Monday, December 11, 2006


The final film of the WHC's Fall Film Series was shown on Saturday: Au hasard Balthazar (1966) by Robert Bresson, which acts as a perfect bookend to Mouchette (1966), the Bresson film shown earlier this semester. Both feature lucid and carefully constructed accounts of the depredations of rural life as shown by the unprepossessing life lived by a young girl. But in this case, there is a figure present who has been read allegorically by some critics: the donkey, baptized by the children, Balthazar (after the Ethiopian magus who worshiped at Christ's nativity). Balthazar, in his stoic suffering, parallels the girl's (Marie) treatment by several "masters" (her father; Gerard, the local tough to whom she submits; the aging merchant (perhaps the most sadistic of all Balthazar's keepers) with whom she negotiates a price for her favors). Unlike Mouchette, Marie is permitted to leave these degrading circumstances, though we have no idea of whether for a better or worse fate, while leaving behind her beloved donkey to die in her stead, so to speak.

The "transcendent" readings that find an overcoming of suffering in the donkey's expiring moments on a hill as Schubert plays and a bevy of placid sheep surround him have much to overlook. Certainly Balthazar's end can be said to smack of the kind of spiritual attainment to be found in something like Johnny Cash's "I'm Free of the Chain Gang Now" -- where a prisoner can say that death is a freedom from the prison that is life. That sense was present in the almost jaunty suicide of Mouchette in the other film, but Au hasard Balthazar is more sombre, if only because the events turn so regularly upon cruelty, betrayal, and the haphazard meaninglessness that is captured by the phrase "au hasard." Shortly before the escapade of smuggling that leads to his death, Balthazar is called "a saint" by Marie's mother; the phrase has much to recommend it in the sense of the saintly long-suffering and uncomplaining nature of the beast.

But rather than Christ, Balthazar's adventures put me in mind of Apuleius' Golden Ass -- the story of a fellow's metamorphosis into the form of a donkey and of the picaresque "chance" occurrences that lead the animal through a cross-section of Roman life (though, granted, in a much more comic register) to a final role as a minister of Isis (the new cult in town). In the case of Balthazar, his employment with the mean-spirited Gerard as bread deliverer, or as beast of burden for the drunken and perhaps simple-minded Arnold, or as a math-computing performer in a circus, or as a wretched mill-driver for the merchant, all point to a kind of rural everyman status for the donkey, victim of random oppressions, on one hand, hero of a series of providential escapes, on the other. Several times Balthazar returns to Marie and indeed his highest moment is early in the film as her admired pet, wearing a crown of flowers like a newly crowned Bottom ready to cavort with an enchanted Titania. If Balthazar is a Christlike scapegoat in the end, he is also a fertility symbol, also a clown, and also the inadvertent means of Arnold's death.

The tone of the film seemed to me fairly quizzical: the actions of the characters are not to be questioned, but are rather implacable and in complete keeping with who they must be. In other words, the attempt to read the film allegorically is supported by that sense of everything being contrived or "ordained." But the problem with that reading is that it overlooks what the film seems to accept, quizzically, as the element of "au hasard" or "at random." To say that Marie and Balthazar are in some sense "fated" to parallel each other is much like saying, as does the rich boy Jacques, whose family had stayed in the rural town during his and Marie's childhood, that he and Marie are meant for each other. A fact that Marie denies with the simple statement that his conviction is unreal, that reality is something else. Un autre chose, par hasard.

No comments: