Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

Robert Bresson | 1hr 35min

Those going into Au Hasard Balthazar looking for a one-to-one allegory between the trials of its long-suffering donkey and the Bible will come out confused and disappointed. Robert Bresson would never be so obvious – his style is one of understated minimalism and archetypal iconography, fitting nicely into what Paul Schrader would later call ‘transcendental cinema.’ He seeks not to attach his film to classical narrative structures, but to design his own modern parable that is both grand in philosophical contemplations and humble in scope.

Balthazar the donkey is representative of three main figures: Christ passing through the Stations of the Cross towards his unjust death, the same-named magus who visited the infant Jesus bearing myrrh, and also just a mindless, innocent ass who we imprint emotion upon through some well-placed close-ups. His pain is a wholly human experience, mirrored in his many owners who thoughtlessly exploit, abuse, and occasionally caress him. Over these succinct 95 minutes, we see the same familiar figures in Balthazar’s rural French village enter and exit his life, and Bresson positions us right there next to him as a passive observer of their cruelty and hardships.

A crown of flowers given to Balthazar by Mary, representing Christ’s mother. This is a tale full of powerful theological symbolism.

Balthazar begins his small, insignificant existence on a family farm. He is baptised by the children in a mock ceremony, blessing him with “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost” before they go off to play together in the hay. Their neighbour Marie joins in too, treating him with love and eventually taking him in. She decorates his head with flowers and sticks reminiscent of Christ’s crown of thorns, but this adornment carries much greater affection than the Roman instrument of torture and humiliation. It is no coincidence either that her name directly evokes Mary the Mother, being the sole character to show absolute kindness and care towards him, though she also becomes an empathetic companion to him as their respective journeys move in parallel directions, seeing her passed from one man to the next.

Au Hasard Balthazar is not an exceedingly stylish film, but Bresson’s blocking of his actors in the frame is often impressive.

And yet it is not Marie’s perspective we are given, but the animal’s, torn from the stability of any single home or purpose to serve the fickle needs of humanity. A circus teaches him cheap tricks, a merchant puts him to work at a mill, and Marie’s nefarious boyfriend Gerard uses him as his own personal punching bag. On the occasion that he does act out independently, he bolts for freedom, and Bresson resorts to a rapidly increasing montage of his hooves and the wheels of the wagon he is pulling until it overturns, setting him loose. The sequence is a fast-paced release from Au Hasard Balthazar’s meditative, elliptical narrative, though its editing is just as meticulously considered as those long dissolves which delicately bridge one scene to the next, drifting the donkey down an unpredictable yet fateful path.

Bresson’s editing is essential to the progression of his elliptical narrative, connecting scenes through long dissolves and every so often building the pace to a crescendo.

Bresson may not display the sort of audacious stylings his contemporaries were experimenting with at the peak of the French New Wave, and yet his attention to visual detail here is far from nil, crafting elegant medium shots that linger on his actors’ hands. It is a versatile formal device which is present through so many of his films, and while it cannot be put down to a singular interpretation, they do frequently manifest in Au Hasard Balthazar as icons of influence and control. When the donkey’s hooves are painfully branded, one farmer’s hands sturdily grip his leg in position, while the other holds the iron tight. As Marie sits in a car with Gerard, a shot of their torsos reveals his hand slowly creeping around, suggesting a sexual assault when we eventually cut away.

Hands torturing, assaulting, caressing – Bresson’s close-ups on these actions build both character and story.

Given Balthazar’s low line of sight towards his masters, it makes sense that this is the part of humans that Bresson focuses on. Even beyond his perspective though, he frames hands the way Ingmar Bergman shoots faces, studying their subtle contours, purposeful movements, and blocking within environments, such as a slow reach for an object or direct interaction with it. Unlike Bergman’s faces though, these hands assert an active presence, rather than reactive, distilling his characters down to their appendages which shape the course of events. There is certainly emotion conveyed in these shots, but it is very deliberately muted, matching Bresson’s direction of actors which strips away both artifice and realism to turn them into models upon which he imprints a new kind of honesty – one that is in service of the film and its subtle shifts in tone, rather than the bleeding authenticity of any specific moment.

