Dekalog 4: ”Honor thy father and thy mother.”

This episode of Dekalog, Dekalog 4: ”Honor thy father and thy mother.”, definitely centers on the commandment to honor thy father and thy mother, but it also relates to the integrity and rigidity of social roles. This one is notable for its superb cinematography (Kieslowski used different cinematographers for most of the episodes). The story tells of Anka, a beautiful twenty-year-old drama student, who lives at home with her father, Michal. The two have a very close, personal relationship, since Anka has been raised entirely by her father following her mother's death when Anka was only five days old.

One day Michal leaves on a business trip for a few weeks, and during his absence, Anka discovers a letter in his desk that says, “to be opened after my death”. So immediately the overwhelming temptation arises to “dishonor” her father’s wishes and see what’s inside the letter. Anka thinks about it, but eventually succumbs and opens it, only to find another letter inside from her deceased mother and addressed directly to her .

When her father returns, Anka angrily confronts her father with what she has learned from the letter: that Michal is not her real, biological father. She is angry that she was never told the “truth”. But her father responds that he never knew the contents of that letter and was never sure about the truth of this, himself, and so he always delayed revealing her mother’s letter to her.

The rest of the film is essentially a long, beautifully photographed, conversation between Michal and Anka to get to the bottom of things. Anka is committed to knowing the truth and avoiding deception, and she gets Michal to swear to revealing his true feelings, no matter how painful. As an actress, Anka has been instructed to find the “inner truth” of a role in order to make it authentic, but it seems to me that this instruction is only a metaphor for more authentic and effective role-playing on the stage and not a sure-fire general prescription for finding absolute truth. In fact Anka's actions over the course of the film reveal subsequently that the truth is often very elusive, indeed.

In the ensuing conversations, Anka reveals to Michal that she has always a more than straightforward filial feelings for Michal -- she has always had ambiguous, long-suppressed urges that suggested to her the romantic love between a man and a woman. She then gets Michal to confess that he, too, has had similar unrealized feelings for her. The implication from all this is that now that she was a mature and biologically unrelated woman, there was no moral law standing in the way of their consummating their long-held-back love. Or was there?

But, of course, for the past twenty years they have developed their relationship as father and daughter. They have been playing those social roles for Anka’s entire life, and how are they now going to be able to alter this fundamental relationship and behaviour? Is this possible, and is it what they really want?

The morning after these searing revelations, Anka runs to her father and confesses that she had never really read her mother’s letter. She had made up the whole story about Michal not being her father and had forged a fake letter in her mother's handwriting to show to Michal. Both she and Michal may have their suspicions about this, but the truth remains buried and unrevealed in her mother’s letter. Nevertheless, this lie of Anka's has led to the revelations of other truths concerning the real feelings between Anka and Michal. She now asks Michal what they should do about the real, still-unread letter. At the moment, the truth is sill unknown, and the "irreversible" change in their relationship has not yet, it seems, taken place.

What they finally decide to do is both satisfying and unsatisfying to the dramatic closure of the story, depending on your own point of view. Because she had lied about that crucial piece of evidence, Anka's actions on that occasion call into question the truth of everything else she has expressed. But that lie reveals a continuation of Anka’s pattern concerning “honoring” her father and her mother. On the surface of things, she has dishonored her parents in many ways, especially when she lied to Michal about having read the letter. And her culminating action at the end of the film concerning the disposition of the real letter is also a dishonoring of her mother's wishes, in a way. But as a student of drama, she must be aware of the necessary ambiguity of all the roles one plays, both on the stage and in society at large. And perhaps that ambiguity, that subtlety, has its own authenticity, its own inner truth.
★★★½ 

Dekalog 3: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”

The third episode of Dekalog, Dekalog 3: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”, concerns an encounter between a married man and his former lover on Christmas Eve. The story is not so much about remembering or breaking the Sabbath (although Christmas Eve in Poland usually entails attending a Midnight Mass to commemorate the birth of Jesus), as it is about duty, loneliness, and by implication, self identity. On this evening Janusz returns to his home from his job as a taxi driver, but he is now dressed as Santa Claus in order to delight his young children. On the way into his apartment building, he passes Krzysztof, the tragedy-struck and saddened college professor from Dekalog 1, which further evokes and reminds the viewer how important family can be to well-being. In parrallel with Janusz’s family gathering, we also see a young woman, Ewa, who goes to visit her aunt, possibly her only existing family member, who is so senile she is unable to participate in the Christmas festivities of the rest home where she is staying. Later everyone goes to Midnight Mass, and Janusz and Ewa happen to notice each other in the congregation. Ewa, we will soon learn, is Janusz’s former lover, and they will get together that night.

The acting in this episode is, as usual, very good, but Maria Pakulnis in the role of Ewa is particularly outstanding. However, the general quality of this narrative isn't quite up to the standards of most of the other episodes. Rather than being a story concerning the events and activities of external circumstances, this episode, like many others in Dekalog, is a relationship film, wherein events depicted are associated with internal journeys of individual participants. The weakness in this episode, though, is the fact that this particular internal journey doesn’t really seem to go anywhere. To a certain extent it travels aimlessly in circles during the roughly eight hours of action. Perhaps to compensate for this lack of story movement, the film only very slowly reveals the background information about the principal characters that one needs to know to understand what is going on. So the viewer is essentially engaged in a mystery, trying to put together the pieces of a puzzle in order to reach a full understanding. At the same time, Janusz is also engaged in a puzzle-solving problem of his own, trying to understand Ewa’s odd behaviour. Of course Janusz, having had a relationship with Ewa, knows many things that the viewer doesn’t, but also the viewer is sometimes shown some things that Janusz doesn’t know.

After Janusz returns home from the mass, he answers a query from his entry phone. It turns out to be Ewa, and Janusz makes up an excuse to his wife that his taxi has been stolen and rushes outside to see what Ewa wants. Ewa is distraught and tells him that her husband, Edward, has disappeared and wants Janusz to help her find him. Since this is the most family-important evening of the year, Janusz is reluctant to go with her. At the same time Janusz feels some responsibility towards Ewa, and this establishes the ethical tension that continues throughout the film: how much can he, and should he, give himself to Ewa at the expense of his wife and family? He first asks Ewa if she was at mass that night, and she responds that she wasn’t. Since he, himself, saw her there, this provides him with his first inkling that Ewa is lying. In fact it will turn out that she is lying about almost everything. The rest of the film covers their search at hospitals, police stations, and train stations to see if they can find the missing, supposedly seriously inebriated, Edward.

After some time it is revealed that the affair between Janusz and Ewa had ended three years earlier when Edward caught the two of them together in bed. They both still harbor resentment towards each other concerning that event, but it is clear that they each still have a strong attachment towards the other. Their characters are different, though. Janusz is relatively innocent and simple, while the scheming Ewa is highly emotional, contradictory, and even self-destructive. During the evening she alternately expresses affection or extreme bitterness toward Janusz, while he, himself, looks on incredulously.

