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.

 

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Mike

Retired cultural cinema director and film magazine editor living in deepest rural France.

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