Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Au Hasard Balthazar by Robert Bresson

Robert Bresson's precision in cinema is akin to J M Coetzee's precision in literature. Both share a bleak view of humanity, tempered only by a fleeting hope of individual redemption.

This was my third viewing of this remarkable film. The premise of the film is daring and simple: A donkey and a girl go through life, suffering abuse at the hands of those who have dominion over them. Whereas the donkey (Balthazar) has no choice in what path it takes, the girl (Marie) has little to choose from.

Rife with Biblical symbolism, this film is like a jewel polished to perfection. No image or sound is wasted, no frivolous words are spoken. This is a film in which the narrative is stripped to its bare essentials. Episodic and elliptical in style, the film can perhaps be best summed up in the phrase "Suffering in Silence".

There are films which do not make an overt claim of an absence of a higher power, but which illustrate it. The problem of suffering has long since been advanced as a proof that there is no God, that man is perhaps a higher animal, but an animal nevertheless who deludes himself into creating a benevolent and all-powerful God in his own image.

Many think of their childhoods wistfully and with nostalgia. The happiness during childhood is mostly the happiness of a sheltered existence and an innocence which is more ignorance and underdevelopment than uncorruptedness. In this film, both Balthazar and Marie have their happiest moments in their childhood, while in their later lives, it is one sorrow after another. A child cries not at life, nor at fate, but at something immediate which is achievable. The tears of an adult are deeper because one knows that there is no easy solution. Sorrow is an adult emotion.

The film is a highly compressed portrait of life's miseries. Godard famously called this film "the world in 90 minutes". The misery of social obligations, of adhereing to institutions and their procedures, of participating in a capitalist society, of the dubious promise of love and affection, of the unsatisfactory nature of religious solutions, of contradictory impulses within human beings, of a death without redemption.

An expert user of the Kuleshov Effect, Robert Bresson drains all emotion from faces and from eyes of his models, and demands a very different kind of viewing. This is non-consumptive cinema at its best. One has to actively participate, guess at what the characters must be thinking and feeling, speculate at what the director wants to portray. No explanations are provided, but there is a vision at work. It is not a stainless mirror, into which one can project anything. There is something which is being shown, but it is shown in a way which is neither implicit nor explicit, but which requires interpretation.

This is a hard film to watch if you understand it. And a hard film to watch if you don't. One will be silenced in the former case, and bored in the latter.

Bresson was also a master of atmospheric sound, and of highly surgical framing. His frames are sometimes perceived as incomplete, with only parts of a body or parts of a scene visible, but that very excision makes us focus on what is shown, and what isn't. It is a device to make us imagine more than we see. This film is therefore not just narratively elliptical (not every sequence is temporally or spatially linked to the one prior), but also visually incomplete. Both in the frame itself, and beyond it, one has to imagine what is left undepicted.

A film is constrained temporally in that it has to present something within a certain duration, and without lending indefinite gaps for the viewer to ponder over what has been shown. Unlike in a book, where one can pause at will, a film carries on inexorably at 24 frames per second.

A great film, like an enigmatic woman, therefore, invites you to visit it again, instead of completely revealing itself during the first night. This is a film which has to be watched many times to appreciate its depths.


dm said...

May be knowledge of biblical symbols will make the film less elliptical for a viewer. In fact the film is a great narrative device for its episodes, it is like a snapshot of life. Surely you realize that childhood and children are a symbol in themselves in Biblical terms: sheep abandoned by the shepherd (Jesus abandoning the human population). kingdom of Satan and at attempt to regain paradise.

and what do you mean by different kind of viewing. Surely this film demands as much attention that you will give to any contemplative film. And the visual design is complete in itself. Just because composition is focused on the immediate subject does not make it incomplete.

dm said...

my rejoinder comment got lost in www. It is Bergman and Tarkovsky who have the kind of precision in Cinema unseen in Literature. They define Cinema and cinematic sensibilities for both an aficionado & a first time viewer.

best wishes


Harmanjit Singh said...

What i meant from "different kind of viewing" is the degree in which active participation and imagination is demanded by Bresson, as compared to, say The 400 Blows, which only requires contemplation (and empathy) and not imagination.

Or take Italian neo-realism like "The Bicycle Thieves" which leaves little to the imagination or to contemplation.

Enattendant said...

Your post is beautifully written ! The religious theme is there of course but without the judgemental vision of religion, there's a kind of innocence and cruelty that comes from a world without moral! If you'd like to read my views I'd be honoured if you visited my blog!