – Presto. This lyrical rondo movement consists of relentless flowing triplet movement and endless songful melody. Its form is a sonata-rondo (A–B–A–development–A–B–A–coda). Charles Fisk has pointed out that the Rondo's main theme would make musical sense as a response subsequent to the questioning leading tone that closes the Allegro's opening fanfare; in this capacity the Rondo's lyricism is the dramatically delayed final goal of the sonata. The second thematic group is written in the traditional dominant key; however, it is very long, modulating through many different subdominant tonalities. The development section, in contrast, culminates in a long passage in C-sharp minor with a climax characterized by a tension-building ambiguity between E major and C-sharp minor and a greatly prolonged evasion of a cadence. This leads to a false recapitulation in F-sharp major, which then modulates to begin again in the home key. In the coda, the main theme returns fragmented, with full bar pauses, which lead each time to unexpected changes of key. This is followed by an agitated presto section, based on the final bars of the main theme, and the sonata concludes with a bold evocation of its very opening measures, with an ascending arpeggio (essentially an inversion of the descending figure from the Allegro's second phrase), followed by a fortissimo full statement of the opening fanfare in retrograde.