Monday, March 15, 2010

1966: Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson)

1966: Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson)
It's been a very long time since I've seen this film, and it's one I can't remember with great specificity.  In fact, in my mind it is somewhat bundled up with Bresson's very next film, Mouchette.  

Everything I already said about Bresson in my 1959 post on Pickpocket applies here.  However, the major shift is in Bresson leaving the city and exploring the countryside.  As much as I love Pickpocket, there's a poetic urge in Bresson that doesn't seem fully released except in more rural settings.  In Balthazar, Bresson's poetic abilities are firing at full potential.  I remember it having Tarkovsky-esque imagery -- gorgeous, haunting visuals with a deep, heavy, almost overwhelming presence.

The thing though that I remember most about Balthazar (and once again it might have come from Mouchette -- please someone confirm!) is a scene of a car racing down a country road.  We hear the car skid, Bresson cuts to black, and then we hear the rest of the accident without seeing it.  It was the moment that introduced me to the power of sound in filmmaking and convinced me that in the right hands sound could be just as important as image.  

Of all my favorites, Balthazar is one of the ones I most need to see again, just to refresh my memory.  I'm confident saying this though -- it is Bresson at his most austere, human, and poetic.  

Other contenders for 1966:  I still have quite a few titles to see. These include:  Jacques Rivette's The Nun, Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain, Jean-Luc Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Roberto Rossellini's The Rise of Louis XIV, Fred Zinnemann's A Man for All Seasons, Jean-Pierre Melville's Le deuxieme souffle, Alain Resnais' La guerre est finie, Jean Eustache's Le pere Noel a les yeux bleus, Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (somehow it's true), Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers, and Vera Chytilova's Daisies.  I really need to revisit Ingmar Bergman's Persona, Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup, and Jean-Luc Godard's Masculin, feminin.  It's been too long since I've seen any of them to know where they'd place on this list.  From this year, I really like John Ford's 7 Women and Arthur Penn's The Chase.  I love Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev.  And my closest runner-up is Howard Hawks' El Dorado.

5/26/11 I watched Alain Resnais' La guerre est finie.  Resnais' cinema, like Bresson's, is ultra-restrained, cerebral, and mannered.  But his non-linear interests make it even more distanced for me.  However, he really excels in creating unconventional little moments of suspense, and his scene transition edits are as consistently strong and punctuating as any I have ever seen.

5/28/11 I watched Jean-Luc Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her.  One of Godard's most thoughtful, certainly, and certain famous moments like the close-up on the coffee cup definitely have tremendous power.  But I miss Godard outside of the city, I miss Karina, and I miss the emotional boost Godard usually provides with one of his great scores.  

5/30/11 I watched Roberto Rossellini's The Rise of Louis XIV.  The first of Rossellini's historical dramas that I've seen, and it takes awhile to get used to this later style and period of the great director.  But it snakes its way around, accumulating historical import, and by the end, it finds its emotional highpoint.  Another transcendent and powerful work by one of cinema's most unusual and rigorous stylists.  

5/31/11 I watched Vera Chytilova's Daisies.  Almost non-narrative, a patchwork of stylistic flair that's really not my thing.  But Chytilova has a strong eye, and there's an irreverence that's appealing.  

6/2/11 I watched Jean-Pierre Melville's Le deuxieme souffle.  Doesn't rate up there for me with his final three films.  It seems to be lacking a little rigor formally, and this Ventura character did not emotionally involve me like in Army of Shadows or the two late Delon roles.  Just seems a little more minor than some of his other work.

6/2/11 I watched Fred Zinneman's A Man for All Seasons.  Paul Scofield gives a tremendous performance as Sir Thomas More.  The material feels a bit like Oscar fodder, but for what it is, it's well done.  

6/3/11 I watched Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers.  Its lack of shape is its greatest strength and flaw.  It's what gives the film its immediacy and gives the action sequences their added depth of feeling. But it also meanders quite often, losing some of its potential impact. Seems a major influence on Carlos.  Both films have great scores, but Carlos does better in at least one area, by having one character we can really follow.  

6/22/11 I watched Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Leone creates quite the atmospheric journey.  Of course, Morricone does a great brunt of the work, too.  Leone's so playful, and at times it's what gives the film its special world and energy.  But ultimately the playfulness keeps things all a little too surface and shallow.  

11/3/13 I watched Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain.  It's clear that Tarantino cribbed some of Waltz's character for Inglorious from this, and the early murder sequence is by far the moment of greatest interest.  Otherwise, the whole thing feels a bit devoid of energy and logic.  Of all the latter Hitch I've seen, this one seems the most flawed. 

