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Archive for October 17th, 2012

 

© 2012 by James Clark

     It’s Christmas Eve, and Mr. Matuschek, owner of a department store in Budapest in the 1930’s, is looking in at one of his store windows on being discharged from hospital where he was treated for nervous exhaustion in the wake of an abortive suicide attempt due to his wife’s infidelity and his having dismissed from his staff a loyal and innocent man in mistakenly assuming he was the paramour. He overhears two ladies, also attracted by the contents of the window, being happily surprised by the cost of a briefcase. “My, my,” the old retailer exclaims. “I wonder how they can offer such low prices.” One of the ladies fires back, as they head on their way, “Well, if you don’t know, Mr. Matuschek, who should?”

That moment helps define the mixture of troubled hope and gently forgiving circumstances constituting the comedic nature of this film from 1940, which seems at one and the same time so much older and so much younger than it is. We receive here not so much a document of what our surroundings (what is just around the corner) are like but instead a semi-fantasy of the daily grind on behalf of material well-being, as enhanced by active aspiration to rare grace and love. (more…)

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© 2012 by James Clark

A film like Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) carries forward, at a remarkably sophisticated level, the writer/director’s preoccupation (demonstrated in earlier films like Diary of a Country Priest [1951]) with an ordeal of resoluteness at the heart of human nature, and nature in a wider sense. His next film, Balthazar at Risk (1966) draws away from such delicate, abstruse and thus easily overlooked disclosure; and it daringly brings to us instead one of the most visceral, directly tangible explorations of steadfastness ever produced, by way of the toil of a donkey in a context of appalling human rootlessness.

There is an episode, near the beginning of the film, which provides that atmospheric counterpoint with a comprehensive format by means of which to cast some light upon the amazing historical range of the phenomenon of resolve. A gang of delinquents, led by a bona fide psychopath, Gerard, invades a farm property one night and beholds an attractive, sloe-eyed adolescent girl, Marie, adorning with flowers the head of a donkey she has known by name for some time, but only recently has re-established contact with. She places the blossoms in such a way as to follow through the gesture with caresses of his neck, and she strokes the sides of his mouth and plants a tender kiss upon his snout, a moment in which the sloe-eyed beast becomes very still and happily basks in an affection he appears so suited to dwell in. Gerard, in a lubricious mood, whispers to his accomplices, “She could love him…” And, after squirming in face of more such affection for Balthazar, he adds, darkly, “He may love her…”/ “A donkey!? One of the would-be wild guys reels. “In mythology…” the sensationalist intones, reaching back to antiquity, while the movie nods toward recent developments. Marie continues to shower her pet with floral tributes and he is calm and, with a body language we have already seen in duress, he evokes the very beginning of his life, when all was well. That beginning was largely graced by another girl, an older playmate of Marie, who, in fact, was the one he had sought out at that property, only to find that she and her family had abandoned the farm and that therefore he would have to count on peripheral figure, Marie, for protection from a vicious mob scapegoating him for a mishap in pulling an overloaded and unattended hay wagon. That Balthazar’s corporeal headway operates between a rock and a hard place becomes vaguely apparent on Marie’s first rather hopefully suspecting, from sounds in the dark garden and then the touch upon her hand (which she had, on leaving Balthazar, coquettishly, positioned on the bench to which she had rushed), the presence of that person of top priority, Gerard, also known to her by name and by such deeds as (from his black-leather-jacketed, moped-propelled perspective) ridiculing her father for relying on donkey-power. After that little intimacy at the bench, she races indoors, whereupon the prowlers punch and kick her (sort of) beloved beast, suffering stoically not the first, or the last, time. Marie watches from a window this instalment of Gerard’s self-expression, neither visibly pleased nor displeased. But the point not to overlook here is that a Beauty and a Beast, proceeding with difficulty into the realm of love set in strong relief as most mysterious, have been introduced into a narrative of squalid, common violence. (The camerawork, by Ghislain Cloquet [as assigned, by Bresson, a very tight range of optical options], masterfully contributes to transforming the moments of affection into a rare, palpable and volatile abundance.) In its markedly differing from the misadventure of Jean Cocteau’s Belle and Bête, that motif signals Bresson’s requirement that extreme and sustained cruelty play out toward revealing a dimension of love underappreciated by the main thrust of avant-garde, Surrealist reflection. (more…)

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