In rural France, a donkey named Balthazar spends his life performing a variety of jobs for a variety of owners, everything from delivering bread to solving math problems in a circus. The people that he encounters along the way, owners and others, deal with him according to their own personalities. Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert), an alcoholic, alleged madman and possible murderer who can’t or won’t give up drinking, despite his good intentions, attacks Balthazar while intoxicated; a miserly merchant (Pierre Klossowski) sees that the donkey’s harness gives him sores but refuses to buy a better one; Gérard (François Lafarge), a hoodlum with a sadistic streak, ties a piece of paper to his tail and sets it on fire just to get a reaction out of him; and Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), for whom he was a beloved childhood pet, treats him with tenderness and even a kind of holy awe. Unfortunately, Gérard has his eye on Marie, which could have serious repercussions for her entire family.
Au hasard Balthazar, released in 1966, is the seventh Robert Bresson-directed film that I’ve seen. While most of them have focused on suffering innocents, people facing unjustly harsh trials — actual court trials, in some cases — Au hasard Balthazar takes this theme to a new level. Because he’s an animal unable to express himself in words, the title character seems even purer and more blameless than the average Bresson protagonist. Moreover, he endures the cruelty inflicted on him with remarkable equanimity; he may run away or try to shake the burning paper off of his tail, but he doesn’t return violence for violence. (The physical abuse tends to be filmed in a rather discreet fashion, for the record, often with a close-up or medium shot of a person lashing out and then a cut to Balthazar’s reaction.) In this, and in the way he bears the brunt of humanity’s foibles and outright evils, he serves as a Christ figure. “He’s a saint,” Marie’s mother (Nathalie Joyaut) declares. Along with this explicit declaration, Au hasard Balthazar contains a significant amount of religious symbolism, beginning early on when Marie and her childhood friends baptize the baby Balthazar and carrying through to the final scene, in which he’s surrounded by a flock of sheep.
Balthazar may be the film’s central figure, but the humans around him are just as important, to the point where the donkey sometimes seems merely peripheral. As is typical of Bresson’s work, most of the cast members were nonprofessionals making their film debuts. Some never appeared onscreen again; others continued to act, including Anne Wiazemsky. Last time I saw her, she was playing a hard-line Maoist plotting a political assassination in Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1967), so her performance as the gentle, fragile Marie was quite a change. Oddly enough, though, her character sometimes reminded me of Anna Karina as Odile in Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964), with her almost palpable timidity, her misguided involvement with a dangerous man and her frequently downcast eyes. Maybe the comparison only occurred to me because I had Godard and his actress wives on the brain; still, I think there’s something to it. (Then again, there was at least one moment when Wiazemsky reminded me of Michel, the young boy played by Georges Poujouly in René Clément’s 1952 film Forbidden Games, so…) What Marie lacks are Odile’s quirkiness and bursts of childlike joy; she’s the tragic side of Karina’s character.
There’s little room for quirkiness and bursts of childlike joy in Bresson’s film. Even in the early scenes that actually depict Marie as a child, the presence of another little girl, this one on her deathbed, casts a pall over moments that would be lighthearted otherwise. Virtually every character either suffers or causes suffering; some, like Arnold, do both. Marie, too, a victim herself, ends up hurting her parents through her entanglement with Gérard. Her father (Philippe Asselin) also has other problems, as he faces false accusations of crooked business practices, but Marie disapproves of his reaction to these difficulties. “He loves his misery more than us,” she tells her mother. “He thrives on it.” Whether or not she’s correct, this masochism provides an interesting contrast to the sadism of Gérard and his friends. If Marie’s father suffers too much, indulging in it, they seem incapable of any deep feeling — unless, perhaps, their cruelty toward others is the outgrowth of cruelty they’ve experienced themselves. And how does Balthazar feel about his own mistreatment? His behavior offers clues, certainly, but much is left up to the individual viewer’s interpretation.
Although it was often difficult to watch, I’m glad that I finally got around to seeing Au hasard Balthazar. By this point, I’ve become attuned to Bresson’s pared down, almost minimalist style, and I find it fascinating, the way he’s able to say so much with such simplicity and brevity. I look forward to watching the rest of his work and revisiting the films I’ve already seen, putting them in context and considering the themes that may not have been obvious the first time around.
This post is part of the 2016 Blind Spot Series, hosted by The Matinee. My full list can be found here.