a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Balthazar, the Court Jester

Arguably the greatest movie of all time, The Court Jester (1956, Melvin Frank & Norman Panama) might have been borne out of the simple desire to vehiculize* Danny Kaye, but, luckily, no one involved seems to have thought of it that way. An insanely over-plotted medieval romp, it finds Kaye as a forest rebel who, through a thick web of contrivances too vast and over-populated to recount here, winds up the jester to Cedric Parker's impostor king. Basil Rathbone's on hand to deliver menace, Glynnis Johns is around to convince Mary Poppins-viewers that she was once hot, and Kaye -- whom those who've only seen him in White Christmas, also written by the oft-dreaded Frank/Panama team, would consider a mere rancid pest -- decides to do, well, everything. Essentially, it's throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks time, but, in a most unprecedented move, almost everything does; once the (admittedly fatigue-inducing) set-up is over, it revs into high gear and never looks back, and gimmicks that would power an entire feature live for only sequences (if that -- see the metallic armour bit), dropping out of the pic once they've been exhausted. Patchy, self-indulgent, even occasionally surreal -- this things' obviously a masterpiece. Do not, by the way, listen to this, brilliant though the writer otherwise is. A

Au hasard Balthazar (1966, Robert Bresson), on the other hand, is only almost a masterpiece, though many will scoff. Robert Bresson's recently-resurrected donkey movie is just that: a movie whose protagonist is a donkey. Balthazar the Donkey is shuffled from owner to owner, one nice, one the devil, one a good-natured drunk, one a bitter old man. When the shuffling is over with, he croaks. Lazily, if not also stupidly, read by some as an ode to man's horribleness, that's not only wrong -- it's clearly man's indifference that Bresson waxes upon here -- but it simplifies what is in fact a shape-shifter. Though the aforementioned indifference links everyone, it's not as though everyone's a cypher. There are real moments of drama here, and though he may look at them through the eyes of pauvre, pauvre Balthazar, it is -- in a most ironic turn of events (I think) -- actually his most human film, filled with heart-breaking moments of such simplicity that they could pass right over your head. (The little girl dying in the first five minutes is easily one of them.) Transcendental in that usual no-frills Bresson way, not to mention -- almost inadvertently -- animal rights activists most and least favorite movie. A-

*Not a word, of course.


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