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Balthazar: The Donkey of World Cinema

Bresson’s ‘Balthazar’ starts in a startling way. The titles show on the screen —– the cast, the credits, the title—- against a grey background; Schubert’s piano sonata No. 20 sets the mood too. And suddenly the donkey brays. It does not only interrupt the music and the mood, the audience is almost amused and they even laugh. The braying continues for some time, sharp and fast and jarring. The sound becomes relentless and the audience is left serious by the time.

       ‘Au Hasard Balthazar’ (1966) is one of the finest works of Robert Bresson, the French film-maker recognized for the elliptical quality in his work and a master who inspired such legends as Truffaut and Godard of French New wave in the early 1960s.  By mid-fifty’s half of all movies made in the Western part of the world were replacing the earlier black-and-white mode with colour. Bresson insisted on keeping to the use of bare minimum, whether in colour or visuals or scripts or even in terms of acting. His minimalist style was perfectly compatible with his choice of the black-and-white. And the other way round.

Bresson made thirteen movies in a period of 49 years, starting from a twenty-five minute short film in 1934 and ending the career with ‘L’Argent’ (Money) in 1983. The first eight works were all made in black and white and the last five, from ‘Une Femme Douce’ to ‘L’Argent’, were made in colour. The first phase came to its end with ‘Balthazar’, to be followed by ‘Mouchette’ (1967) — two works which adequately explain what he wanted to do with his calm and detached style. He was uncompromising in cutting down on anything unessential, anything that might look glamorous or extravagant on screen. His use of black and white keeps the entire tone low, gives his visuals an austerity. Sometimes this is even accused of being dull, flat and even boring. But Bresson was making a new syntax and grammar for cinema; he was making it speak a new language, of course in a hushed voice. For him the bareness in movies can ensure a two-fold impact. First, it makes the visuals more suggestive and subtle; second, it lends to the content a spiritual quality.

What is ‘Balthazar’ all about? How far is this a story of a luckless donkey? And an even more pertinent question is, how does the movie incorporate Bresson’s spiritual perception and insight into life by weaving a story with a donkey for a protagonist? To search answers for these questions is to try to read the ambiguities of meaning of the work in itself. The treatment is apparently simple, though the message is complex. The compression of ideas is amazing.

The movie begins with a brief shot of the baby donkey. The story starts being narrated through short and cryptic sequences. Two small children, apparently good friends and playmates, part. A little girl dies. A family moves to the city. Balthazar romps around in the private farm it belongs to, and somehow the ideas of confinement and suffering remain implied from the beginning. In a matter of a few minutes there is narration that is fragmented and there is a conspicuous attempt of keeping emotional content under control. And very little of ‘acting’ is there. The approach is more like giving bare facts to the audience, expecting that they would go on conjecturing the untold details about characters and plot working on their viewer’s intuition. In Bresson’s cinema the story is not ‘told’ in that sense; it builds up on its own.

The use of grey scale of photography goes so well with his techniques of movie-making and his intentions of making it. He uses disjoined cuts in a variety of ways: he shifts from one image to the other, continues one scene from different angles, and the narrative moves in time sequences in its own pace. He deliberately breaks the continuity of narration to keep more close to what life is actually about. The rigour and austerity with which he edits his work could not have been achieved in colour. Among critics and viewers, including those ones who admire his works and those other ones who find them slow and uninteresting, one thing is clear: here is a film-maker who wants his work to express his own search of the meaning of life. A staunch Catholic, Bresson would also lend a spiritual message to his cinema. If we draw any delight from watching his cinemas, apart from admiring his technical skills, this is edifying.

From the beginning ‘Balthazar’ has a number of storylines and a wide variety of characters condensed into the frame. They come and go like short dreams or elusive visions. Two characters come to the fore before long: Balthazar the pet donkey and Marie, the teen-age girl of the family and one who impossibly loves the pet.  But the many strands of complexities that help build the core of the content start when we find there are two journeys that run parallel and through somewhat similar travails.

The donkey is sold out and it starts being shifted from one owner to the next and is subjected to a lot of rough treatment that does not suggest love. It is ‘used’ but not cared for. Marie’s story is more well-defined. She herself breaks away from the bonding of family. She flirts with Gerard, a local youth who is handsome and yet brutish, charming and yet unscrupulous, somewhat typified with his stylish black leather jacket and motorbike. He is only too ready to ‘play’ with this sweet teenager. On Marie’s part this is her first venture into what is prohibited and therefore tempting. She is slipping from innocence and purity to willful rebellion. You watch the whole affair only to feel a sense of inevitability in the way things develop. The couple soon elopes. She herself has chosen the path for a ‘fall from the grace’ and has to face the tribulations that wait. Thrills over, Gerard  dumps her. She would take resort to the grain merchant, only to escape soon. She is constantly exposed to the crudity of the external world and by the time completely shorn of the charm of innocence. And she is farther and farther away from Balthazar. The unsuspecting childhood is being replaced by an intimidated youth. This also is in the theme of ‘Mouchette’.

Bresson believes in predestination. For him if the separation is pre-ordained so is the communion. Balthazar and Marie both have had enough of ordeal. The donkey is left lean and sickly and manhandled. Marie is left abused, unprotected and with nowhere to go. But, by fate as if, Balthazar comes back to the farm of its original owner; the girl is soon found by her father and even by Jacques, her childhood boyfriend; she is a sorry sight now. The plot comes round at a point when we find the donkey and the girl together again. Ultimately the donkey dies, even though peacefully, and there is subtle hint that Marie has left the village. Mouchette, the other teen-age protagonist of Bresson, commits suicide at the end; Marie is found nowhere.

This is meaningful that Bresson always insisted on working with non-professional actors so that he could expect minimum of ‘acting’. He did not even want to let them ‘be’ the characters they enacted; he wanted just that much involvement that was needful to bring out the essentials of a character. The whole cast of Balthazar, like in any of his other cinemas, made his intention clear. In fact what marks this master film-maker’s works is this superb restraint—- a quality he could more show in his black and white works. The economy in use of colour, the spare use of music and the scant use of words in his works largely contribute to the intended impact. His black and white works are more expressive than his colour ones, even though it may sound somewhat paradoxical.

‘Balthazar’ starts on a mixed note. It ends on a mixed note too. There is mistake, humiliation, trials and sufferings. But the possible sentimentality is absent. The visuals are growingly elliptical at the end. There even is an optimistic note. Bresson does not exactly want us to be left confused; he wants us to reflect on life, the way he views life. His perception of life is founded on his unfailing faith in the Providence, in fate and also in love and faith in making life meaningful. It is not without reason that he is sometimes called a ‘spiritual’ film-maker; he has given a transcendental quality to his works. We understand what the New Wave Cinema masters like Godard and Truffaut found so inspirational about Bresson.

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