Finally, we and Janusz learn the truth about Ewa's situation. It is ultimately revealed that Edward had actually left her and gone to live in Krakow three years ago. There is no Edward to be found in this city, and the whole search has been a wild goose chase. Ewa's aunt is so senile that she barely recognizes her. The one person who can see inside her, as she sees her true self, is Janusz, but he is unattainable now, since he has his family to look after. It turns out that the whole evening has merely been an elaborate game on Ewa’s part. On this the most personal and inward-looking family evening of the year, Ewa had concocted a plot of lies in order to spend the entire night until seven in the morning with Janusz. The fact that she succeeds in doing this gives her some sort of consolation and apparently has helped ward off the loneliness for one night, at least.

So nothing is really resolved by what happens in the film. Janusz goes back to his knowing and sensitive wife and assures her that he will remain loyal. He will be OK. On the other hand, the lonely Ewa is tormented by her emotional ups and downs and desperately needs someone exactly like the stalwart Janusz to look after her and keep her on a steady keel. At the end of the story, she tells Janusz about seeing an escapee from a mental institution that evening getting caught and returned to the asylum, thereby alluding to her own emotional fragility that borders on bipolar depression. What will become of her?
★★★

Dekalog 2: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”

In the second episode of Dekalog, Dekalog 2: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”, Dorota is a young woman earnestly seeking the consultation of an elderly doctor who happens to be her neighbor in the high-rise housing complex in which the series is situated. The doctor is a senior physician at the hospital, and he lives alone, having lost his family many years before. Dorota’s husband, Andrzej, is mortally ill in the doctor’s cancer ward, and she is urgently trying to find out about his condition and his chances for survival. Even this basic information is revealed only slowly, as the film is shot mostly in closeup on the two principal characters going about relatively mundane activities. The doctor is shown to be a gruff, lonely figure who is set in his ways, and the viewer may wonder why considerable viewing time is spent watching him simply puttering around in his apartment and tending to his cacti. But the slowly developed character threads are brought together in the end. And while much of the film’s screen time is devoted to Dorota’s activities, the thematically significant character development is that of the doctor. When the story reaches its ironic conclusion, it brings about a satisfying closure and elevates the entire narrative to a sublime viewing experience.

The doctor’s detachment from human feeling is revealed by the manner in which he tells a probably oft-repeated story to his housekeeper. The story turns out to be how his entire family, including his daughter and infant son, was obliterated during a World War II air raid some forty years earlier, and in his dispassionate storytelling we see the degree to which he has insulated himself from such a horror.

As a senior physician in charge of a cancer ward, the doctor is matter-of-fact about death and shows no particular interest in seeing the woman any earlier than the usual once-a-week two-hour period when family members may consult with the doctors – especially since his only previous connection with this woman was her running over his dog with her car two years earlier. But Dorota is so insistent that he finally relents to an earlier meeting, and it is then, fully half-way through the film, that we finally learn what is really at issue. She reveals to the doctor that she has never been able to have children before, but now she is three-months pregnant – only the expectant father is not Andrzej. She believes that this is probably her only chance ever to have a baby, and she wants to know from the doctor whether Andrzej will recover or not. If the answer is yes, she will have an abortion, but if the answer is no, she will have the baby and live together with the baby’s father, Janek.

The doctor does not want to be in the position of making such a life-or-death decision and tells her that medical science cannot predict the precise outcome of any patient – there are always exceptions. But Dorota needs to have a definitive answer and won’t let the doctor get away without him telling her everything he knows. She tries to do the impossible and explain herself to the old man, asserting to him in anguished tones that, yes, it is indeed possible to love two men at the same time. He looks back at her noncommittally, and she recognizes the hopelessness of her task. Even so, the doctor does try and get her some more authoritative information, without making that ultimate decision for her. And little by little, and probably against his will, as well, the doctor is becoming more intimately involved in the life of another person. He goes back and checks Andrzej’s condition and medical tests in more detail. He finally tells her that her husband’s prospects are actually extremely grim: there is probably no more than a 15% chance that he will even linger on for awhile.

Dorota, though, is still agonizing over what decision to make. After watching her barely conscious husband’s suffering in the hospital, where even the sound of dripping water is agonizing for him, she finally decides to commit herself to his fate and go ahead and have the abortion. Even though his chances of survival are negligible, she decides to give up her chance of having the baby. And when she tells this to her lover, Janek, they both recognize that her decision means abandonment of any future life together, regardless of whether Andrzej survives or not.

Dorota then goes back to the hospital to tell the doctor of her decision and take him off the hook concerning the unborn child’s fate. She has made the decision on her own terms. But to her shock, the doctor suddenly abandons his detached demeanor and emphatically tells her not to have the abortion. Andrzej’s condition is absolutely hopeless, he tells her, and she should definitely not have the abortion. Still wavering, Dorota asks the doctor to swear to what he had said, and this is where the Biblical Commandment of the episode’s title is engaged. The doctor says, “I swear”.

When someone swears to something, it implies a solemn oath in affirmation of belief in some sacred being or text, such as the Bible. This is what Dorota probably intuitively meant. But for a scientist, such as the doctor, the use of the term ‘swear’ would attest to the doctor’s firm belief in the integrity of science, itself. In this case the doctor was swearing on the basis of his scientific credo. On the basis of his further investigations, the doctor is now sufficiently sure of his judgement, and wants Dorota to know and profit from his knowledge. His own baby was killed in that long-ago bomb blast, and he wants Dorota to have the chance that he didn’t have to raise a child. He has, to a certain extent, been restored to life – to a concern about the fate of Dorota. He even tells her as she leaves his office that he knows she is a violonist for the Philharmonia and that he would like to come and hear her play sometime.

But the world, and the Lord, work in mysterious ways, and science cannot predict everything. A miraculous event dramatically alters the circumstances for those concerned at the close of the story. Despite the doctor's "oath", things came out differently. The old doctor is praised for his scientific skills by a jubilant, expectant parent and asked rhetorically whether he “understands” what it means to have a child. The doctor, still not revealing the depth of his feelings, understands all too well.
★★★★

Dekalog 1: “I am the Lord, thou shalt have no other gods before Me.”

This episode of Dekalog, Dekalog 1: “I am the Lord, thou shalt have no other gods before Me.”, concerns Krzysztof, a successful young university professor who lives alone with his 11-year-old son, Pavel in the housing complex. Pavel’s mother lives elsewhere and is now only a distant presence in Pavel’s life: he is looked after by his aunt Irena when his father is occupied at the university. It is clear from the early sequences that Pavel is an intellectually gifted child, and that although there is no mother around, he has a vibrant and loving relationship with his father and aunt. He is the perfect child. His father treats him almost like an adult, patiently plays intellectual games on their computers with him, and honestly shares his thoughts with his son. But there is a difference in outlook between the two adults looking after him. As an educated modernist and rational skeptic, Krzysztof relies entirely on modern science and empirical validation. Irena is more traditional, though, and feels that there are limits to what science can explain.

One day Pavel becomes disturbed after seeing a dead dog in the neighborhood and asks his father about death – what happens when you die? Krzysztof gives his honest response: death occurs when the brain stops getting blood and it ceases to function. “Everything stops; it’s the end,” he says. Pavel asks, “so what’s left?” Krzysztof says that the only thing that persists is the memory of that person. When Pavel asks about the eternal soul, his father responds that the idea of a soul is merely a convenient fiction that comforts some people, like Aunt Irena.

For Krzysztof, the nature of reality, i.e. what is, is only what we can understand and manipulate. Reality is what can be expressed semantically using logical constructions. Everything else must be held in doubt. In this, Krzysztof embraces the mainstream position of modern Anglo-American analytical philosophy, the dominant academic school. In a lecture later on, Krzysztof, whose field is apparently computational linguistics, discusses the great difficulty of expressing all the various cultural associations of people, the “metasemantics” of a language. But he stops near the end of his lecture and speculates that with more computational resources, new algorithms, etc, it may be possible to create a computer that can replicate a human – one that can have aesthetic experiences. In this lecture Krzysztof expresses his belief, one held by those in the “Strong Artificial Intelligence” scholarly community -- that human thought and experience is not fundamentally different from the operations of a digital computer. Someday it may be possible to reproduce with mechanical and electronic artifacts a human being.

One day in the winter, Pavel wants to try out his new ice skates on the frozen lake. Krzysztof shows Pavel how his mathematical modelling computer program can determine whether the ice on the lake will be thick enough to allow safe skating. It should be based on whether the air temperature over the preceding few days was low enough. This is physics. The calculation is made, and they observe that the program returns values that indicate that the ice will be safe. Just to make sure, Krzysztof goes out on the ice after Pavel goes to sleep and tests it with his own weight.

But the world isn’t always predictable, even with the laws of physics at hand. One evening Krzysztof’s computer turns on by itself and boots up for some reason. Krzysztof, at home with the idea that computers are not that different from humans, metaphorically asks his computer what it wants. On another occasion while Krzysztof is at his desk writing in his notebook, he notices a mysterious black spot spreading across the page. It turns out to be ink from an unexpectedly cracked ink bottle. It’s always easier to explain what happened unexpectedly after the fact than it is to predict the future.

And finally the most tragically unexpected thing of all happens. When Pavel goes out alone one evening to skate on the ice, he doesn’t return. The ice has broken. It shouldn’t have happened, but it did. The last third of the film covers Krzysztof’s response to this unfathomable tragedy and what it does to him. A great narrative does not simply comprise the external events that take place, but also encompasses the goals, plans, and desires of the agents engaged in that narrative. In this story the external events are straightforward and basically simple, but the narrative interest and its beauty lie in how we understand the yearnings, plans, and accommodations made by Pavel, Krzysztof, and Irena to those external events.

A naive interpretation of this story would suggest that God punished Krzysztof for transgressing the commandment and putting his faith in science ahead of God. But certainly the story of the film is much more profound than that, and in fact the film mocks such a trivial view of reality and life. Instead of that simple view, the film narrative confronts us with the incomprehensibly tragic, fatalistic loneliness of our existence. There is no escape. Both Krzysztof and Irena, with their contrasting perspectives, are overwhelmed by the loss. Neither has an answer, and we share the recognition that we are all equally powerless. As foreshadowed in the opening sequence, only the memory persists.
★★★★

Krzysztof Kieslowski

Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski:
  • Dekalog - Krzysztof Kieslowski (1989)
  1. Dekalog 1: “I am the Lord, thou shalt have no other gods before Me.”
  2. Dekalog 2: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”
  3. Dekalog 3: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
  4. Dekalog 4: ”Honor thy father and thy mother.”
  5. Dekalog 5: “Thou shalt not kill.”
  6. Dekalog 6: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
  7. Dekalog 7: “Thou shalt not steal.”
  8. Dekalog 8: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”
  9. Dekalog 9: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.”
  10. Dekalog 10: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.”

    “Dekalog” - Krzysztof Kieslowski (1989)

    Krzysztof Kieslowski (1941-1996) was an acclaimed Polish filmmaker who achieved international fame with his The Double Life of Veronique (La Double Vie de Véronique, 1991) and his multiple award-winning Three Colors trilogy: Blue (Trois Couleurs: Bleu, 1993), White (Trzy Kolory: Bialy, 1994), and Red (Trois Couleurs: Rouge, 1994). These films catapulted Kieslowski to stardom, but he was to die of heart failure in 1996 before he could complete another film. For many filmgoers, Kieslowski’s reputation rests on those four international productions that were nominated or won numerous prestigious awards. His earlier work was not widely distributed and involved film production in his native Poland, starting with documentary films and proceeding through social dramas that were primarily intended for television. But it is one of those earlier productions, a ten-part series made for Polish television, Dekalog (The Decalogue, 1989), that is not only his greatest work – it is one of the monumental film achievements of this or any age. For my own part, I also saw the four international features prior to seeing Dekalog, and although I rather liked those features, I wondered what all the excitement concerning Kieslowski was about. Once I saw Dekalog, I knew. Perhaps this more constrained format was his ideal vehicle of cinematic expression. In any case these films supply concrete evidence that it is still possible to make brilliant, world-class films on a very low budget. Due to intellectual property disputes and the series format (it comprises ten separate thematically-related 55-minute films), Dekalog has not been widely distributed to theatres and is primarily known only through its more recent distribution in DVD format.

    The series was written by Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz and is loosely based on the Ten Commandments of the Roman Catholic Church. Co-author Krzysztof Piesiewicz was a trial lawyer whom Kieslowski had met while doing research for a planned documentary, and it is he who came up with the original idea for the series after seeing a 15th-century artwork depicting the commandments. The setting for all ten films is a Polish high-rise apartment complex. Although each of the stories focuses on different inhabitants of the complex, individuals from one segment are occasionally observed in the background of other segments, which ties all the characters into a metaphorical microcosm of humanity. In addition there is a mysterious background character who appears in most installments, but who never speaks. The meaning of this character’s presence is open to interpretation, but he is always seen at a pivotal moment of decision, and he appears to be a silent, perhaps compassionate, witness to all the moral struggles that are depicted.

    Kieslowski and Piesiewicz had originally intended for each film to be directed by a different director, but in the end, Kieslowski chose to direct all of them, although with mostly different cinematographers for each of them. We can be thankful for Kieslowski’s unwillingness to share these stories with other directors: the resulting series is a wonderful interwoven fabric of philosophy, moral indecision, and human feeling that exemplifies the superiority and power of cinematic expression over the written word. In fact, it is an extraordinary experience to watch these films and realize that they are essentially low-budget productions with modest effects and set design. Nevertheless, the meticulous and unostentatious craftsmanship is revealed not in visual effects but in the total viewing experience. This viewing experience, incidentally, is immeasurably enhanced by the haunting music of Zbigniew Preisner, which adds a Sufic tonality of poetic expression to all the stories. It is no wonder that Dekalog is studied by filmmakers the world over as a model of cinematic technique.

    Although the Ten Commandments supply the overriding theme, each of the ten stories is not simply confined to a single commandment and none of them is a simple moral lesson or illustration concerning the commandment. What these ten tales do is provide insight into and compassion for the struggles that even the most ethical person must make in his or her efforts to live in our complex world of human affairs. We the viewers have a profoundly shared empathy for the protagonists in these stories, and many times we share their pains and their struggles to work out a path through or an understanding of the world in which we live.
    ★★★★

    Dekalog 1: “I am the Lord, thou shalt have no other gods before Me.”
    Dekalog 2: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”
    Dekalog 3: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
    Dekalog 4: ”Honor thy father and thy mother.”
    Dekalog 5: “Thou shalt not kill.”
    Dekalog 6: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
    Dekalog 7: “Thou shalt not steal.”
    Dekalog 8: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”
    Dekalog 9: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.”
    Dekalog 10: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.”

    “Mouchette” - Robert Bresson (1967)

    Robert Bresson’s Mouchette (1967) tells the sad story of a disadvantaged and friendless teenage girl in rural France. Usually there was a hiatus of several years between Bresson’s productions, but Mouchette was filmed immediately after his Au Hasard Balthazar and features some common elements and themes with that film. Both depict ill-fated girls living a tormented life in rural French society, which itself is portrayed as violent, mean spirited, and alcohol besotted. Because of these thematic commonalities, the two films are often paired by critics and held in mutually high esteem by Bresson’s admirers. There is one striking difference between the two, however. While Au Hasard Balthazar was, unusually for Bresson’, based on his own script, Mouchette was adapted from an existing text – in this case a novella by Georges Bernanos, another of whose works had served as the basis for Bresson’s masterful Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d'un Curé de Campagne, 1950). But apart from the nature of authorship, there are other distinctions and points of comparison between Mouchette and Au Hasard Balthazar, as I will elaborate further.

    Bresson’s films have been considered to be spiritual, or even religious, and certainly his films reveal the influence of his Jansenist Roman Catholic upbringing. But I would argue that they are not so explicitly religious, although they do evoke the fundamental Existentialist issues that are invariably addressed by religions and theological schools. After all, Bresson characterised himself as an agnostic, so we should not really expect him to be completely obsessed by religious schema. Perhaps it is best to fall back to the term, ‘transcendental”, which Paul Schrader used to characterize Bresson’s work. In any case Mouchette represents a further progression in Bresson’s movement towards a pessimistic view of human nature and the prospects of redemption. Whereas redemption was at least held as possible in Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped (1956), and Pickpocket (1959), when we proceed further and get to The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), and Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), the possibilities of redemption seem, at best, only subjective. Finally with Mouchette, the picture moves even further away from contemplative melancholy and closer to complete despair. In spite of its gloomy outlook, however, Mouchette was named in a 1972 poll conducted by Sight and Sound magazine to be among the top twenty greatest movies ever made.

    By the time of the making of this film, Bresson’s cinematic aesthetics were famously austere, even severe. He restricted himself to nonprofessional actors, who were instructed to read their lines in a flat, automatic fashion, without the slightest trace of theatrical interpretation. This was done in order to present the cinematic viewing experience as something original, rather than as a photographed version of some narrative that had been situated in another form of expression, such as a novel or a play. As I remarked in my review of Balthazar,
    . . . Bresson always forces the viewer to construct his own, individual diegesis. Bresson argued that when we experience immediate events in our everyday lives, there is no causality. A causal understanding of experience is only produced later, upon reflection. Bresson wanted the audience to have this direct causal-construction experience with his film narratives, and for this reason he didn’t want his actors (which he preferred to call “models”) to inject their own interpretive causal renderings in their roles. He didn’t want them to “perform”, because this would inevitably lead them to introduce their personal causal interpretations that would disadvantage the constructive experience for the viewer. It is for this reason that he insisted on those flat performances of his models, with downcast eyes that disconnected the players from each other. As a consequence, each viewer of a Bresson film will have to construct his or her diegetic interpretation purely within the framework of his or her own experiences.
    It follows then that the viewer often sees events in Bresson’s films in something of a reverse order: first the events depicting an effect are shown, and then the events that provide a causal explanation of that effect are shown moments later. Events presented this way can place the viewer into a mode of existential experience aligned with the film’s protagonist. In the case of Mouchette, Bresson’s concern with aspects of causality is a key issue, since the causal motivations of Mouchette’s final actions are open to our interpretation and somewhat problematic.

    The story of the film, which proceeds through four main sections, is covered in some detail, because a number of elements accumulate to create the overall theme.

    I. Setting the Scene (11 minutes). This comprises four disconnected scenes that separately introduce the principal characters, whose identities and relationships will be revealed gradually.
    1. A lone woman laments her declining condition, saying, “what will become of them without me”. After she leaves, the camera remains fixed on her empty chair, thereby establishing the visual motif of absence and isolation that will dominate the film.
    2. A game warden in the forest eyes a poacher snaring birds. Filmed almost exclusively in closeups, the scene compels the viewer to patch together the images and to try and make the connections.
    3. The game warden walks back into town and passes some girls on their way to school. One of the girls in the foreground hears her name called, “Mouchette”.
    4. The game warden, Mathieu, goes to a tavern and earnestly propositions the barmaid, Louisa, but she seems indifferent. Then two bootleggers unload a truck full of whiskey crates and deliver them to the tavern. After downing shots of whiskey, they drive home, where Mouchette is attending her sick mother (the woman seen initially).
    II. Romantic Frustrations (16 minutes). The next day in school, Mouchette, with shabby old clothes and clunky wooden clogs, is harshly scolded by her teacher for not conforming with the class group singing activity. After school, Mouchette hides near the road and flings mud at her better-dressed classmates. Then on her way home, a village boy attempts to humiliate the friendless girl by brazenly exposing himself to her. Later, on Sunday after attending church, the villagers go to the tavern, where Mouchette works helping the bar made, Louisa. Afterwards, Mouchette wanders over to the town fair and wistfully stares at the bumper-car ride concession. A passing lady gives Mouchette coins needed to go for a ride, and she quickly joins in the fun, soon engaging in a flirtatious bumping rivalry with a well-dressed village boy in another bumper car. But after the conclusion of the ride when she timidly approaches the boy, her father comes over and rudely slaps her in the face for being a hussy, reducing the poor girl to tears. Louisa then comes to the fair with the poacher, Arsene, and they get on another concession ride together, much to the jealous consternation of the onlooking Mathieu.

    III. Mouchette’s Night Out (26 minutes). The next day, Mouchette is back to flinging mud at her classmates again after school. But the other schoolgirls just ignore the abuse and ride away with their boyfriends on their motor scooters, while Mouchette looks on enviously. She runs off into the nearby forest, but she gets caught in a sudden rainstorm and hides under a tree to wait it out. When the rain finally stops, it is already dark, but as she starts to walk home, she hides when she sees the gun-wielding Mathieu in search of the poacher Arsene. We then follow Mathieu, who finds and confronts Arsene. But after an initial fistfight, they fall to the ground and are soon laughing and drinking whiskey together like old comrades. Somwhat later, Arsene finds Mouchette hiding and takes her to his hut in the woods so that they can take shelter from what he calls the “cyclone”. There he confides to her that he thinks he may have killed Mathieu and demands that she testify to a false alibi that would cover him should the police question her. Wanting to remove evidence that he was in the forest that night, Arsene then takes her to the village tavern and breaks into the back room. But shortly after entering the room Arsene falls into a frightening epileptic seizure and starts thrashing on the floor. Mouchette, moved by his suffering, holds him still and then tenderly sings her school song to him as he gradually comes to. But when Arsene completely regains consciousness, he has forgotten about his confession and Mouchette’s assurances of loyalty, and so he tries to prevent her from leaving the hut to go home. Eventually he overpowers her and rapes her, and she ultimately submits.

    IV. No Way Out (27 minutes). Mouchette eventually escapes from the tavern and returns home early in the morning. In a short space of time she then has a series of dispiriting experiences:
    1. In a daze and crying from her harrowing experience, she tries to look after the baby for her helplessly ill mother. But her mother soon succumbs to her illness and dies.
    2. The next morning Mouchette goes out to get milk for the baby. A grocery store lady expresses her sympathies to Mouchette concerning her mother and offers the girl chocolate. But when she sees some scratches on Mouchett’e neck, the woman rudely calls her a slut.
    3. On the way back to her home, Mouchette passes by the gamekeeper’s house and sees that he is perfectly OK – Arsene’s story of having killed the gamekeeper was illusory. The gamekeeper and his wife accuse Mouchette of carousing with Arsene and harshly question her, but Mouchette defiantly tells them that in fact she loves Arsene.
    4. As Mouchette walks home, a wealthy old lady invites her inside and gives her a shroud and some dresses. But the woman’s age and incessant talk about death only put off Mouchette, and she rebelliously whispers under her breath, “you disgusting old thing”.
    5. Continuing home Mouchette walks past the forest again, where men are shooting rabbits. Seeing a rabbit shot by the “sportsmen”, she rushes over to watch it in its death throes.
    6. After these experiences, Mouchette walks over to a pond and sits near the bank. She holds up one of the dresses that the old lady had given to her, but it tears on a branch. Apparently distraught over the spoiling of her one nice possession, she puts the torn dress over her and rolls down the hill towards the pond, perhaps merely to complete the ruination of the dress. When she sits up, she sees a tractor in the distance and calls out to it, but although the driver stares back, he does not respond. She goes back to rolling down the bank again, but now with the intent of rolling all the way into the pond. On her second attempt her suicidal act is successful, and the camera remains focused on the pond.
    When we compare Mouchette to Au Hasard Balthazar, it can be seen that despite some common elements, there are also very marked differences. In fact one might speculate that Mouchette was conceived to overcome a deficiency that was present in that immediately preceding film of Bresson’s. In Au Hasard Balthazar, there was no observable, or even possible, justification or motivation for Marie’s slavish love for the thug, Gerard. There was no hint of a comprehensible human relationship. This prevented the viewer from engaging in any existential empathy with Marie (and of course, such empathy was equally impossible for the innocent, but opaque, donkey, Balthazar). Both Marie and Balthazar may have engaged our sympathies, but not our empathy. But in Mouchette the situation is somewhat different. Even though the hopes for meaningful personal relationships are ultimately frustrated, at least the quest for genuine human engagement is observable and once or twice seems possible. This is highlighted by the brief moment of tenderness that Mouchette feels for Arsene after his epileptic fit – one of the most intimate and touching moments in the entire Bressonian canon.

    In fact the quest for a meaningful relationship that would establish her identity (to herself) is what underlies the film. As Bernanos and Bresson knew well, we understand ourselves in terms of our meaningful relationships with others. Mouchette is seen throughout as an “unperson” who is completely isolated from the village and not recognized as a normal human being. Her father brutalizes her; her classmates ignore her; and the village boys mock her. Throughout the film she tries the little acts of rebellion common to all children that represent minimal assertions of selfhood. She mischievously spills milk when serving her family coffee. She intentionally sings off key in her classroom. She stomps her Sunday shoes in the mud. And she scrapes her muddy shoes on the old lady’s nice carpet. These minor misdemeanors are indicative of her limited opportunities for free expression and action. Apart from her mother, there is only one person who treats her like a human being, and that is Arsene. That is why she swears that she would die for him and why she defends him to the gamekeeper even after he raped her.

    But the adult world, dominated as it is by artefacts, machines, and mechanical manipulation, seems to offer her no opportunities for a self-defining human relationship. This is symbolized by both the sound of intrusively noisy trucks incessantly passing by her apartment and the boys’ motor scooters that whisk away Mouchette’s classmates. Mouchette’s one opportunity to experience this mechanical world – when she rode the bumper cars – was only a fantasy that ended in pain and humliation. Her alcohol-fueled father holds his cap and pretends he is driving his truck when he falls drunkenly into bed: mechanical control is what dominates his dreams. They all have their contraptions: her father has his truck, Mathieu and the rabbit shooters have their guns, and Arsene has his animal trap. In fact, the adult world is so artificial and schematic that, as far as Mouchette is concerned, there is a sense of unreality to it. What is real, and what is not? When Arsene and Mathieu appear to be fighting to the death in the forest, they suddenly and mysteriously start laughing and drinking together. Arsene tells Mouchette that the storm was a “cyclone”, but the next day her mother, whom she trusts, tells her that there wasn’t one. Arsene tells her that he killed Mathieu, and the next day she sees Mathieu perfectly unharmed. Was all her suffering on behalf of Arsene just a dream? After seeing her mother die in suffering and the innocent rabbit blown apart by the hunters’ rifle shots, life itself must have been held in question.

    Thus Mouchette is very much an existentialist tale of loneliness and isolation, while Au Hasard Balthazar is more of an expressionistic nightmare of pure suffering. Mouchette was impaired, however, by the progressive austerity of Bresson’s now-rigid mise en scène. This is exemplified in Bresson’s differing adaptaions of the two texts by Bernanos. As literary works, both Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest, and his Mouchette were told as first-person French histoires. Bresson’s earlier filming Diary of a Country Priest was faithful to Bernanos’s first-person narrative, and the result was brilliant. But by the time of the filming of Mouchette, Bresson eschewed such causation-infected narrative contrivances, to the detriment of the viewing experience. This degree of aesthetic self-discipline on the part of Bresson distances the viewer from the character of Mouchette and enervates the power of the story. Although Mouchette may be more sophisticated and more profound, Au Hasard Balthazar is more powerful.

    In the last analysis, one might ask whether Mouchette was devoid of any hope at all. That final calling out to the tractor driver on the part of Mouchette in the film is reminiscent of Joseph K’s final, hopeful glance up to the lighted window in Franz Kafka’s The Trial. This was one last appeal for a meaningful interaction. Something more than the cold stare that Mouchette received might have saved her life. But those life-saving “something more” gestures are all-too rare in this world.
    ★★★

    “Women of the Night” - Kenji Mizoguchi (1948)

    Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan’s most admired director, first began directing films in the silent era and by 1936 had already made over sixty features. It was about that time, however, with films like Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion, that his mise en scène reached its full maturity. His celebrated cinematic approach involved very long takes in structurally deep environments, with elaborate camera and character movements maintaining a fluid, but balanced, visual composition throughout the shot. During this period, and over the remaining twenty years of his life, his films maintained this uniquely crafted aesthetic, but there were occasional variations as in his 83rd feature, Women of the Night (Yoru No Onnatachi, 1948), which was based on a novel by Eijirô Hisaita. This film, as with most of his films during his mature period, was focused on the feminine perspective and on issues concerned with the place of women in Japanese society. But his cinematic aesthetic notwithstanding, we must recognise that most films inevitably reflect somewhat the social circumstances in which they are made – and Women of the Night is no exception. Japan had just emerged from a devastatingly destructive war, and its society was undergoing at least as much stress and forced adjustment to modernism that Europe was going through at that time. All over the world films were then being made that reflected a greater social consciousness and an attempt to uncover the “reality” of life as it is truly lived by the people. This seems to have influenced Mizoguchi at this time, as well, although attempts to go out onto the streets in order to find realism did not fit well with Mizoguchi’s elaborate studio-based camera techniques. As a consequence, we have the curious hybrid of Women of the Night, which represents an example of Mizoguchi’s attempt to accommodate his aesthetics with social realism.

