The zenith of purity in the cinema

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the film’s release, here is my brief review of Robert Bresson’s magnificent Au Hasard Balthazar.

“No matter how much we may love the cinema, purity is something that we rarely find on the screen. Wonder, yes. Spectacle, emotion by the bucket-load, but purity, very rarely.

And Au Hasard Balthazar is the zenith of purity in the cinema. Through this matchless masterpiece, Bresson has shown us what the cinema might have been if it did not have the crushing obligation to make money.

For many years I regarded this as the greatest film ever made – and it still could deserve that epithet. What is certain is that with Balthazar, Bresson entered a form of expression in cinema that is so profound that it almost burns you to watch it.

Of course it’s not about a donkey, but the sins of the world. And it is a measure of Bresson’s staggering achievement that at the end of the film you can actually believe that you have witnessed the sins of the world. And it leaves you not shocked, nor angry – though both emotions are entirely appropriate – but numb with a desperate sadness.

On top of all of this, it is also the film which is the subject of probably the finest piece of film criticism in the English language – Andrew Sarris’ long and wonderful review of it in The Village Voice on its initial New York release. That ends, ‘it stands alone atop one of the loftiest pinnacles of artistically realised emotional experiences.’

And so it does.”

That was what I wrote 15½ years ago, and twice out of the three times I have seen the film in a cinema since that time, it again rocked me to my emotional core …. but, in sadness one must add that it is very difficult to reproduce the same effect at home. From time to time I watch my BFI DVD of the restored film and, I regret to say, am nearly always disappointed. It is still a great, great film, but its crushing emotional effect eludes me.

This absolutely must have to do with what I was saying in ‘How To Watch a Film’ – namely that the film world, when it is larger than their world, dominates the consciousness of the viewers, has a mainline into their psyches.

Gérard - François Lafarge in 'Au Hasard Balthazar'.
Gérard – François Lafarge in ‘Au Hasard Balthazar’.


This is particularly true of the character of Gérard (François Lafarge, the ‘villain’ of the film), who, cruelly tortures Balthazar, conspires road accidents for fun, corrupts the innocence of Marie (Anna Wiazemsky) and ultimately leads Balthazar to his death.  I cannot think of a character so irredeemably wicked in all cinema.

Seen in a cinema,  he is unspeakable,  but on the small screen, his wickedness doesn’t really seem to come across.

Be all this as it may, the film remains a pillar of purity – both purity of theme and, especially, purity of expression.  I showed the film for the first time in QFT only a few months after I arrived in 1969, and happily told the just over 600 patrons that they were about to see a film that was one of the greatest that they would ever see. Almost 10% of those patrons came up to me after the screening and reassured me that I was right.

It is one of the relatively few films that makes me think that, in spite of everything, QFT really achieved something in those difficult early years.


Filling in the gaps

Most people know that the world we see in a films is not a ‘continuous’ world but a ‘discrete’ one. The ‘instants’ in that world are captured as frames of film and presented to us so rapidly (at 24 frames per second if projected in a cinema, 25 on television), that we cannot tell the difference from a continuous screen reality.

This process in completely subliminal and takes no mental effort as it is a ‘weakness’ in our retina that is exploited. The lowest speed in frames per second at which this ‘trick’ works without us being aware that we are being conned is about 16 frames per second. As the speed is reduced below this speed, our eyes start to be aware of a flicker, which is perceived as a rhythmic change in luminosity.

One of the slang terms for the cinema in my youth (late 50s) was ‘the flicks’ and that term comes directly from the era in which film projectors were hand-cranked by projectionists and, as time wore on in the performance, the projectionists arms tired and the rate of cranking, hence speed in frames per second, reduced and the flicker became obvious to the audience.

Unfortunately it is very difficult to find videos that display this effect as your video display, whether desktop or hand held will be at least 25fps and that effectively cuts out the flicker effect, but if you have never seen it, just blink as fast as you can and you will get the idea.

At root, therefore, cinema is the art that asks us to fill in the gaps in its own version of reality, or artifice. In fact, it goes beyond that, as I now hope to demonstrate. Already in these articles, I have had occasion to mention the work of Lev Kuleshov, a Soviet experimental film theorist and film maker. His ‘Kuleshov effect’, in which different emotions are transferred to an actor’s expressionless face, are, in all examples I have seen, somewhat underwhelming, (click here).

Ivan Mosjoukine, the actor used by Kuleshov.

This ‘effect’ is simply something that, it is argued, is inherent with montage (the placing of one shot after another in the editing).

However, there is another experiment that he made which has, IMHO, far greater significance. The original is, as far as I know, lost, but I saw the details ‘reproduced’ as stills in a book some time ago. It is a part of film practice known as ‘creative geography’. What it boils down to is that, watching a film, the human mind seeks certainty where there is none and ‘fills in the gaps’. In the original experiment, a man and a woman meet at a Moscow landmark, set off walking and arrive at some steps, which are ‘revealed’ to be the steps of the Capitol building in Washington.

Among film makers, of course, this allows a plethora of ‘cheat shots’ used to convince us that action is taking place in some famous location when it isn’t. What Kuleshov showed was that our brains take markers from early shots and apply them to later ones making the conclusion that they are contiguous in space, if not, necessarily, in time. The couple, of course, would have taken some time to walk from any large building to another, that has its own logic.

So, the act of editing together shots does not only progress the plot in a linear way, it defines the space which is presented discretely and suggests that it is continuous. We fill in the gaps because, originally, when the couple set off, the fact that, in the next shot when they are shown, they are still walking, means that we assume that they have continued to walk to the point at which we next see them.

This may be a blessing, as it means that we are not subjected to tedious minutes of exposition of all that takes place, but it is also a curse, as when time is passing, the film-maker is obliged to indicate the fact otherwise we may assume that the subsequent scene is contiguous with the former in time as well as space.

In Bruges, subject of my last post, is quite instructive in this. As the climax approaches, on the third day, the action splinters in space – Ray (Colin Farrell) takes himself off to commit suicide then on to a train and finally back to Bruges; Ken (Brendan Gleeson) goes to the ‘gun man’ then to the park to encounter Ray and finally waits for the arrival of the furious Harry (Ralph Fiennes) who in turns gets a phone call from Ken at around midday and proceeds to come to Bruges to vent his spleen on the other pair.

Martin McDonagh the writer/director keeps the audience abreast of the passage of time neatly with an alarm clock, a clock at the station and the arrival of dusk as Harry arrives in Bruges. In screen writing circles, this is called “explaino” and, if it holds up the action is a negative virtue. The master at good “explaino” was Hitchcock, but McDonagh’s exposition is also right up there, using very brief shots and phrases thrown into naturalistic dialogue.

The important thing in complex narrative films is to keep the audience convinced that there aren’t any holes into which the film has fallen, many thrillers tend to play fast and loose with this ‘rule’, on the basis that the audience are too caught up in the story to notice the ‘holes’, but true artists don’t rely on such trickery.

We subconsciously ‘fill in the gaps’ in relation to characters’ thoughts and feelings as well, but that is even most complex, and the subject for another day.