Tonight is one of those nights. The world seems smaller and a lot heavier, and I’m not even anywhere near New Orleans. It’s a night to run through the few hours I’m allotted every couple of months or so to feel like it’s all just a little too much. That time will pass, and so will the sensation of being overwhelmed by the everyday, the challenges that, during most every other moment, are not only surmountable but pleasurable, the tugging and chattering and pleas for sympathy and empathy and intervention that are most often sweet music, but which tonight, for those few hours, seemed more like inescapable, burdensome static.
It’s not often that I see a film that seems to me so shrouded in mystery, in intangible effects, that I cannot put a solid finger on not only why it is as moving as it is, but even, to some degree, the core of exactly what it is. Rarer still is the movie that seems so ineffable, yet so insistent in memory that one can literally feel it expanding inside one’s head like a balloon of enlightenment in the hours and day(s) after it is finished. Robert Bresson’s Au hazard Balthazar is one such film, so much so that at the same time I feel compelled to write about it, I also feel compelled to respect that sense of disorientation, of feeling my way through such a pure, unfamiliar vision, to back away from analysis and description and simply see where the movie takes me.
Bresson’s main character is the donkey Balthazar, witness, from the humble beginning of his life to its sudden (and transcendent?) end, to all manner of human behavior and degradation as he passes from owner to owner. As one writer observed, Bresson avoids simple anthropomorphizing of Balthazar—his life of thankless work and casual humiliation is that of any beast of burden, and goes as well without comment. Yet somehow his presence-- he is, despite his relegation to the sidelines of much of the film's narrative activity, the main character-- is also intensely anthropomorphized, if we can take that to mean he is somehow able, through no trickery or special effects, to bear and reflect human understanding with the film's audience through simple, close observation of his face. Given that quality, Balthazar’s entrance into a circus full of caged animals that, motionless and silent, return his gaze (of wonderment? of simple understanding? of divine connection?) is a shiveringly vivid and strange moment, full of inexact emotion and the sense that Bresson is taking us into an uncharted realm. It’s a kind of magical realism with absolutely no sense of coy engagement in a singular point of view about that magic.
Even more so, though, the spiritualized access Bresson allows us to his titular beast seem to take us even further somewhere-- inside the animal, perhaps, or perhaps inside Bresson’s own vision of the poetry of submission to the everyday, of the sacrifice of saintliness, toward a religious allegory all the more powerful for its seemingly organic appearance not simply through the director’s style, but through how that style amplifies, without self-consciousness, a clear-eyed vision of utterly ordinary events touched by the sacred. The Criterion DVD features a wonderful bonus piece (best seen after having first experienced Bresson’s movie) in which critic Donald Richie claims that one of the things that makes Au hazard Balthazar such an important and moving film for him is this very mystery, its essential unknowableness, his inability to track precisely how Bresson comes to his vision, his potent allegory, and how, for so many people who love it, Au hazard Balthazar seems to be so many different things. For me, this is a sign of a movie being alive, and being of life. In the way it continues to haunt me and expand in my consciousness and engage my intellect and my emotions in the first few hours after having seen it—an organic process that I fully expect to continue well past the point where I can find my own copy of the DVD—it seems a very rare movie experience indeed, one uniquely suited to exploration within its world, and reflection on the viewer’s world without it.