11/24/13 I watched Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up.  Antonioni gives sixties ennui and youthful alienation his masterful cinematic talents in this gloriously modern film.  Antonioni particularly excels in set design, the studio space at the center of the film is endless evocative, camera placement and movement, his camera hovers and sees in ways that continually feel new and uninhibited, and sound, the lack of music and reliance on ambient sound for most of the film add immeasurable effect to the entire experience.  A unique, landmark film wearing its age well and another example of Antonioni's special and great talent.   

12/11/16 I rewatched Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Deuxieme Souffle.  It is definitely one of these blueprint films that presented (and perhaps even introduced) so much of what would become conventions for the ambitious crime films of the next thirty years.  It takes its time, coming in a little over 150 minutes.  It relies heavily on ambient sounds, featuring very little in the way of music, and where there is music it is that moody minimal jazz that we will find again in Friedkin's French Connection, Klute and Night Moves, to name but a few.  We see the two-gun shootout that would become trademarks of Woo and Tarantino.  We have the zoom and heavy reliance on location shooting that almost sum up the aesthetic approach of Friedkin in the French Connection.  And we have onscreen time stamping that show up all over Scorsese's work and in seemingly every copycat crime filmmaker that would follow in his wake. 

11/26/23 I watched Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Hawks and the Sparrows.  Only the second Pasolini film I have seen, after seeing Accattone years ago.  I admittedly am unclear on what Pasolini is up to but formally it is a very liberated film that seems quite unlike the work of a number of his peers at the time.  Appearing on Rosenbaum's top 1000 list, I plan to read up on it and watch more of Pasolini's work in the months to come.


  1. My Own #1 Film of 1966:

    Au Hasard Baltazar (Bresson)


    Persona (Bergman; Sweden)
    Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky; Russia)
    The Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo; France; Italy)
    The Face of Another (Teshigahara; Japan)
    Chimes at Midnight (Welles)
    Hunger (Carlsson; Denmark)
    A Man For All Seasons (Zinemann)
    War and Peace (Bonderchuk; Russia)
    Young Torless (Schlondorf; Germany)
    La Religieuse (Rivette; France)
    La Guerre est Finie (Resnais; France)
    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Nichols)
    Asya's Happiness (Konchalovsky; Russia)
    Closely Watched Trains (Menzel; Czechoslovakia)
    Absheid von Gestern (Kluge; West Germany)
    Daisies (Chytilova; Czechoslovakia)

    Jeffrey, you and I are completely in the same category here, and I dare say that you probably already know that that Jean Luc Godard, (whom you recently celebrated here, considers this one of the greatest of all films, famously proclaiming that it's "the world in an hour and a half." Louis Malle responded to Godard's effusive praise, and is also on record as saying this is the greatest of all films, a position that I have just about embraced myself. This may be my favorite movie of them all, and only two Japanese films compete with it in that sense: Mizoguchi's SANSHO DAYU and Ozu's TOKYO STORY. I think I may have mentioned this already on another thread, but I did have the fortune of seeing BALTHAZAR a few years back at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Westchester, where Jonathan Demme moderated the special screening. My question was about the brilliant use of sound in the film; indeed Bresson's naturalistic use of sound which is wedded to a sparing use of classical motifs, is one of his greatest accomplishments in all his work. It was a night I won't forget, though all of us have watched our Criterion DVDs countless times (as you have.) Of course the black and white cinematography in this shattering emotional masterpiece by Ghislain Cloquet is among the most magnificent of all time. I can't gush enough here, but YOU certainly don't need to be converted my friend, as you say it all here:

    ....poetic abilities are firing at full potential. I remember it having Tarkovsky-esque imagery -- gorgeous, haunting visuals with a deep, heavy, almost overwhelming presence...

  2. Sam, I knew you were a huge fan of this one! And I am, too, obviously. Do you know if that scene I mention comes from BALTHAZAR? I've never confirmed, for sure.

    That's so interesting that you saw this with Demme. I love Demme and would have so loved to hear what he had to say. I had a similar experience with PICKPOCKET, in that I was able to see a screening of it that Paul Schrader moderated.

    I'm not sure I ever had heard that Godard quote, but I think I did know that he really loved Bresson.

    Thanks, Sam. Wonderful, as always, to have your perspective here!

  3. Jeffrey, type in 'Godard, Au Hasard Balthazar' on google, and you'll see tons of references to that quote, it's well-known, as is the fact that it's Godard's favorite Bresson film.