As such, the subdued tragedy of the film comes not through what Bresson explicitly depicts, but from what is held back, making it absolutely fitting that his favourite actors may indeed be animals. We can take what we like from the blank canvas of Balthazar’s emotionless face, to which we gradually attune our own sensitivities until we can swear that we see some flicker of sorrow in his eyes. Even his slow death from a gunshot while crossing the Spanish border comes across as simply another sad, trivialised development in his life. His injury is purposefully reminiscent of the spear wound in Jesus’ side as he hung on the cross, and even the contraband which Gerard strapped to his back burdens him with the sins of man.

The donkey is a perfect actor for Bresson – a blank canvas of a face upon which he imprints emotion.

Unlike Christ though, there is no grand legacy he is leaving behind as he lays dying in an open field, surrounded by sheep and the sound of their meagre, tinny bells which ring in place of those which toll at church. In his final moments, Bresson imbues his wide shots of Balthazar’s quiet death with a gentle beauty, granting him the time and attention which no one else could afford him in life. Perhaps his peaceful resignation to the predestined path set by a God far wiser than him is a choice in itself, though the line between free will, primal impulse, and divine fate remains as obscure as ever. In Bresson’s restrained austerity, such metaphysical questions are spared the insult of easy answers. There is grace in the meditation spurred on by the Bible’s parables, and through Au Hasard Balthazar’s elliptical progression of preordained encounters and archetypal icons, Bresson conjures a similarly pensive consideration of suffering and salvation.

The death of Balthazar paralleling the death of Christ – a cruel murder of an innocent, a wound in the side, and a submission to God’s will.

Au Hasard Balthazar is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.


Seconds (1966)

John Frankenheimer | 1hr 47min

Most citizens of the world will only get one chance to live their life according to how they envision it, but for the elite few who go under the knife at the enigmatic ‘Company’ in Seconds, rebirth into a new body and life does not need to be some intangible, far-flung dream. In this absurd, Kafkaesque nightmare, plastic surgery has advanced far enough to transplant one’s entire life, and banking executive Arthur Hamilton is the latest to take up the offer, being immensely dissatisfied with his passionless marriage, tedious office job, and estranged relationship with his grown child. What sounds like the basis of a high-concept science fiction story is effectively transformed into a psychological horror under the steady hand of John Frankenheimer, whose intrusive, distorted camerawork carves out existential musings over the source of human misery.

This eerie tone is set right from the opening credits that visually warp extreme close-ups of an unidentified man’s facial features to the ominous sound of an organ and strings, breaking them down into fragments disconnected from his vague identity. In Arthur’s everyday life too, it remains equally difficult to orientate ourselves, continuing to isolate parts of his body by tracking his face, legs, and back of his head through a subway station, though this time with a wide-angle lens that places him at the centre of a world he no longer feels part of. Time, wealth, and ennui has turned him into a solipsist, absorbed in his all-consuming self-pity and showing little regard for others, making him a prime candidate for the Company’s procedure of rebirth. All it takes is a recently deceased doppelganger to be dug up and their death staged to appear as if the client themselves has perished, effectively ‘killing’ their previous identity and creating a new one.

Eerie, extreme close-ups setting an unnerving tone over the opening credits.
Frankenheimer carries through with the extreme close-ups here too, though this time pairing them with rigid tracking shots.

The path to the Company’s hidden headquarters is itself laden with misdirection, leading Arthur to a dry cleaner, an abattoir, a truck, and eventually a misshapen hallway of patterned walls and checkered floor tiles, looking like a scene ripped straight from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Even more broadly though, it is Orson Welles’ absurdist quest for nonsensical answers in The Trial which exerts an influence here, with James Wong Howe’s deep focus photography heightening the impact of his low angles and tracking shots through bizarre set pieces to his final destination.

This journey to the Company isn’t far from the endless wandering from one location to the next in Orson Welles’ The Trial – completely Kafkaesque.
German Expressionism in the absolute madness of this distorted hallway’s warped lines.

Inside the Company’s operating theatre, the man we once knew as Arthur Hamilton becomes Tony Wilson, and the dashing Rock Hudson takes the place of the slightly older John Randolph in the role, fluently adopting his constrained mannerisms. During his recovery, mirrors surround him everywhere he goes in the facility, reflecting his freshly constructed, Frankenstein-like visage back at him before the stitches come off and he is released back into civilisation. His dreams of becoming a painter are closer than ever, and a beachside community in California becomes his new home, finally wiping his slate clean for him to embrace a new, carefree life on the other side America without the baggage of his old one.

Fantastic work in Frankenheimer’s mise-en-scène, surrounding Arthur/Tony with mirrors as he gets used to his new face.

Frankenheimer’s commitment to the metaphor of rebirth carries through to the unofficial baptism during his community’s wine festival, where our leading man finally manages to shed Arthur’s inhibitions and accept Tony’s love of life. The rigid camera movements that once set him on straight paths give way to a liberated, handheld camera, wildly cutting around the dancing nudists crushing grapes beneath their feet and Tony’s apprehensive face, isolated from the crowd. A mere few seconds though after his free-spirited love interest, Nora, pulls him into the pool of grapes, his protestations give way to laughter, accepting the joyous christening of the juices being poured over his head. The calm, romantic dissolve from his ecstatic face to the calm beach where he cradles Nora in his arms might have marked the end of a character arc for anyone else, but for Tony, bitterness and regret are ingrained deeper in his psyche than his mere surroundings.

This fast-cutting, handheld scene of baptism and rebirth is heavily juxtaposed against earlier scenes of stiff tracking shots, marking a point of a transition for Tony.
Long dissolves bleeding through a sweet but short-lived romance.

It isn’t long before we see Frankenheimer’s camera sitting on Tony’s shoulder again, intently following him through a party, and this is really our first sign that old habits are rising to the surface again. Suddenly, this community doesn’t seem so idyllic after all, with dauntingly staged shots pressing the attention of the guests in on Tony’s irresponsible behaviour. It is evident that this is not the life for him – but if his old one wasn’t either, then where else is there to go? He isn’t exactly overcome with nostalgia when he revisits his previous home in New York, but there is a wistfulness in his expression as his new face is faintly reflected against a framed picture of his old one. The conversation he has with his ‘widow’ doesn’t make it any easier either, offering an alternate perspective to which he had been obstinately blind while living as Arthur.

“I never knew what he wanted, and I don’t think he ever knew. He fought so hard for what he’d been taught to want, and when he got it, he just grew more and more confused. The silences grew longer. We never talked about it. We lived our lives in a polite, celibate truce.”

Confronting arrangements of actors as Tony’s new friends crowd around him and the camera, helped a great deal by James Wong Howe’s deep focus photography.
A wistful reflection of Tony’s face over Arthur’s photo.

Really, this path to disillusionment that she describes seems no different to the path he is on now, pursuing a dream that he never truly desired and thus never finding the fulfilment he expected. He could go on forever, taking on new faces, growing bored, and moving onto the next, but according to Frankenheimer, such is the nature of our modern, material desires for more than we have. It takes human intervention to bring these cycles of constant dissatisfaction to a close, and in its own dark way, this is what the Company seeks to fulfil.

It is a genius narrative twist which Seconds lands in its final minutes, wheeling Tony away down a corridor to the operating theatre again as we move with him in a menacing low angle, though this sterile room is not the last thing he witnesses. Instead, we see a beach much like we have seen before, though in place of lovers, we glimpse a silhouette of a father and his children walking into the distance. If this is a realisation in the last few seconds of Tony’s life of what he truly desired above all else, then it comes far too late. Just as distorted footage brought us into Seconds, so too do we leave it with this dream gradually warping into surreal oblivion, tragically slipping away from view before it even gets a chance to be born.

A glimpse of what Tony truly wanted all along? Perhaps, but it quickly warps into oblivion before he even gets the chance to grasp it.

