Holy Donkeys

March 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

During this very film-centric first week of blogging, I wanted to tell comics readers about Raymond Watkins’ article “Robert Bresson’s Modernist Canvas: The Gesture toward Painting in Au hazard Balthazar,” published in the most recent issue (51.2, Winter 2012) of Cinema Journal.

Robert Bresson (1901-1999) was a French film director, the elegant auteur of such minimalist art-house classics as Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d’un cure de champagne, 1951), Pickpocket (1959) and L’argent (Money, 1983). Bresson isn’t for everybody—when I taught Pickpocket in my Film History class a few weeks ago, my students vehemently objected to the stoic performances and the Crime and Punishment-derived turns of the plot—but I’ve always found Bresson’s best films to be bracing, transformative experiences. In fact, Bresson’s A Man Escaped (Un condamne a mort s’est echappe ou Le Vent, 1956), about a dissident who liberates himself from a Nazi prison, is one of my favorite movies, absorbing and suspenseful despite (or because of) Bresson’s emphasis on the minutiae of the escape process (scraping the cell door with a worn-down spoon, twisting bed springs into grappling hooks), and despite Bresson’s giving away the ending of his film in its title. If you haven’t watched a Bresson film yet, it’s time. Here is a fine introduction to his life and career; here are several of his films available on Criterion DVD.

Watkins’ thoughtful article begins by noting that Bresson considered himself a painter who worked in the cinema—as Bresson himself said (and Watkins quotes), “I have always tried through cinema to restore the relationship that a painter can have with his work. I make concepts; artistic rules emerge that are proper to painting in my manner of filming things.” For Watkins, Bresson’s connections between painting and cinema take two forms: (1.) a deliberate evocation of famous paintings in various shots throughout Bresson’s oeuvre, and (2.) an engagement with “broader philosophical questions” concerning the relationship between a painter and his tools, and between realistic and abstract modes of expression. Watkins traces both (1.) and (2.) in Bresson’s Au hazard Balthazar (1966), a film about the life of a donkey loved and abused by multiple human owners.

“Robert Bresson’s Modernist Canvas” is relevant to comics fans, because in the process of unearthing Bresson’s links to popular culture and Pop Art, Watkins argues that a 1950s Belgian comic strip, The Aventures de Pom et Teddy by Francois Craenhals, was a formidable influence on Balthazar. I had never heard of Pom et Teddy, so I found Watkins’ description of the comic useful and interesting:

Pom et Teddy supplemented issues of Tin Tin [sic] for a total of eleven volumes, appearing in French-speaking countries between 1953 and 1963. The inaugural volume begins when Teddy, a young assistant of a magic act at the Tokburger circus, introduces a baby donkey to his friend Maggy. They name the donkey Pom, and the three set off on adventures. Obvious differences between the two works should be mentioned, since Pom et Teddy is a children’s comic book (bande desinee), with innumerable suspenseful adventures in remote and exotic locales, near-death experiences, and colorful imaginary characters, such as a bald giant named Tarass-Boulba. Balthazar‘s narrative development is correspondingly much more nuanced and complex. Beyond generic differences, though, both works are structured around a fundamental dichotomy between the privileged, secret world of children and animals and the sinful, depraved adult world that seeks to harass, exploit, and profit from such innocents. The polarized dynamics between the two worlds are established by a preliminary bonding scene between child protagonists, who congeal into a “family unit” to collectively fight against the machinations of the contaminated adult sphere. In both works, this bonding scene occurs when the children frolic in hay with the baby donkey. (18-19)

Watkins then charts other similarities between Balthazar and Pom. Both take place in a world where character motivations “fall into strictly good or evil categories,” and in a story focalized through a “donkey hero who, simply by his existence, is at loggerheads with human society” (19). Further, both donkeys “undergo beatings, deprivations of food and water, and a variety of physical wounds that dictate the direction of the plot” (20), and both are wounded (Pom by a wild boar and Balthazar by a gunshot) and left in a field to die (although Pom survives to continue his profitable serialized adventures).  The message of both texts: in a world of human cruelty, animal suffering is universal.

Everything I know about Pom et Teddy I gleaned from Watkins’ article, and I’d love to hear an opinion from anyone who’s actually read it–I have a hunch that there’s more to say about the affinities between Craenhals and Bresson, between Pom and Balthazar. Given that one of Craenhals’ other strips is titled The Miracle of Lourdes (1958), I wonder if Pom has the same wholesome Christian vibe as early Tintin. If so, this would establish another similarity with Bresson, whose films are often read as Christian allegories of martyrdom (even the martyrdom of a donkey) and salvation.

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