Au hasard Balthazar
A profound masterpiece from one of the most revered filmmakers in the history of cinema, Au hasard Balthazar, directed by Robert Bresson, follows the donkey Balthazar as he is passed from owner to owner, some kind and some cruel but all with motivations outside of his understanding. Balthazar, whose life parallels that of his first keeper, Marie, is truly a beast of burden, suffering the sins of humankind. But despite his powerlessness, he accepts his fate nobly. Through Bresson’s unconventional approach to composition, sound, and narrative, this simple story becomes a moving parable about purity and transcendence.
Using a new 4K restoration the Criterion Collection upgrades their DVD edition Robert Bresson’s Au hazard Balthazar to Blu-ray on a dual-layer disc, again presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. Like the high-definition restoration used for the original DVD this new one was scanned from the 35mm original camera negative.
The previous DVD doesn’t look too bad all these years later but compression issues held it back and there were still some noticeable bits of damage, though it was, in all fairness, limited to a few bits of dirt and debris here and there. Still, this Blu-ray has cleaned up those remaining bits of grit while also better better managing compression. This leads to improved details, especially for the finer ones found in clothing or the fields or buildings and it is in the donkey’s fur where this improvement is most noticeable: where it looked blocky and messy in the DVD it now has a more natural texture in comparison. After having said that, even with these improvements I can’t say the image is all that crisp. There is a bit of a softness, not drastic, but subtle enough where it’s still perceptible. Despite that grain is still evident, suggesting—at least somewhat—that any supposed softness is just characteristic of the original photography.
The Blu-ray then finally offers richer blacks and better shadow delineation, leading to more detail in the film’s darker sequences. Altogether, even if the image isn’t as sharp and crisp as what I would have hoped, it’s still a far cleaner and more photographic looking image than anything the previous DVD offered.
The lossless PCM 1.0 is limited in regards of dynamic range (it’s pretty flat) but it suits the quiet nature of the film. Damage also isn’t a big concern.
Criterion ports over the supplements from the DVD edition but sadly don’t offer anything new. First is a 13-minute interview with scholar Donald Richie, who talks about Bresson’s style, and the many reactions (including his own) to this film. Despite Richie seeming very sincere about how the film impacted him it’s not terribly insightful, other than maybe when he touches a bit on the various interpretations and even negative criticisms of the film.
Much better, though, is a 62-minute French television episode of Pour le Plaisir, which aired in May of 1966. Put together by Robert Stéphane, it features interviews with the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and Louis Malle, commenting on what they consider an absolutely remarkable film, while also featuring interviews with Bresson, cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet, and actors Anne Wiazemsky, François Lafarge and Pierre Klossowski. Though the insights from the third parties prove most valuable the details provided by the cast and crew are astonishingly detailed, Bresson even sharing his thoughts on what the film is about and what it means. It’s admittedly a bit drawn out in places but still a really pleasing inclusion.
The disc then features what is said to be the original theatrical trailer, which it probably is, though it opens with the Rialto logo. The included insert then offers a short but thorough analysis of the film by James Quandt. The essay looks to be the same as what was available with the previous DVD edition.
I still appreciate the supplements Criterion includes for the film but it is a bit frustrating, especially with the more premium $39.95 price point, that new material hasn’t been added, and ends up making this upgrade feel less satisfying.
The A/V presentation is better in comparison to the DVD but thanks to the lack of new supplemental material and the higher price point this ends up feeling like a fairly minimal upgrade overall.