The camera creates a context. As a culture of viewers we’ve become experts at identifying the artifice in even the most naturalistic documentary scene: how it’s been set up in dozens of ways, from the lighting and blocking down to the very situation unfolding on-screen. Yet when we watch fictional feature films, we seem more than eager to discard our most hardened skepticism and accept the impossible reality of make-believe as a seamless, uninterrupted dream. These issues of naturalism are further complicated whenever animals appear on camera. Human actors, even amateurs or “nonactors” (a largely extinct species today, as nearly everyone has absorbed enough reality TV to be aware of the camera), still bring a measure of self-consciousness to the screen, their performances reflecting collusion with the filmmakers. But what happens to the notion of performance when the terminally unself-conscious, the quintessentially natural—that is to say animals—appear on film? Robert Bresson’s 1966 classic, Au hasard Balthazar, and Robert J. Flaherty’s silent masterpiece Nanook of the North (1922)—one of the saddest and one of the happiest films ever made, respectively—might be viewed as bookends in film history: their view of animals, and the way they record interactions between humans and animals, illuminates cinema’s intricate and paradoxical attempts to capture “reality” on film.
Bresson (1901–1999) found a cinematic ancestor in Flaherty (1884–1951). Flaherty’s films offered Bresson a precedent for the kind of realistic cinematic innovations he was attempting in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, in a trio of gritty, groundbreaking, and often grim films of ordinary life: Pickpocket (1959), Au hasard Balthazar, and Mouchette (1967). In his remarkable filmmaking diary, Notes on the Cinematographer (1975), Bresson described “two types of film.” The first type, films he regarded as little more than theatrical confections that happened to be recorded on camera, strongly influenced French postwar productions, while the second was a new type of film Bresson wanted to make himself. In the first category of films, there were “those that employ the resources of the theater (actors, direction, etc.) and use the camera in order to reproduce.” In the second, there were “those that employ the resources of cinematography and use the camera to create.” Elsewhere in the same book, Bresson laid out his ideal strategy for filmmaking:
No actors.(No directing of actors.) No parts.(No learning of parts.) No staging.But the use of working models, taken from life.BEING (models) instead of SEEMING (actors).
Both Flaherty and Bresson, despite the separation of their key films by nearly a half century, address along somewhat similar lines the unattainable and crazy cinematic pursuit of reality. To fabricate a look of thoroughgoing realism—the effect of “being” rather than “seeming”—both directors recognized that they could do worse than to cast animals in key roles, even if, more often than not, the animals weren’t so much directed and staged as they were beaten, shot, and eaten.
Nanook of the North follows an Inuit family living in Hopewell Sound, on Hudson Bay. In its unforgettable seal-hunting scene, we watch the protagonist and title character (whose name means “the Bear,” and whose harpoon has claimed seven polar bears, we’re told) struggle to raise a seal from the ice, eventually enlisting the help of his family. (They arrive just in time: the effect is astonishing but almost too convenient.) Two boys dressed in animal skins and furs share a seal flipper—“Very cold!”—before the hunters distribute the scraps to their dog team. As the family eats, Flaherty cuts away again and again to images of the sled dogs growling for food, setting up a juxtaposition between fine dining on raw meat (necessary for vitamin doses in a virtually plantless environment) on one hand, and slobbering, bestial hunger on the other.
In the film, Nanook spears animals, chops them up, eats them raw, skins them, makes them into tools, and traps them so that they can be hung on racks to dry. Flaherty’s portrait is approving and nonjudgmental, but he treats Nanook like a modern family man, ignoring the cultural context, religious meaning, and symbolic weight that animals possess in Inuit life. (The beautiful 2001 film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, an adaptation of an Inuit legend by director Zacharias Kunuk, forms a counterweight to the comforting mythologies spun by Flaherty.)
As we watch Nanook capture salmon after salmon with a lure-and-spear system, or stalk a walrus with a group of hunters, or tussle with that seal, we recognize that Flaherty’s subjects are performing for him, and with evident relish. The film’s artificiality is hardly a secret: the opening intertitles explicitly report that Flaherty had to reshoot much of his footage after losing his first take in a fire. The intertitles also inform the viewer that Nanook died of starvation on a hunt shortly after the film was made.
Flaherty brought a projection system on his second visit to Hopewell Sound, and he showed his subjects how they appeared on-screen as he filmed them, turning his documentary subjects into actors and active collaborators in the filmmaking process. In a scene at the village’s trading post, Nanook experiments with a windup gramophone by biting down on the wax record—a visceral evocation of the film’s attention to the human love of playback, the desire to recapture lost time that brought the filmmaker back to the Canadian Arctic for his second visit. Flaherty’s cameras stay with Nanook at the trading post at some length, and as the scene wears on, Nanook becomes more than an Edenic, antimodern man devoid of contact with (or cares concerning) the outside world; he emerges as a global actor, a crucial link in the international fur trade. (We’re certain he’s being exploited—intertitles reveal that he barters fox and polar bear furs for “knives and beads and bright colored candy”—and soon after leaving his bounty with the trader, he’s back on “the thin edge of starvation.”) Flaherty’s approach is anthropological, matter-of-fact—he doesn’t have an ax to grind about the supposed benefits of returning to live in close proximity to nature, especially not in an environment where people are “utterly dependent” upon animals for their sustenance, transportation, and tools.
Nanook of the North doesn’t advocate for a more “natural” or “real” lifestyle over an artificial one, though Flaherty does show Nanook’s child getting sick on the trader’s horrible diet of “sea biscuits and lard.” The film is primarily a depiction of heroic cleverness and handmade technological innovation. In a conversation with the anthropological filmmaker Robert Gardner, Flaherty’s widow described the “secret” of the film as showing “not acting but being.” The phrase is surprisingly similar to Bresson’s description of his own ideal: “BEING (models) instead of SEEMING (actors).” But the film’s real secret is precisely the opposite: watching Nanook dash past the fixed camera into a frozen wasteland, or theatrically gesturing to his family to take their sled dogs on a detour so as not to tip off a fox investigating his trap, we inevitably recall Flaherty’s introductory remarks about how he and his subjects became active collaborators. It might be said that they developed much of the “script” together on their improvised “sets”; they were watching the rushes as a sort of production team. Not only is acting a form of being, but also it is perhaps the quintessential form of human being. If, as Jean-Luc Godard quipped, every movie is a documentary about actors acting, then perhaps the inverse is also true: every documentary is a fictional film about people going about their lives, performing sophisticated roles that cannot be precisely the same as the ones they play when the camera isn’t there.
What happens to these theories in a serious dramatic film when an animal takes a starring role? The question is at the heart of Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar. The film presents a deceptively simple tale of parallel lives: a French country girl, Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), suffers the indignities and tribulations of life alongside her childhood pet, a donkey named Balthazar. While the adolescent Marie is humiliated and abused by her criminal boyfriend, Gérard (François Lafarge), and his gang before disappearing from the small French town where she lives, Gérard and others kick and beat Balthazar and nearly work him to death. Balthazar winds up shot and killed after Gérard’s gang borrows him for a cross-border smuggling operation. Some of the abuse is clearly faked—a tormentor raises his hand with a whip, but the camera cuts away. We do, however, see Balthazar punched to move up mountains and walking the endless circles of a millstone. In fact, there may have been several “Balthazars” (the term from nature documentaries is “filler animals”), with Bresson picking up footage of donkeys used in various farm settings, or for transportation purposes. But compared with Nanook’s sled dogs and meals of raw meat, Bresson’s human-animal relations are far more unsettling. While Flaherty portrays Nanook as a utilitarian killer, the damage inflicted on Balthazar (or the Balthazars) displays gratuitous cruelty. Unredeemed human cruelty is Au hasard Balthazar’s main theme, but Bresson’s paradoxical film goes to questionable lengths to realistically reproduce the viciousness the film condemns. When Gérard gets the donkey to move by attaching some newspapers to its tail and lighting them on fire, Balthazar’s reaction of flight and terror is unfeigned.
