Au Hasard Balthazar
  • Au Hasard Balthazar

Among the great slate of programs currently running at the University of Chicago’s Doc Films is one titled “Prison Break!,” featuring films about convicts escaping from prison. As Anton Yu explains in his introduction to the series, “Due to the sheer number of them, prison escape dramas have almost become a genre unto themselves—and for good reason. At their heart, prison break films are tense, exciting, inspirational, and, often, just plain fun.” Upcoming titles include Cool Hand Luke, The Shawshank Redemption, and Chicken Run; this week’s selection is Robert Bresson’s seminal A Man Escaped, which is partially based on the director’s experiences as a prisoner during the Nazi occupation of France.

Bresson is something of an acquired taste, but moviegoers perturbed by his seeming lack of action and stylistic pizazz miss the fact that he’s working with cinema’s most molecular components—light, sound, movement—and blowing them up to a size they’re rarely permitted. As J. Hoberman bluntly but no less correctly put it, “To not get Bresson is to not get the idea of motion pictures—it’s to have missed that train the Lumiére brothers filmed arriving at Lyon station 110 years ago.” Such a statement is funny and ultimately true, but it also places an unnecessary burden on watching a Bresson film. Ultimately, they’re really not that difficult to parse. There’s a reason adjectives like “spiritual” and “humanist” and “transcendent” are used so often when talking about his work: it isn’t as important to “get” a Bresson film—or any film, for that matter—as it is to simply experience one. Below, you can find my five favorites.

5. Pickpocket (1959) A character study par excellence, this is Susan Sontag’s favorite film, a deeply stirring story of personal and spiritual imprisonment set in the decidedly open streets of Paris. Much of the story’s dramatic intrigue is elided, drawing forth the sort of existential themes and characterizations that made Bresson’s “religious” films such innately human experiences.

4. The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) When the recent retrospective of Bresson’s films came through town, this restrained biopic was one of two blind spots I needed to remedy, and it immediately became one of my favorite films by the director. It’s among his most involving works, and though Bresson considered it a sort of response to Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and the supposed “grotesque buffooneries” therein, this is by no means a petty or argumentative film.

3. L’Argent (1983) One of the great final films by any major director. This is probably Bresson’s most intimate work, particularly in the sense that it shows how human interaction forms a sort of invisible connective thread. Each of the director’s films has some sort of literary antecedent; Tolstoy presides over this one, so it has a suitably pessimistic vibe, but like any Bresson film, L’Argent doesn’t surmise simple psychological or social terms. The character emotions run too deep, and the narrative’s existential implications don’t offer any easy answers.

2. A Man Escaped (1956) “The best of all prison-escape movies,” according to Jonathan Rosenbaum, though such praise suggests the film aspires to prison-escape theatrics. By suppressing high adventure thrills and brooding characterizations, Bresson distills the story action down to a single plight: “When in prison, the most important thing is the door.” A wealth of implications spring from there, turning the setting into a sort of suspended cine-space that exists as both a physical plane and a state of mind.

1. Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) Bresson’s richest and most profound film, a parable of sin and suffering that considers the human cost of spiritualism with Dostoevskian complexity. Plenty of hyperbole has been lobbed its way—Jean-Luc Godard said “Everyone who sees it will be absolutely astonished, because this film is really the world in an hour and a half,” and Andrew Sarris paradoxically claimed “It stands by itself as one of the loftiest pinnacles of artistically realized emotional experience”—but none of it feels unearned. This is one of a kind.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.