Guest post by Noelle Ibrahim.
Themester intern Noelle Ibrahim had a conversation with Jonathan Risner, a professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at IU. They discussed the upcoming Themester film, Au hasard Balthazar. (This interview was edited and condensed.)
What do you find compelling about this film?
If I’m going to relate it to Themester theme, which is Animal/Human, obviously that’s there. Balthazar is a donkey and he is the protagonist of the film, but in some ways his, dare I say, acting in the movie—his presence in the movie—is distinct from say, like a Pixar film, where an animal is talking.
There are various moments in the film where it’s almost impossible to ascribe some kind of human logic to what Balthazar does or sees. I guess it’s about the midpoint of the movie where Balthazar has run away from one of his owners and he’s at a carnival and he’s led through by one of the workers. He exchanges glances with, I think, four animals. It’s kind of fascinating because all the other animals are in cages and, obviously, he is not a free animal at this point—rather he’s sort of animal-as-tool as he’s carrying things, but there’s this exchange of glances. And, the way that it’s filmed is typical in cinema for humans that are having conversations.
If we were filming ourselves right now talking, there would be this shot/reverse-shot picture of you talking, a picture of me talking, a picture of you talking, a picture of me talking, so that happens with the animals, but they don’t talk to each other. This is perhaps even dangerous for me to say, but perhaps it’s a language of glances, but we’re not privy to that. Hence, you have this ambiguous space that one can try to interpret, but perhaps accept that it’s beyond human logic.
What surprises you about the film?
The director has a distinct style. I would say that the movie is comfortable in its silence. Sometimes you can see [the opposite], especially in contemporary films. Quentin Tarantino’s films, for instance, are really well known for their dialogue. [Robert] Bresson’s movies are silent, again getting back to the Animal/Human theme, of course there’s a braying of Balthazar the donkey, but the movie is quiet.
In some ways that allows for meditation on the donkey and what’s going on. I don’t know much about criticism on Bresson’s films but it always fascinates me what he does with the camera. There aren’t a lot of cuts in the movie and it always seems like his placement of the camera is for the purpose of the reduction of cuts.
The film was shot in 1966. How does the film resonate with viewers 50 years later?
All kinds of reasons! I think Bresson is a big director and author and getting back to the theme, it’s a quintessential film for thinking through the relationships between humans and animals and doing something different.
And it allows for reflection during the film as opposed to a film with a fast rhythm like an action film— where the meditation can happen afterwards. The meditation can perhaps happen during the viewing. It’s a beautiful movie.
In several languages the word for donkey has a derogatory connotation. How does the film challenge our perception of donkeys?
I think the name Balthazar sounds like a dignified name. The name Balthazar, if we’re going to think about it in English, it’s not a name that you would associate with an ass or a jackass.
He also seems like almost a religious figure; I haven’t read enough of the criticism, so I don’t want to say the donkey is Christ-like figure, but he’s abused and quiet, and has this kind of dignity about him. And the way that he’s filmed you can see his face, and his face just fills up the frame for a number of seconds; this is not a quick shot. He becomes less of a beast, less of an animal as a tool, and he occupies this space in a way that he becomes himself.
It allows us the opportunity to think of a separate animal consciousness that is not human consciousness.
Do you happen to know how the film follows or diverges from mainstream representations of animals in film around that time?
I study horror cinema, so I know [horror] movies like this existed around this time with animal attacks, nature attacks. Of course, it predates Jaws, but you can think of any other science fiction movie where the ants attack or some other animal attacks, but probably never a donkey.
It’s definitely doing something distinct, and that’s something I found fascinating about this movie in some ways.
I don’t want to insult anybody because people’s interpretations are what they are, but I think the facile, easy anticipation for this movie is to think that Balthazar is going to exact some kind of revenge. That relates to all kinds of narratives and our expectations for what should happen to him. There were so many moments in the film where I was almost thinking, “Well, here he’s going to kick the hell out of this guy,” but that doesn’t happen. That’s not to say that the film is more real, but it does something different.
You can see Au hasard Balthazar at the IU Cinema on November 12 at 7 pm. This screening is part of the Themester series, which is sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences and IU Cinema and is supported through the Cinema’s Creative Collaborations program.
Noelle Ibrahim is a junior studying English and Arabic with a minor in marketing. She is interning this fall with the Themester program as it focuses on “Animal/Human” and looks forward to studying in Amman, Jordan in the spring.