    The story, with five main sections, concerns the fate of three related women who are struggling to survive and come to terms with the new post-war situation in Japan.
    1. Tragedy for Fusako. Fusako Owada, a young mother, is shown trying to sell some of her clothing to a dry goods merchant in order to make ends meet while she awaits news of her soldier husband who has been missing since the war. During the long 3:30 shot, Fusako is encouraged by the cold-hearted shop owner to make money as a prostitute, and the shocked Fusako runs away in horror. There follows a 3:00 shot in which Fusako returns home, where her teenage sister-in-law, Kumiko, reports that her husband’s old business company has just obtained news about his current circumstances. Fusako and her mother-in-law rush over to the company, only to learn that Fusako’s husband is dead. The company president, Mr. Kuriyama, offers his curt condolences and says he is willing to provide financial assistance.
    2. Fusako and Kumiko Fall. Although no obvious clue has been given, time has apparently passed. Fusako runs into her sister, Natsuko, from whom she had been separated by the war. Natsuko, who is clearly very worldly and works as a ”dancing hostess” (taxi dancer), moves in with Fusako, who now has a job as Mr. Kuriyama’s personal secretary and has apparently submitted to her boss’s romantic entreaties. Economically, at least, things seem to be on the up and up. But when Fusako later learns that Mr. Kuriyama’s business is about to be raided by the police, she is asked to take home some compromising materials and, upon arriving at her apartment, discovers her sister is also Mr. Kuriyama’s lover. Demoralized by this discovery, Fusako goes back to the dry goods merchant and arranges to become a prostitute. Meanwhile sister-in-law Kumiko runs away from home to find her “freedom” and is soon raped by a street boy who had befriended her. Then, in an elaborately choreographed 100-second moving-camera shot, a collection of street girls are shown beating Kumiko and ripping off her clothes, telling her that her only option now that she has been defiled is to join their prostitution ring.
    3. Natusko Tries to Rescue Fusako. Learning that Fusako has become a prostitute, Natsuko goes to look for her in the streetwalking area and gets arrested for prostitution, herself. In the jail, she discovers Fusako, now a hardened prostitute, and she also learns that she herself is pregnant and has syphilis. Natsuko tries to convince her sister to give up prostitution, but Fusako, bitter with her sister for stealing her lover and now hating all men, angrily vows to infect them all with syphilis. She is then shown escaping from prison, in a dramatic outdoor shot that emphasizes her new toughness.
    4. Fusako Rescues Natsuko. Now out of jail, Natsuko criticises Kuriyma for sleeping with both sisters. But the unrepentant Kuriyama says that he was only being generous to the women – and, besides, Fusako was destined to become a prostitute, anyway. “We’re not animals,” she responds. Fusako later returns to her old flat and finds Natsuko drunk and eight-months pregnant (though she doesn’t look it, of course). Fusako takes Natsuko to a womens’ refuge, where there are doctors to attend to her. Natsuko’s baby is stillborn, but she is OK. Then the attendants try to convince both girls to get their lives in order, but they do not convince Fusako.
    5. Fusako rescues Kumiko. Back on the street, Fusako sees her fellow prostitutes attacking a girl for streetwalking without gang permission. It turns out to be Kumiko, who has also become a hardened prostitute and has “spent time in the slammer”. Fusako is so shocked to see her young sister-in-law’s fall to degeneracy that she first physically attacks her and then breaks down crying. But when, after her outburst, she tries to take Kumiko home with her, the prostitute gang leaders (all women) start beating them ruthlessly. The other prostitutes, who have been watching all this, are moved by compassion to intervene and help Fusako and Kumiko escape to a better life.
    There are three scenes in this film that are memorable for their visual expressionism. The first is when the girl prostitutes beat up Kumiko at the end of Act 2. This is a wild scene of women beating, kicking, and mauling the poor victim, as the camera tracks along with them. This is not like the neo-realist films, because it had to have been highly choreographed. Mizoguchi was famous for rehearsing some of his shots up to a hundred times in order to ensure that the long takes were perfect. This one must have been a horror for the actresses to get right. The second memorable scene is the dramatic outdoor action sequence showing the escape Fusako makes as she climbs over the prison wall. The third memorable scene is the wild fight, again involving only women, at the end of the film. This scene is even more kinetic than the first one and involves a wider scope and more extended movements. It takes place in a Christian church backyard and even includes a bizarre panning shot across a stain-glass window depicting the Madonna and Child.

    In general there is an uneasy mixture in the film between Mizoguchi’s studio scenes and gritty daylight shots on the streets of Osaka. These street shots pull the vision away from Mizoguchi’s usual controlled, expressionistic environment, a la von Sternberg, into a here-and-now sense of the everyday. It is perhaps for this reason, that Women of the Night has been likened to Italian neo-realism. But despite those occasional moments on the street and the contemporary concerns of streetwalkers, the film is pretty remote from the Italian neo-realist aesthetic of the late 1940s.

    Apart from the odd aesthetic mix, there are also nontrivial flaws in the cinematic narrative. The opening street scene of Act 2 presents Fusako and her sister after some time has passed, but this is not initially signaled and Fusako’s now-calm demeanor has not been motivated. These kinds of narrative jumps can be appropriate in certain types of crime films, where the viewer is challenged to make sense of the narrative. But it doesn’t seem to fit well with the aesthetic demands of this story and is merely confusing for no reason. Similarly, Fusako’s sudden transformation into a hardened, street-tough whore is not adequately motivated. Such a wild swing needs more justification, especially if the film wishes to make a socially-conscious statement about society in general. Kumiko’s swing into prostitution is similarly too impetuous.

    Overall, Women of the Night does have a hard-hitting feel to it, even today. There is open and frank talk in the film of sex, rape, syphilis, and a depiction of women engaging in savage physical violence. But in general, Women of the Night tends to portray women as morally weak and requiring strong parental guidance. The people at the women’s refuge speak in sanctimonious tones to the women there as if they were little children who need to be given tasks in order to keep them out of mischief. Moreover, this moral tone is undercut by the uneasy fact that the only women shown as tough and able to take the initiative are the morally corrupt prostitution gangsters. It is true that there are critical turns in the film when Fusako and Natsuko compassionately come to each other’s aid. But these moments of feminine compassion are interspersed in a general environment of women brutalizing each other and contributing to their own misery. So in terms of modern sentiments, it seems that Mizoguchi’s Women of the Night is rather patronizing and belittling towards women.

    Women of the Night is a strange, somewhat time-bound, noirish work in the Mizoguchi oeuvre. It is interesting to compare it to some of his masterworks that came later. It is said that Mizoguchi converted to Buddhism sometime around 1950. That apparently made all the difference.
    ★★½

    “Au Hasard Balthazar” - Robert Bresson (1966)

    Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), written and directed by Robert Bresson, is an unusually paradoxical film, even for this director. On the one hand, Bresson enthusiasts often rate it as his greatest and most moving work. But on the other hand, interpretations of the film, when they are forthcoming at all, are varied and inconsistent. There is little common ground concerning what the film means and why one might be disposed to like it. The story follows the troubled life, from birth to death, of a donkey, named “Balthazar”, whose fateful circumstances crisscross with those of a young girl, Marie, who occasionally attends to him. The French title of the film might be translated to mean “The Misadventures of Balthazar”, or more loosely, “The Random Fate of Balthazar”. It recalls the French title of Bresson’s greatest film, “A Man Escaped, or the Wind Bloweth Where it Listeth” and emphasizes how we are all subject to the arbitrary machinations of events in the world that are (almost) completely beyond our control. But this film reflects Bresson’s increasingly pessimistic view of human weakness and failure.

