Francois Leterrier (father of director Louis Leterrier who, other than Unleashed, is really quite terrible, with a track record including The Transporter 1 & 2, The Incredible Hulk and the godawful Clash of the Titans) is Fontaine, an inmate at a Nazi execution prison. Left bloodied and beaten after an escape attempt en route, Fontaine doesn’t hang about before he tries to break out again.
This is an incredibly minimalistic film, with much of it taking place from the confines of Fontaine’s cell, tapping conversations to his neighbour or scraping away at his door with a spoon, and the camera is infatuated with the nuances of his face.
There are some glaring plot holes that could well be just a product of the time – cell checks seem to be very infrequent and less than thorough, and why exactly do the cells have a solid stone shelf, strong enough to support a grown man’s weight and accessible even to the elderly, positioned right next to the only window in the cell.
The film’s finale is at times almost unbearably tense, with no music but for the sound of trains rushing past and a mysterious creaking noise, and fans of the Shawshank Redemption – or any other prison movie for that matter – would do well to seek this out.
Au Hasard Balthazar is the kind of film that just couldn’t be made today, at least not with the same result. Today, it would most likely be made by Dreamworks, telling the tale of a morose animated donkey, voiced by Christopher Plummer, as he sets out an epic journey to be reunited with the family he’s worked for his entire life. Along the way, he learns lessons about friendship not judging by appearances, with the help of a lazy squirrel (Kathy Bates) a know-it-all platypus (Jemaine Clement) and a wise-cracking raccoon (Cuba Gooding Jr.).
As it is, Balthazar is a tale of the life of a donkey, from children’s plaything, through toiling away for various family’s, finding fame in a circus and finally, tragically, used for drug trafficking. It took me two attempts to watch this film, as after the first viewing I did not fully comprehend the cause of the mass adulation poured upon the picture, although I was quite tired and may have drifted off a couple of times, as it’s not necessarily the most captivating of films. That said, on the second viewing I more greatly understood the reasons for the various plot jumps, as for the most part the film is shot from the viewpoint, and therefore the understanding, of Balthazar himself, thereby it would not always be clear as to why some characters behave the way they do.Choose life 4/10