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Au Hasard Balthazar: The Criterion Collection

To watch a Robert Bresson film is to wrestle with it emotionally. His output — 13 feature films over 40 years — is of a singular vision. One of cinema's greatest and most challenging filmmakers, Bresson's films are deceptively simple, which adds to their profundity. Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) is a zenith, perhaps the purest expression of what Bresson was after. In any other filmmaker's hands would be gimmickry; in his it becomes profound. The main character is donkey named Balthazar, and Balthazar follows the animal's life from birth to death. It begins with two children baptizing Balthazar and pledging their love to each other. The film then cuts to several years later, when the young girl Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) is grown up and lives with her parents, who are struggling because of rumors that peg them as thieves. Marie has a casual relationship with Gerard (Francois Lafarge), a troublemaker she's drawn to even if he treats her badly, and both families want to keep them apart. Balthazar begins trading owners, going to Gerard, then to the drunk Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert), who takes Balthazar in when everyone else thinks he's about to die. This leads the donkey to the circus, where he is trained to do math tricks. From there he returns to Arnold in time for Arnold to receive an inheritance, and then is sold to a cruel farmer, whose farm Marie takes a rest at one night after running away from her family. Balthazar then returns to Marie's family, while Marie confronts her old childhood boyfriend Jacques (Walter Green) to reject his marriage proposal. As Marie's father meets his end, the donkey finds it way back to Gerard. What is the most consistent element of all of Bresson's output is the calm, spiritual observation. Different then Yasujiro Ozu's settled camera, Bresson's camera moves, but every frame — as cinematographer Ghilsain Cloquet says in the supplements — was shot with a 50mm lens, which has been considered the closest lens to the human eye. As such, there are no camera tricks or zooms, and often the film focuses its attentions on people's hands and feet, or it will linger on an empty frame after the characters have left it. There's poetry to these images; Bresson is a strong visualist but not in a showy or artificial way — his is the poetry of the real, and he modulates the sound around to create a sense of heightened realism. But why Balthazar may be his best work it due to the protagonist: The donkey is a mute observer of human life, one who sees all the characters that may do good or bad things, but are clearly people — not archetypes — struggling in their way. Some have compared the donkey to Christ (he gets crested with a crown of laurels and dies surround by sheep), and as Bresson is Catholic there may be something to this interpretation. But that said, why Balthazar is the perfect Bresson leading character is that he, like the director, is a silent observer of human nature who witnesses the characters' decisions and, like Christ, must suffer their indignities for the audience's benefit. The Criterion Collection presents Au Hasard Balthazar in anamorphic widescreen (1.66:1) with Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. Supplements include the featurette "Donald Richie on Balthazar" (14 min.), but the main find is the 1966 program "Un netteur en order: Robert Bresson" (62 min.), which features a long interview with Bresson, praise from directors Louis Malle, Jean-Luc Godard, and Francois Riechenbach, writer Marguerite Duras, cinematographer Ghilsain Cloquet, and stars Anne Wiazemsky and Francois Lafarge, among others. Also included is the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.

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