Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Donkey's Life

In cinema, it's often a profoundly light touch that can achieve the greatest impression of the human experience. 1966's Au Hasard Balthazar ("Balthazar, at Random") is about a quiet farmgirl and her beloved donkey, a subject that would seem to invite Disney-ish melodrama. The film has melodrama but most of it occurs offscreen, serving only to underline the limited perception of the donkey. The donkey's confined life invites comparison with the girl's as their paths diverge. For much of the film, you might take it merely as an exercise by Robert Bresson in gorgeous cinematography in which very little happens, but the film's tremendous emotional impact becomes undeniable near the end and you realise how everything that preceded it was crucial in building the force of this impression.

We meet Balthazar when he's a colt, when he's the delight of several children who idly play with him and each other on a drowsy day. The movie quickly moves forward in time and one of the children, Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), has maintained her affection for the animal. Bresson's technique of not employing professional actors partly explains why Marie doesn't seem to emote very much, but something about the near absence of conscious performance in the film gives a rawness and credibility to what we see.

The Wikipedia entry quotes Roger Ebert as saying, "The genius of Bresson's approach is that he never gives us a single moment that could be described as one of Balthazar's 'reaction shots.' Other movie animals may roll their eyes or stomp their hooves, but Balthazar simply walks or waits, regarding everything with the clarity of a donkey who knows it is a beast of burden, and that its life consists of either bearing or not bearing." There are one or two shots where you can maybe infer Balthazar is reacting to a sound or a glimpse of motion but, like with a real donkey, one is never sure if this is the viewer projecting his or her own feelings onto the animal. Since the humans in the film also often resist giving us the normally expected emotional reactions, it puts us in much the same place regarding them.

We also get a sense of Balthazar's perspective in how much occurs offscreen, of how little information we're given about what happens. There's a murder, there's a gang of thieves, there's a dispute over land between Marie's parents and the father of Jacques (Walter Green), Marie's childhood love. But we're never given the usual plot details about motivation and circumstance, we never seen any of the referred to acts of violence occurring except when it relates to the donkey.

Marie's not really sure why she's not interested in Jacques anymore at one point in the film and we're left to wonder how much is due to her own sexual preferences and how much is due to how the world has manipulated her. She seems unperturbed offering sex to someone in exchange for a place to stay one night, and although she's reluctant at first she also seems excited by the advances of the thief, Gerard (Fran├žois Lafarge). But does she accept his invitation to sit in a car with him because she's attracted to him or because she just thinks this is the best she can get, or because her libido is being carried along by circumstances?

In its climax, both Marie and Balthazar suffer from some extreme cruelty and we're left to wonder how much of it is due to all of the normal things that preceded it. The film gives an impression of a densely woven tapestry of human pleasure and pain and a sense of tragedy in habits rendering the two inextricable.

Twitter Sonnet #1066

A giant glacier tapped a copper sky.
As petals pointed red to blanching snow.
Some metal flakes descend to trounce the die.
An upward wind abducts the cards to go.
The hills of phones awake in static ring.
So seek antennae in the needle stacks.
As though electric birds have learned to sing.
Conductors lead a tablet through the tracks.
As silhouettes are guessing liquid weight.
A dial stops beneath a shadow sun.
Decisions die between the bull and gate.
A window washed reflects a brilliant one.
The scanty stripes forestall the shaking box.
An iv'ry key'll hum in darkened locks.

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