May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
March 14, 2010
I was chastened horribly a few weeks ago when Image published its Arts & Faith Top 100 list. My grand total of films watched? Nine. I studied animation, not film in general, and that apparently has left me with severe gaps in my education. So to remedy that, I intend to take on two or three of these films a month, and write my impressions as a spiritual film neophyte, stumbling through these great films and hopefully learning something along the way.
Au Hasard Balthazar
The most disconcerting thing for me, coming to Bresson fresh, is his way of directing actors, which is apparently to discourage them from acting. I can get behind his reasoning in doing so — acting as traditionally practiced in film is manipulative, yes, and hardly naturalistic. And I can appreciate the idea of characters who aren’t performing for the audience so much as embodying the story. But I have difficulty with this in practice; no one in Balthazar ever seems to react to anything; at best they stare inscrutably at the camera or wander about the screen completely oblivious to a few hooligans wreaking havoc. I became convinced I was watching a film about passivity. I can’t imagine that same acting-free style working as well on, for example, A Man Escaped, which ought reasonably to be a film of some striving. I suppose I’ll find out. Here, at least, I find it helpful.
Much of Marie’s struggles are the product of her passively accepting Gerard’s moral choices as her own, and it is hard not to think of her, pitiable as she may be, as a failed moral agent. This contrasts with Balthazar, whose fate he cannot refuse, and whose longsuffering dignity is thus enobling. Though in many ways Marie and Balthazar walk similar paths, I pity Marie and almost admire Balthazar.
The relative lack of expression does have one other effect for me, and this may account for some of Bresson’s reputation as a “spiritual” director: it strikes me as basically liturgical. Characters recite their words, perform suddenly and with great intention their scripted actions, and then stand by until their role comes around again. Like liturgy, the actor is not performing but reciting, not acting but enacting. It is a strange thing that in the liturgy can we manage a Passion with so little passion. But it has the effect of removing the emphasis from the individual and allowing the drama to be somehow corporate. Can you translate this effect to film? I find that hard to believe; cinema seems like the most presentational medium, all pre-arranged and self-contained on its little screen. And yet. I for one will champion the experience of watching movies on the big screen even when the last theater is replaced with a download kiosk. There’s a corporate aspect there that’s hard to shake. But liturgy? I don’t know. There might be something to it.
Otherwise I found Balthazar‘s cinematic virtues immediately appealing. It is a starkly handsome film, marked by effective shots like a chain in motion leading us slowly from the Gerard’s hand to the conclusion we dread, Balthazar being dragged. The dialogue — what little there is — doesn’t much bother with exposition, but the narrative details of the story come perfectly clear with a little time and attention. The film is actually quite plain and clear in its particulars, I think, and frustratingly opaque in the larger scheme of things.
By the film’s end, I can’t say I was moved — the acting really was emotionally offputting — but I can’t say I was unmoved, either. Its story is a sad one, and though the Netflix synopsis writers enthusiastically promise a “spiritual transcendence and redemption,” the film itself is not so clear. Balthazar ends his life in beauty, there is that, all of his abuse leading him in the end to lay with the sheep, with whom he is a kindred spirit. But Marie, despite the grace offered her, disappears into despair, and her father does not recant his pride, and Jacques goes away unmarried, and the mother loses her last companion. What are we to make of Balthazar’s presence in all of this? Bresson’s threading him into this tapestry of human suffering makes him important, but how? I admit I can’t shake the feeling he’s bearing it somehow. That his suffering is redemptive, that it is endured for love of others.
I don’t mean to turn Balthazar into a Jesus analogue, not really. Mostly Balthazar is just a donkey. But I live by a spiritual narrative that imbues such suffering with nobility, a long tradition of martyrs and ascetics and common saints who without protest forgive every slight. Bresson as a Catholic certainly acknowledged that tradition, and it’s hard not to feel it in every one of Balthazar’s abuses. The human world of Balthazar is terrible, and there is little respite in it. Nevertheless Balthazar takes his place among the lambs, not even as a reward — just the natural end of his journey. I cannot imagine watching the film’s final shot and not feeling warmed. How would the liturgy end it? Thanks be to God. Amen.