Seconds is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Black Girl (1966)

Ousmane Sembène | 1hr 5min

When Diouana is first picked out by ‘Madame’ as a nanny for her children back home in France, she can hardly believe her luck. Among a crowd of women desperately scrambling for a job on the streets of her Senegalese village, she is the only one not pushing her way to the front, trying to beat the others out. At first the decision to pick her, the quiet, patient one, seems gracious. Clearly Madame sees the virtues of a good worker in her, she believes, even if she does not have any experience. In hindsight, it is an obvious red flag – of course a bitter, domineering woman like Madame was going to choose whichever Black woman looks the most subservient. Confusion, regret, and loathing boil within Diouana over the course of her slavery-adjacent employment, and through her voiceover memoirs, Ousmane Sembène leads us into the heart of her suffering.

In its acute examinations of racial oppression, Black Girl stands proudly as a tentpole of both African cinema and Sembène’s directorial career, evoking the stylistic sensibilities of the French New Wave in its handheld camerawork and location shooting in Dakar and Antibes. Visually, Sembène defines both cities by their architecture, recognising their colonial parallels while drawing a sharp distinction between his camera’s immersion in either. Back home in Senegal, Diouana walks through streets as a free citizen, set against gorgeous backdrops of streetlamps and bridges. In France, the urban environment merely manifests as views from the windows of Madame and Monsieur’s home. As she looks out at the city drenched in darkness, she recalls the promise she was given for a better life.

“The mistress told me: ‘You’ll see, Diouana, there are lovely ships in France.’ Is France that black hole?”

It quickly becomes apparent that the French dream of liberty and equality is not reserved for people like her, as Sembène trades out Dakar’s streets for the closed-off interiors of the family home. He stages his scenes here with a constant sense of oppression, in one shot letting the family relax in the foreground with only Madame’s feet in the frame up on a table, while Diouana is wedged between walls in the background, shrunken and subjugated by the boxes drawn around her.

When it isn’t the physical infrastructure dominating the frame, it is the condescending, disapproving expressions of white people, caught through vulnerable point-of-view shots that land us in Diouana’s eyes. In a pair of extended flashbacks, she recalls the set of circumstances that led her servitude, and with her employers taking it upon themselves to respond to her family’s letters, she comes to feel even more cut off from her own past and identity. All that is left is that tiny prison, which quickly becomes her entire world.

“Back in Dakar they must be saying ‘Diouana is happy in France, she has a good life.’ For me France is the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom, and my bedroom.”

The only mark Diouana has on the space is a single African mask, standing out in Sembène’s black-and-white photography as a dark imprint against the blank wall it hangs upon. It is a gift she brought to her employers, though one which they accept as little more than a decorative museum piece, cheapening her very presence and contribution to the household. As her treatment grows worse, so too does her depression, and her contempt for Madame eventually erupts in a struggle to reclaim that mask she had so courteously offered them.

The foreshadowing Sembène lays out in Diouana’s anguish makes her suicide no less upsetting. It is at this point that her pervasive voiceovers that have accompanied every step of her journey cease, thus ending our primary vehicle of insight into her mind. Within the broader French society, her death manifests as a mere headline in a newspaper, read by people relaxing on beaches. For Madame and Monsieur, it is similarly nothing more than a disturbing disruption to their privileged lives. Not long after, the bathroom that Diouana slit her throat in is entirely spotless, all traces of her existence and demise completely erased from their home.

In depicting the ease with which the racial trauma of Black Girl is swept under the rug, the post-colonial allegory that Sembène puts forward fully comes to fruition in its final act. Monsieur’s voyage to Dakar to return Diouana’s belongings to her family and pay them out is a weak attempt at compensation, and one that they have no trouble seeing through. Much like the young boy who dons her old mask and stalks Monsieur through the streets, so too does the memory of Diouana and France’s colonial history at large haunt him with a lingering guilt. In this tensely edited sequence, there is no end to his running. It can be wiped from physical records, but memories of the atrocities committed against the African people do not fade.

Black Girl is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.