Really, really very good!
Au hasard Balthazar
dir. Robert Bresson. 1966, France.
Sight & Sound 2012: Critics' #16 / Directors' #21
Roger Ebert's Great Movies ... Criterion essay
DVD from the Criterion Collection
Watch via Hulu-Plus
Au hasard Balthazar trailer (1966)
Gerard: Donkeys are neat. They're fast. Modern.
For whatever reason, I expected this to be a pastoral story set in the distant past. But actually it's contemporary (mid-'60s) in small-town France - with motorcycle gang delinquents, pop music radios, action painting, fireworks and a jukebox party. The main characters are the titular donkey and his girl. The donkey actor is fantastic! Maybe the best animal performance I've ever seen. As a colt, Balthazar is baptized and given the "salt of wisdom" - and towards the end, declared a saint. Throughout his life, he is used and abused as a beast of burden and bears it all with an implacable dignity. The only person who treats him right is the girl who raised him, and she comes in for as much mistreatment as the donkey.
Early on, she puts a crown of flowers on his brow, and then he takes a beating from her ne'er-do-well future boyfriend. Gerard slaps her around, lays oil slicks on road curves to watch cars wipe out, mouths off to the police, plays loud music, keeps handguns around the house, frames the town drunk for murder, and trashes the joint at a party. Of course, Marie is totally devoted to him and spurns her childhood sweetheart (a niceguy). She's also saddled with the most stupidly prideful man in town for a father. Donkeys are apparently better cut out for this kind of cruelty, because she totally goes off the rails. She gets entwined with the bad dude, shames her own family, shacks up with some old miser who uses Balthazar to squeeze his grapes (I think)... and more. Meanwhile, our hero gets to perform in a circus and help out with a little smuggling.
Maybe I should have been reading up on the new movies before watching them, rather than just before posting. Because director Robert Bresson "is often referred to as a patron saint of cinema, not only for the strong Catholic themes found throughout his oeuvre..." Au hasard Balthazar "was inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Idiot and each episode in Balthazar's life represents one of the seven deadly sins." It's like the Uncle Boonmee reels all over again! I did get the religious 'vibe,' but clearly there was more going on than I picked up. Also, the film debut of lead actress Anne Wiazemsky. She was later in films by Pier Paolo Pasolini and Jean-Luc Godard, whom she married - and in her 2007 book about the making of this movie, Jeune Fille ("Young Girl"), she apparently claimed that Bresson repeatedly hit on her and that she lost her virginity to a crew member. Wow.
The film's Wikipedia page translates the title as "by chance" and leads me to believe it's meant to be read as a nickname - something like: good ol' "By-Chance" Balthazar. Highly recommended.