    The story is told in Bresson’s familiar ascetic and progressively more mannered presentation style. This included the use of nonprofessional actors, who were instructed to read their lines in a flat, unemotional style that disconnects from any narrative continuity. Bresson often drew his actors from intellectual circles, however. Anne Wiazemsky, who plays the role of Marie, was the granddaughter of Francois Mauriac, and later, after marrying Jean-Luc Godard and appearing in several French New Wave films, became a successful novelist. Pierre Klossowski, who plays the miserly miller in the film, was a well-known French novelist and brother of famous French artist Balthasar [!] Klossowski de Rola.

    Bresson provides no backstory information about the characters and avoids any establishing shots that can contextualise a given scene. The narrative continuity may have been further compromised in this instance by the fact that this is one of the few times Bresson did not base his script on an existing written story or text; apparently it is entirely his own construction. There is a characteristic, almost obsessive, focus on closeups of hands and feet (these often introduce a scene) in the act of some mundane movement or operation. The closeups remind us of the key, interactive nature of existence – it is primarily through our hands and feet that we interact with the world, and these interactions are more fundamental and primitive than our artificially constructed mental reflections. In addition, the sound features highly articulated individual sounds, often of activities taking place offscreen. The overall effect gives rise to the characteristic Bressonian mise en scène: that of a dreamlike collection of generally dissatisfied souls who are cut off from fulfilment or genuine community. The narrative proceeds through five phases, although the boundaries between these phases are indistinct:
    1. Introduction. This brief section moves astonishing quickly. The young children of a French farmer convince their father to keep a donkey that has just been born, and they name him “Balthazar”, after one of the Three Wise Men. The children and the donkey have an idyllic existence flooded with affection, including a blooming childhood love between the farmer’s son, Jacques, and Marie, who is the daughter of a schoolteacher. But the death of one of the farmer’s daughters causes their family to move to the city, and Jacques and Marie are separated. All of this takes place in just six and half minutes.
    2. Gerard. Roughly ten years have now gone by, and Balthazar has been sold and turned into a draught animal. After a road accident enables Balthazar to escape from his cruel owner, he finds his way back to the old farm, which is now tended by Marie’s father, who is trying make a go of it as a farmer. Marie is now a pretty young women, and she attracts the attention of the local hood, Gerard, whose sole interest seems to be wanton destructiveness. Jacques, now grown into a honorable young gentleman, returns for a visit and expresses his continued interest in Marie, but she prefers the reckless and abusive Gerard. Soon she is Gerard’s sexual slave, receiving no tenderness from him in return. After economic and legal disasters ruin Marie’s vane father, Balthazar is sold to a baker, who employs Gerard for bread deliveries. Gerard demonstrates his continuing evil nature by whipping and abusing Balthazar at every chance, stealing from the baker’s cash drawer, and making the baker’s wife his sexual slave, too.
    3. Arnold. In connection with the investigation into a local murder, the plice question Gerard and his gang, along with a local impoverished drunkard, Arnold, who is a simple fool when sober, but becomes violent and destructive when inebriated. Arnold gains possession of the now-ill Balthazar just before the baker was about to “put him away”, and after restoring Balthazr to health uses the donkey for odd jobs. But life isn’t all that good for Arnold and Balthazar. Arnold is routinely the soft target of Gerard’s thuggery, and whenever Arnold is drunk, he cruelly beats his beleaguered donkey. Eventually Arnold comes upon an inheritance and celebrates with a party at an inn, but Gerard and his hoods come and trash the place and then ply Arnold with so much alcohol that he later falls to his death on the road. Balthazar is then sold by the police at auction to a miller in town.
    4. The Miller. The miller harnesses Balthazar to walk in circles turning his mill while relentlessly whipping him. After sleeping with Marie, who has been abandoned by Gerard and reduced to being a homeless prostitute, the miller returns Balthazar to Marie’s family, who have come to take Marie back home.
    5. Final Fall. At this point some hope for salvation appears. Marie and Jacques are back home, and Jacques returns from the city to press his romantic case once more. But Marie spurns his love and rushes off to Gerard’s cottage, where she is gang-rapped and abandoned again. Marie then runs away, forever it is assumed, and her prideful father, frustrated by all his humiliating failures, dies of grief. Gerard comes to steal Balthazar for a smuggling operation near the border, and in the event, Balthazar is shot and dies. The closing shot has the dying Balthazar wandering into a meadow where a flock of sheep surround him. He lies down in the grass and slowly passes away as the recurring musical theme of Schubert’s mournful piano Sonata in A Major is played on the soundtrack
    Many critics and viewers have found Au Hasard Balthazar to be a spiritually transcendent, even uplifting, tale that evokes a higher plane of reality – one of peace that lies above the cruel dimensions of this material world. Indeed many have found the film to be explicitly laden with Christian symbols of sacrifice, as Balthazar, the Christ figure, is subjected to the seven deadly sins of man. Critic James Quandt nicely summarizes these tendencies towards Christian symbolism:
    A common reading of Balthazar, relying on an orthodox sense of Bresson’s Catholicism, on the Palm Sunday imagery of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on “the foal of a donkey,” . . . ascribes to the animal a Christlike status. In this schema, Balthazar, after enjoying a brief, paradisal childhood, apparent in the image of his nuzzling his mother’s milk that opens the film and his playful baptism by three children, lives a calvary. Passed from cruel master to cruel master, Balthazar traverses the stations of the cross, beaten, whipped, slapped, burned, mocked, and, in the concluding crucifixion, shot and abandoned to bleed to death, the hillside on which he perishes a modern-day Golgotha. That he dies literally burdened (with contraband) suggests, in this reading, a sacrifice for humanity. This meaning is intensified by Balthazar’s sole, stigmata-like wound and by the sheep that flow around him, a tide of white that surrounds his dark, prostrate form. With their tolling bells, they evoke the Agnus Dei [Lamb of God] and thereby the liturgy, “Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis [who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us].” Balthazar has died for the sins of those who have transgressed against him—the alcoholic Arnold, the vicious Gérard, the mean, miserly merchant—and of the few who have not, particularly the martyred Marie, whose fate parallels his.