    Jeffrey, I am almost certain that the scene you speak about is from MOUCHETTE, but at some point I am intrigued to pin-point it.

    That's great that you saw PICKPOCKET with Schrador.

  4. Jeffrey, in my opinion Au Hasard Balthazar is one of the Greatest Films ever made.

    The first time I saw it I hated it - the unknowable character motivations, the blank acting, the seeming contrary perversity of it all.

    Then, without seeing it again, I began to realise that it had left a mark. It was one of the films that confirmed for me that Cinema has no rules and no framework of prejudices need be brought into a theatre. If you get something from it, it can be beyond explanation and beyond convention and be no less strong a sensation for it.

    The profound beauty of the images, of the silence and of specific sounds - neighing, honking, clattering - is amazing. That "deep heavy presence" you talk about (though I didn't feel any likeness to Tarkovksy myself).

    The scene you speak of IS in AU HASARD BALTHAZAR. The scene that stayed with me is a short shot of Marie and Jacques swinging on a swing (naturally!) saying the other's name. A stunning moment of poetry and of love.

  5. Sam, that quote is great! I think it's the first time I've ever seen it (I've always though really loved Godard's taste in movies.)

    Thanks again, Sam! Yeah, that night with Schrader was one of my all time great cinephile experiences.

  6. Well, Stephen has identified BALTHAZAR as the film containing that scene, and alas he may well be right, as I can't say for sure. I would place my bet on his observation!

  7. Stephen, great to hear from you! Yes, the sound of the neighing and honking are quite memorable, now that you say it. I also really like your observation here:

    "...the unknowable character motivations, the blank acting, the seeming contrary perversity of it all."

    Thanks so much for confirming that scene for me. I've wondered for awhile (guess I could just go back and watch the film, but I haven't had the opportunity yet).

    There's something about the beginning of RUBLEV and those shots of what is it a horse or donkey (?) that reminded of this film. And there's a certain spareness in some of Tarkovsky's imagery that recalls Bresson's work for me here.

    Thanks, Stephen. A treat to have you here!

  8. Thanks, Sam! Yes, it's great to have confirmation for that, finally.

  9. I love Bresson too, and Balthazar is one of his very best films without a doubt. But...I gotta go with Andrey Rublyov. When people ask me what my favorite film is I often say Rublyov, and it's certainly in my top five. Bresson may have distilled life down to an hour and a half, as Godard asserted, but what Tarkovsky does is truly indescribable, and any time I watch Rublyov (or The Mirror or Stalker or any of his great films) I feel like I can't see straight for a week after, as if everything in this world is more murky and mysterious.

  10. Wonderful choice. Balthazar is a personal favorite of mine, a stunningly gorgeous work that flirts with absolute perfection. Wonderful write-up of this magnificent film Jeffrey.

    There is still a lot of stuff from this year I need to see; from what's been discussed already, I'm quite partial to Bergman's Persona and Godard's 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, which I just had the grand pleasure of viewing again for my marathon.

    In addition to the wonderful films that have been discussed by you and Sam, I would have to add Frankenheimer's Seconds towards the top of my list, a supremely haunting work.

  11. Doniphon, always great to hear from you! And I can't dispute the greatness of ANDREI RUBLEV. If someone forced me to tell them my favorite film, that wouldn't be it. BUT if someone asked me to name the single most beautiful film in the history of cinema, I may very well have to say RUBLEV.

    Thanks, Doniphon. Always a treat to have your perspective!

  12. Drew, great to hear from you! I'm dying to see the Godard you mention. For some reason, it's one I've yet to see, but I've heard fantastic things.

    I love what you say about BALTHAZAR:

    "...a stunningly gorgeous work that flirts with absolute perfection."

    I struggled a little with SECONDS the one time I saw it. But it's certainly a film with a major reputation that I owe a revisit at some point.

    Thanks, Drew. Always great to have you here!

  13. Not a tough one for me this year either - I love Bergman's PERSONA. It is actually the only Bergman that I truly love, as many of his other more acclaimed efforts come across to me as lesser Dreyer-like films. Persona, though, is brilliant.

  14. Dave, I definitely need to revisit PERSONA at some point. It's been about fifteen years since I last saw it.

    Always great to hear from you. Thanks so much, Dave!

  15. Jeffrey,

    I'm trying to start up a gallery of people's favourite images in Cinema (the most powerful, most beautiful....).

    It would be great if you could make a choice, or choices, of an image that speaks to you personally and link to it. Maybe you could say a little as to why you chose it as well.