In a fascinating scene with a very different purpose, Balthazar hauls fresh hay to the cages of a menagerie of exotic circus animals. As the donkey pauses in front of each animal, we see Balthazar in tight close-up shots. First we see his head and eyes, and then we cut to an image of a tiger, a polar bear, a chimpanzee, and finally an elephant. Balthazar looks almost like he feels sorry for the tiger, an effect created by a certain wetness in his eyes that appears to contain silent pity. Balthazar’s ears snap to attention when the polar bear begins moaning, as if he were picking up and translating these communications. The chimp greets him, but Balthazar is quickly turned away by his handler. Then, in a heart-stopping juxtaposition, we see a close-up of Balthazar’s left eye, followed by a cut to a close-up of the elephant’s left eye, which appears piercingly intelligent. It’s a shock because we’re given no establishing shot of the elephant, which makes its eye, tucked away in the leathery folds of skin between its trunk and its ear, look almost human. We feel that Balthazar and the elephant are sizing each other up, but not as threats. The effect is one of passing acknowledgment between two rational beings. We almost expect them to nod, share a smoke, or hatch an escape plan.
In his book on cinematography, Bresson writes: “Two men facing each other, eye to eye. Two cats attracting each other…” In the circus scene, Bresson deploys the same camera techniques he would use to manufacture a realistic conversation between humans. Bresson writes that eye contact is what brings people to life, on-screen and in reality. At first, some Parisian passersby “appear to me like marble figures moved forward by springs.” Then things change: “Let their eyes meet mine, and at once these walking and gazing statues become human.”
In the film’s title, hasard refers to randomness, coincidence, or serendipity—that which happens whenever cameras are rolling—particularly in the presence of an untrained animal. Bresson writes, “The things we bring off by chance—what power they have!” The director was interested in the idea of filming people when they weren’t acting. “It is not a matter of acting ‘simple’ or of acting ‘inward,’” Bresson wrote, “but of not acting at all.” Bresson was drawn to using nonactors and amateur actors, including child actors, in his films. In a sense, Balthazar represents the sine qua non of what it might mean to be “not acting at all.”
Nanook of the North ends with a tone far distant from the pervasive pessimism of Bresson’s film. Nanook and his family, trapped in a sudden “drifter” snowstorm, take shelter in a deserted igloo. As they lie down to sleep, we see that they are naked and piled together, warming each other’s bodies for the night. As we watch the family cuddle up, however, we’re reminded that this is a make-believe ending. In the film’s opening intertitles, Flaherty has already informed us that Nanook will starve to death on a future expedition. Flaherty carefully constructs the sense of Nanook’s safe, insulated world. The film ends on a close-up of Nanook’s sleeping face, apparently lost in a dream. The man really does look asleep in his “actual Arctic,” wind swirling and dogs howling just beyond the protection of a thin layer of sealskin and cleverly cut blocks of snow.
Bresson leaves his viewer in a notably grimmer spot. Marie returns with her childhood sweetheart, Jacques (Walter Green), to a park bench where they had carved their names. Now they’re mostly grown-up, and Jacques asks for Marie’s hand in marriage, despite her reputation in town as a fallen girl. Marie rejects him. She tells Jacques, “Our vows of love, our childhood promises, were in a world of make-believe, not reality. Reality is different.” Soon her lover, Gérard’s, gang pursues Marie into a room where they strip and beat her. After they release her, she leaves town, though whether by choice or by exile is not clear. We hope she survives. Balthazar’s fate is unluckier still: in a smuggling operation gone bad, someone offscreen shoots him, and we see a close-up of a hole in his flank dripping with blood. The wound looks disturbingly real. The donkey lies down to die in a beautiful pasture, surrounded by a flock of sheep. This image of Balthazar dying in a field concludes the film. The dying animal may or may not be the same donkey that played Balthazar earlier in the film, and it may or may not actually be dying—perhaps the poor creature is only drugged, or sleeping. It cannot stand, but its eyes are open, and its belly moves, its ears and nostrils twitching. We’re desperate enough to wish that this is only a performance or a trick effect, that this is seeming and not being. Like Marie’s spurned sweetheart, or Flaherty filming Nanook’s moonlit reverie, we would prefer the world of make-believe. But we also recognize that we have accepted Balthazar not only as a character but also as an individual with a name and a history, preferences and feelings. In that moment, Balthazar becomes real.