Au Hasard Balthazar
There's a myth about good film making. People tend to think it's snooty and overly high brow. There's an episode of the Simpsons, the one crossover episode they did with Critic, where Barney enters a film contest and blows away the judges with his "serious" film. All except for Homer who is captivated by a short called Football to the Groin. Barney's short is full of fancy editing, transitions, and supposedly deep meaning. This is what the popular imagination thinks art house and foreign films are. I've discovered there's a lot more to foreign and art house films. Films like 400 Blows, Alice in the Cities, and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul are emotional and full of life and they can be enjoyed just as movies. There are some films that live up to the stereotype though. Au Hasard Balthazar is the prime example. This movie fits our notions of a foreign film to a t.
That's not to say it isn't good. When director Robert Bresson first filmed it, it was revolutionary and not a cliche. The film tracks the life of a donkey named Balthazar. But this isn't a Disney movie. Balthazar is at first a pet but he is passed from one owner to the next. Some treat him with kindness, others do not. It becomes pretty obvious that Balthazar's is supposed to be allegorical. It's hard to actually see this as a story in its own right. Again that's not a bad thing. Melville did okay with an allegorical story about a whale. The allegory in Balthazar is a very European one. Americans prefer much more active stories and heroes. Balthazar endures and suffers. And what the critics say about this film isn't true. The animal does complain plenty. It's just that he's a donkey and who's going to listen to a donkey. Actually some of the human characters are more stoic about their lot than Balthazar. He at least brays and occasionally kicks.
The human story in this one concerns Balthazar's original owner, a girl named Marie. She grows up in her small town and falls for the local bad boy Gerard. Gerard is no romanticized bad boy. He's the real thing. In one of his first scenes he and his friends beat the helpless Balthazar for fun and giggles. And he doesn't treat people, including Marie, that much better. The acting is very underplayed. Again this fits our preconceived notions of art house films; characters who say "I love you madly" with a blank expression on their face. That's exactly what happens here.
The film also makes use of close ups to get its point across. Small details are zeroed in on, like Marie's hand moving away from a childhood friend. I get the feeling that Bresson's guiding aesthetic is based on that old Russian film experiment; the one where a scenes of a man with a blank look on his face is intercut with shots of a bowl of soup or a crying infant. The audience infers the state of mind from the context of the images.
But that style of film making is in the past. It's not favored now even by art house directors. That's because popular entertainment has gotten very impersonal. The independent movies now are the ones that show the raw emotion. If you want to see pretty people with bland expressions now you turn on the TV.
It's still worthwhile to check out and all serious film students should see it at least once.