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Acting Like an Animal

This piece is the first work from’s new “Writer in Residence” David Turpin. It’s a brand new feature that we’ve launched which will see us introduce a new writer every three months. The contributor is free to write about whatever they like during these months, once it’s loosely centred around cinema in some form.

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Au hasard Balthazar

“Acting Like an Animal”

There’s a wonderful clip on The Golden Globe Awards’ YouTube channel, in which Tilda Swinton pronounces, in her usual queenly fashion, “the only film that I’ve ever seen that’s made me want to be an actress is a film by Robert Bresson called Au Hasard Balthazar that’s about a donkey”.  Pressed for more by a bemused off-camera interviewer she elaborates that the uncredited donkey’s is “the greatest performance you’ve ever seen […] there’s no acting”.  I’m not entirely convinced that Swinton isn’t being a little disingenuous here – anybody who’s seen her thesping up a storm as the title character in Erick Zonca’s terrific 2008 melodrama Julia will know that she’s not averse to some capital-A acting – but it’s difficult to fault her assessment of the “performance”, if indeed we can call it that.

I recently made a song using a sample of a braying donkey, accompanying a female vocalist.  Lacing together the voices in the studio made me think a lot about Au Hasard Balthazar, in which the lives of Balthazar the donkey and Marie, the farm girl who initially owns him, unfold in parallel.  It made me think, also, about what it means when we see an animal on film, or hear an animal on record.  However much we edit or manipulate the image of the animal, or the sound of the animal, there remains at its centre something to which we have no access.

Made in 1966, Au Hasard Balthazar arguably marks the peak of Bresson’s career-long fixation on a kind of non-performance given by so-called “non-actors” (indeed, Bresson’s displeasure at the ongoing career of the film’s human co-star, Anne Wiazemsky, post-Balthazar indicates the curious way in which he sanctified the inexperience of his actors, equating it with a kind of “virginity”).  In a sense, if we subscribe to the old truism that “acting is reacting”, then an animal is the ideal screen performer – responding to stimuli, navigating by instinct.  We’re so used to watching performers strain to appear unconcerned with the camera that we mistake it for “great acting”, but in Bresson’s film the donkey’s presence has a grace and affectlessness that are out of the reach of even the most unselfconscious human player.

Because the central role of Au Hasard Balthazar is “played” by an animal, there’s a kind of absolute reality to the film (an animal can’t, after all, pretend) that masks, or maybe more accurately naturalises, its schematic elements.  The film is, after all, a conscious religious allegory, with Bresson designing each of the episodes in Balthazar’s unhappy life to represent one of the seven deadly sins, and presenting his ultimate death as a passage into sainthood.  The simplicity of the animal’s presence, however, gives the film the force of a myth, beyond any specific religious affiliation.  In a way, Bresson’s realist allegory bests even Pasolini’s masterpiece, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, made just two years earlier, as an irreligious expression of religious grace.  Certainly, the force of Balthazar’s death scene, as he lies wearily in a field of sheep – finally regaining the peace he enjoyed nursing at his mother’s teat in the opening shot – makes other screen martyrdoms appear puny and ridiculous by comparison.

Godard famously described Au Hasard Balthazar, in Cahiers du Cinema, as “the world in an hour and a half”, and his remark has often been (mis?)interpreted as a pithy summation of Balthazar’s suffering as analogue for human existence.  Perhaps it is that, but it’s more as well.  It’s a reminder that there is more to the world, even in this hour and a half, than human experience.  The death of this donkey moves us because we both recognise and do not recognise it.  This donkey lives and breathes as more than a metaphor for our own concerns, and when we see him on film we come face-to-face with an experience that is fundamentally different from our own, however much it might appear to mirror it.

If there’s a rich, troubling reward in watching an animal on film, there’s also a risk that we’ll get sucked into glib “recognition” – seeing ourselves in the animal, like the written-out soap opera actors in Sky “nature documentaries” who ride around habitats in range rovers screaming about how they empathise with lions.  Henry Beston parses the problem in The Outermost House (1928), when he writes that “man in civilization surveys the creatures through the glass of his knowledge and sees […] the whole image in distortion”, and this has been the default setting for animal film – anthropomorphism that’s carried to its most grotesque extremes in recent DisneyNature films like African Cats (2011) and Chimpanzee (2012), in which painstakingly captured nature footage is blithely destroyed with saccharine and inaccurate voiceover.

The effect of Au Hasard Balthazar is so tremendous, and so singular, it would be unreasonable to expect another narrative film to achieve it, but a handful of recent documentaries have made more challenging than usual approaches to the experience of watching an animal.  Nicolas Philibert’s Nénette (2010), in which the camera steadily observes the daily life of the title figure – a 40-year-old orangutan in a Paris zoo – while the soundtrack seethes with the comments and observations of those who come to see her, is yet another film in which the animal is the mere McGuffin by which humanity is laid bare, but at least it makes an honest effort to grapple with human narcissism.  There’s a witty touch, too, in the way Nénette’s observers are occasionally glimpsed as reflections on the glass of her enclosure – coming to see the other, humans always find a way of looking at themselves.  Robinson Devor’s eerie Zoo (2007), in which unseen figures implicated in the Enumclaw, Washington, bestiality scandal of 2005 are heard rhapsodising on the “plain world” of animal experience over blurred images of meadows at dusk, approaches the issue of what it is to know an animal in an intriguing way – even if it is one of those films on sensationalist subject matter whose diligently unsensational styling is itself a kind of sensationalism.  Perhaps most interesting, and most troubling, of all is Denis Côté’s haunting Bestiaire (2012), which silently observes the Parc Safari in Quebec in order to question, according to the filmmaker, whether “the animal exist[s] outside of its propensity for being put in the perspective of human destinies and behaviours”.

For me, though, no other film besides Au Hasard Balthazar so forcefully activates the tension between the sentimental need to identify and the painful understanding that one can never experience as an animal does.  When I watch it – which I don’t do very often, because for all its brilliance, it is a difficult film to watch – I’m always struck afresh by the scene in which Balthazar, now at the circus, encounters an array of other animals, each presented in extreme close-ups, alternated with cutaways to Balthazar himself, silently observing.  It’s the mystery of the animal writ large, a perfect visual summation of Beston’s assertion:  “They are not brethren; they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth” (it’s mostly travail in Bresson).  This, then, is not merely “the world in an hour and a half”, but many worlds – as distant from and heartbreakingly close to our own as an image on a screen is to “reality”.  While there’s a further, brilliant conceptual leap in Bresson’s final film, 1983’s L’argent – in which the central role is occupied not by an organism but by an object (a forged 500 franc note) – for me, Au Hasard Balthazar is the greatest of his films, and one of the greatest of all films.  And it rests on the shoulders of a donkey.

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David Turpin is a recording artist (as The Late David Turpin) and occasional academic.  His new album We Belong Dead, will be released on September 13, 2013.  Read more at: