Today was a lovely day - beautiful day, full of fun things. It was hard to come inside and watch a film, especially a sad, contemplative sort of film. It was a wonderful movie, but it certainly wasn't a light or easy movie to watch. I watched Au Hasard Balthazar, directed in 1966 by Robert Bresson (who also directed Pickpocket, which I loved). I really love Bresson's style. It's very restrained, but it works really well. I really enjoyed how subtle this movie was - how much meaning and emotion I felt while watching it even though the moments were so small.
The film is about two lives as they run parallel. One is Marie, a young farm girl, who grows up over the course of the film. The other is Balthazar, a donkey that Marie takes care of. She is separated from him for much of the movie, and many people in the village own him. Some are kind, some are very cruel (and by some I mean most). They cross paths every now and then, and she is always tender and kind to him. People are not very kind to her either, in her life. It's hard to watch people be cruel, especially when Balthazar is so stoic.
I know, it's weird to say, since how much is a live animal supposed to emote? Whenever animals are in films, there is the perpetual threat of them being some sort of vessel to react for humans. Sometimes they talk and have CGI mouths. Sometime they are just that dog in the trailer for every bad comedy movie that goes "Aaroo?!" after someone swears. There is much sadness whenever someone around Balthazar suffers, or he suffers, but he never emotes. He is simply an animal, and it takes the abuse that others give out because he doesn't know anything else. It's so effective, and somehow, made it easier for me to empathize with the animal.
Ebert notices this as well, writing, "The genius of Bresson's approach is that he never gives us a single moment that could be described as one of Balthazar's "reaction shots." Other movie animals may roll their eyes or stomp their hooves, but Balthazar simply walks or waits, regarding everything with the clarity of a donkey who knows it is a beast of burden, and that its life consists of either bearing or not bearing, of feeling pain or not feeling pain, or even feeling pleasure. All of these things are equally beyond its control" (Great Movies II, 36). There is something noble and sad about his acceptance of his fate.
When watching this movie, I felt like it was...life. Life is suffering, as the Buddhists say, and the only difference between us and animals is that we have brains that make us think that we can do something about it. Ebert writes about this as well, and I might as well just quote him, since he says it better than I can. He writes, "Now here is the essential part. Bresson suggests that we are all Balthazars. Despite our dreams, hopes and best plans, the world will eventually do with us whatever it does. Because we can think and reason, we believe we can figure a way out, find a solution, get the answer. But intelligence gives us the ability to comprehend our fate without the power to control it. Still, Bresson does not leave us empty-handed. He offers us the suggestion of empathy. If we will extend ourselves to sympathize with how others feel, we can find the consolation of sharing human experience, instead of the loneliness of enduring it alone" (Great Movies II, 38).
I personally like this message, and it's why the movie was so powerful. I know that life is sad and full of suffering. For me personally, accepting this is peaceful. It's easier to let go of stress and drama in your life if you know that hey, life is full of that, so why fixate on it? I am one of those strange people, though, who is into "feeling emotions" and who doesn't think that being occasionally really sad is a reason for medication. I think this movie is difficult because it points out what so many people try to avoid thinking about. When it's abnormal to not be taking anti-depressants or tranquilizers, I feel safe saying that most people don't want to think about their own powerlessness or suffering. I know many people have legitimate issues that require medication to help (I have my own stash of Ambiens for when I can't sleep due to whatever mood is ailing me, and have had plenty of difficulties myself), but we're also a society where second graders get diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. I am glad we can help people with issues, but I also see a trend towards over-medication, towards mild sadness being diagnosed as depression and treated medically. It feels more uncomfortable to see this movie now, I guess, since accepting something negative about life goes against the tide. Sometime we have a tendency to blame people for bad things that happen to them, but I always think that it's only because we can convince ourselves that we can control what happens to us. Like, "Ah, if X happened because of Y, I can not do Y to avoid X happening to me," be it in a job interview or driving our cars or what have you. In reality, we are, as Bresson thinks, all Balthazars, and unfortunately, we usually don't have much control over what happens to us. And that, my friends, can be a bit hard to swallow for every single one of us.
Well, I assume that no one wants to hear much more of my Sunday night musings, although I could go on, haha! I like to think about stuff like this, and when I see a film that really inspires me, it's so easy to get lost in my own thoughts. I was really emotional while watching the film, but in the end, I found it really came together for me. It was so well-filmed, and the tone was so quiet and lovely. I think it's a great movie and worth checking out, but it's sad, especially if you are like me and really sensitive to anything bad happening to animals. I love it for the thoughts and emotions it provoked, but I found a lot of parts really tragic because I love animals so much. With that in mind, I don't know how to really recommend it, but I think it is very important and wonderful at the same time. It's worth checking out on a day that you feel up to it, I would say.
Have any of you seen Au Hasard Balthazar? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on Au Hasard Balthazar