    This interpretation is tempting in its simplicity. That Balthazar passes through the hands of seven masters suggests to some a numerical trace of the seven words from the cross, the seven sacraments of the church formed by Christ’s Passion, or the seven deadly sins. The mock baptism performed by the children and the auditory equation of church bells with Balthazar’s bell indicate the animal’s divinity; Marie’s name suggests the mother of God, and the garland of flowers she makes for Balthazar is reminiscent of Christ’s crown of thorns; the strange bestiary in the circus implies the ark; the smugglers’ gold and perfume are the equivalent of the offerings of the magi; Gérard’s band of blousons noirs [black jackets] represent Christ’s tormentors (or, as Gilles Jacob has suggested, the thieves of Ecclesiastes); the wine that Arnold drinks and the bread that Gérard delivers both suggest transubstantiation; Arnold is in many ways a Judas figure; and so on.
    — James Quandt, "Au Hasard Balthazar", The Criterion Collection, 2005.
    My own response to the film, though, lies in a rather different direction. In this connection it is useful to remember that Bresson always forces the viewer to construct his own, individual diegesis. Bresson argued that when we experience immediate events in our everyday lives, there is no causality. A causal understanding of experience is only produced later, upon reflection. Bresson wanted the audience to have this direct causal-construction experience with his film narratives, and for this reason he didn’t want his actors (which he preferred to call “models”) to inject their own interpretive causal renderings in their roles. He didn’t want them to “perform”, because this would inevitably lead them to introduce their personal causal interpretations that would disadvantage the constructive experience for the viewer. It is for this reason that he insisted on those flat performances of his models, with downcast eyes that disconnected the players from each other. As a consequence, each viewer of a Bresson film will construct his diegetic interpretation within the framework of his or her own experiences. For someone steeped in Catholic symbolism, perhaps the account outlined by Quandt would make sense. But I think Bresson’s film is both more profound and more ambiguous than that account.

    The donkey Balthazar is a sentient being, but when we look into his expressionless eyes, we don’t have any understanding of who or what he is. His vocabulary is limited to braying when he suffers: all we are aware of his suffering, but the rest is obscure. Yet throughout the film he is held by various characters in the film to be hard worker, a loving being, a fool, a genius (he can perform multiplications on multi-digit numbers), and even a saint. They look into his eyes and attribute these things to him based on the schemas that underlie their own mental frameworks. All of these frameworks are symbol-based and dualistic – they can never capture the raw passionate nature of existence, since that existence is beyond essence and explanation. In Dostoyevky’s The Idiot, Prince Myshkin remarks that he was cured of his melancholy one day in Switzerland when he heard the braying of a donkey in the marketplace. Bresson has remarked that his Balthazar was inspired by that very passage. This contrast between rationalized mental schemes and pure existence is highlighted during the opening titles when Schubert’s contemplative piano theme is interrupted and overtaken by the persistent loud braying of Balthazar. The discordant braying of the donkey is pure passion, with no further comprehensible semantics. For the remainder of the film, we will see men and women who apply their own prejudices, whether benign or malicious, on this poor animal who watches and suffers. Certainly Balthazar is not a true saint: whatever virtue he might have is merely the absence of malice. It is Marie’s mother who sees his stoic suffering as saintly. But Balthazar is the perfect Bressonian “model”, because he is completely “causeless”. We and the characters in the film are responsible for how we see him.

    The contrast between the paltry schemes concocted by mental reflection and the wonder of pure existence is a continuing theme of Bresson’s work. His vision here, though, is relatively one-sided, focusing more on the abject state of man than on the glorious possibilities of existence. A recurring iconic motif in this film for man’s limited and exploitative condition is modern gadgetry – motorcycles, automobiles, transistor radios. These are all things that rudely intrude on the natural space of the French countryside and have no natural place there. Thus Gerard, the epitome of inhumanity, is constantly seen with these mean and noisy devices. In fact many of the characters in the film have such a blinkered view of life that they are dominated by a single perspective:
    • Marie’s Father: Honour – He sacrifices his living and family, and ultimately his life, in order to spurn those he feels have made him lose face.
    • The Miller: Money – He says he loves only money and adds that once you have that “you quickly learn that you do what you want and still command respect.”
    • Gerard: Property – His only interest seems to be the possession of exploitable property and the reduction of people and animals to that same status.
    • Marie’s Mother: God – She sees the suffering, innocent animal, Balthazar as a saint, mirroring her own feeling of martyrdom.
    The drunkard Arnold is a special case. He oscillates between passive tolerance and drunken rage. At the end of the film, he pitifully bids farewell to the world by addressing a telephone pole and road marker, material artifacts from his life on the road that seem to represent his only “friends”.

    There are some significant aspects of Au Hasard Balthazar that do not seem to fit comfortably in Bresson’s aesthetics. By and large Bresson’s characters, his models, are presented as isolated from the world around them. In this world of mutually isolated characters, we are reminded of our own existential loneliness. But in Au Hasard Balthazar there is a greater degree of social interaction than in his preceding films, and this is a bit problematic. In particular, the portrayal in the film of Marie’s love for Gerard does not seem plausible. Most critics have ignored this aspect of the story, but it is a significant and emphatically proclaimed element. Marie says to her mother, “Do we know why we love someone? If he says, ‘come’, I come.” She goes on to add, “I’d kill myself for him.” This level of passion for another person is completely unmotivated in the film and seems so absurd that the viewer is tempted to dismiss Marie at that point. Whereas Bresson was able to portray romantic passion in his earlier Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1944), his film aesthetic had evolved to such an austerity twenty years later that romantic passion could not be accommodated within it.

    In fact a prominent and disturbing theme in the film is the self-destructiveness of Marie, her father, and Arnold, which is brought about by their separate withdrawals from human affairs and their refusal to take defensive action. This converts an existential loneliness into an expressionistic nightmare. Marie’s father stubbornly refuses to defend himself because of his ego. Marie ruins herself, because she seems to want to abolish her ego and become the slave of Gerard. Arnold swings wildly between overweening ego (when drunk) and egolessness (when sober). When they each abandon their will to take action, they become the subjects of cruel dominators, just like Balthazar (who, unlike his human fellows, has no choice in the matter).

    What we have in Au Hasard Balthazar, then, is a presentation of the deadening and demeaning existence of French peasants, but no contrasting moments of life-giving affirmation and exhilaration. The closest we come to it is the serene embrace that Marie gives to Balthazar when she is reunited with him as a teenager. But even this moment is more one of innocence than of love. Bresson’s vision is relentlessly pessimistic here. In Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, there is a final moment of romantic salvation, In Diary of a Country Priest (1950), the protagonist dies with an unfilfilled longing, but at least he is transfigured by the wonder of existence. In A Man Escaped (1956), although the “wind bloweth where it listeth”, the protagonist perseveres and escapes. In Pickpocket (1959), the protagonist, after “the strange path [he] had to take”, finally succumbs to the salvation of love. In The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), the protagonist dies at the stake, but is still unbowed and profoundly innocent. But in Au Hasard Balthazar, there is no seeker (other than the secondary character Jacques), no salvation, no redemption, only suffering. Marie is ruined and even abandoned by the narrative. Balthazar is killed by a random bullet. There is no suggestion that either one of them has ever suspected the possibility of, much less found, any real sublimity. The progression of Bresson's pessimism continued with Mouchette [1].

    The final scene of Balthazar dying in the meadow is undeniably moving, but it elicits different reactions. Some critics find the scene uplifting. To me it was unutterably sad. Balthazar suffered a life of meaningless torment and then finally slumps down in the grass to pass away. The sheep that surround him are also part of the great cycle of nature and have no communion with Balthazar. The lambs that are seen suckling at their mothers’ sides will never reach maturity – they are doomed to be slaughtered within the year and served as meat to their human masters. We watch the simple scene in the meadow, we see the inevitability of lonely death, and we listen to the quiet, melancholy strains of Schubert’s Sonata in A Major.
    ★★★½

    Notes:
    1. My review of Mouchette discusses some of the thematic similarities and contrasts between Au Hasard Balthazar and Mouchette.