There are many and eclectic takes on Robert Bresson’s work, and only a little on which there is unanimity. The consensus is essentially that his films are marvelous, beautiful, formally excellent, and verbally elusive. Paul Schrader’s well-known work Transcendental Style in Film gives equal weight to the films of Bresson, Ozu, and Dreyer, arguing that the films of all three of these – especially Bresson and Ozu – reach toward transcendental themes by means of a transcendental style. That which is transcendental is that which transcends the merely earthly, mortal, and temporal. Sara Anson Vaux’s essay “Divine Skepticism: The Films of Robert Bresson” (Christianity and Literature, Vol. 53, No. 4, Summer 2004) takes a much needed twist on Schrader’s thesis and acknowledges the earthly and temporal concerns that Bresson’s films include. Vaux equates the efforts that have been made to reduce Bresson’s films to their “spiritual” import to the movement to remove the historical element from the person of Jesus and mythicize him into the “Christ of faith.” Brian Price’s “The End of Transcendence, the Mourning of Crime: Bresson’s Hands” (Studies in French Cinema, 2002, Vol. 2, Issue 3) conducts an intertextual analysis of the diegetic use of hands in Bresson’s films, arguing that close-ups on hands in later films find their referents in hands in earlier films. Dana Polan’s essay on the film in Senses of Cinema makes the provocative case that the spiritualist readings of Au hasard Balthazar (and by implication, most of the rest of Bresson’s films) are misguided and naive, missing the point that Bresson was in fact much more materialist and Godardian than has been acknowledged.
Anything from a quick glance to careful attention to Bresson’s films should cause one to acknowledge the ease with which many come to transcendental or spiritual conclusions about the filmmaker and his films. Biblical and religious imagery and iconography is used, and at some points explicitly religious – Christian – narrative content is the focus (see Diary of a Country Priest). Beyond that, Bresson’s affinity for Dostoevsky (a Christian) led to some loose adaptations of aspects of Dostoevsky’s novels (see Pickpocket). And while Schrader’s study may be a little quick to jump to conclusions and lump films together (both within one director’s oeuvre and across those of multiple directors with an allegedly similar style), the basic premise that many of Bresson’s films are unique by virtue of their serious themes and nearly illegible form shouldn’t be countered. Donald Richie concludes that the vast variety of readings of Bresson’s films points both to their difficulty and to their versatility of meaning. By collapsing much of the distance between the screen and the spectator, Bresson invites the viewer into the film process, leading to, as Richie admits happened to himself, a confusion between the film and life itself. In terms of its themes, Godard is probably right to have said that Au hasard Balthazar is “the world in an hour and a half.”
In terms of its events and characters, to say nothing of its style, the film reaches a level of poetry that is as foreign to daily reality as poetic discourse is to casual conversation. Is this poetry simply a variation of the visual free-form verse in Godard’s materialist films, as perhaps Polan would like to argue? Certainly their is a tonal difference between the two. Contrast Au hasard Balthazar with a film like 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Godard’s rapid cutting, chaotically colorful imagery, and graffiti-covered concrete structures sarcastically and ironically rebel against capitalism and traditional politics of both cinematic and social conventions. Au hasard Balthazar, on the other hand, gives a slight but definite priority to Bazin over Eisenstein. The image is primary, along with its accompanying sound. The connection between images is deeply important, to be sure, but while Godard’s film leans toward visual abstraction, Bresson’s film grounds itself in images of familiarity, then raises them above our experience but first through it. Use of words like “raise,” “transcend,” and the like is unavoidable with a film like Au hasard Balthazar despite the paradoxical fact that Polan is right about a materialist element existing in it. While a Godard film like Une Femme Mariée fractures the human body in order to confront the fractured nature of existence and the commodification of the self, Bresson’s arms and legs, as Price does well to observe, are indexes of the self and more expressive of the inner person than the face or the body as a whole could otherwise be.
So is Au hasard Balthazar simply a subjective version of Godard’s objectification? If it is, it takes a step that Godard’s films as a rule do not take. When the naif is raised by his scoundrel cronies and seated on the donkey Balthazar, then hailed as he rides down the cobblestone street, biblical imagery is clearly being evoked. When the man looks up to heaven and proceeds to drop dead, falling off the donkey never to arise, the biblical image becomes ironic but not sarcastic. It may reflect a failure of the man to achieve Christ-like status, but the emphasis is on the attempt and the failure, not on the silliness of the image or the idea. To say simply what it does reflect is not to exclude a host of other things, though; Richie accurately insists that the easiest way to misread the film is to apply a single meaning to any image or series of images. Because of this fact, a thorough reading of the film is a challenge, since the film itself challenges the spectator to enter into its world and conflate it with the real world (a worthy conflation indeed). To give a thorough reading of Au hasard Balthazar is to give a thorough reading of life, or so many critics have felt after viewing it. Some things don’t seem to make sense in it, but many things in life don’t make sense, and making sense of poetry is often misses the point of the poem.