A few movies create associations that verge on the mystical, an aura more often than not enhanced by their unavailability for viewing. Au hasard Balthazar is one of the more celebrated films of the uniquely ascetic writer-director Robert Bresson. His most famous work Diary of a Country Priest has frequently been equated with a religious experience.
Au hasard Balthazar covers similar territory. Its central character is a humble donkey innocent of anything that could be described as a human sin - its lifelong sufferings are interpretable as a Christian allegory. At the same time, it encourages the possibility that God has forgotten or forsaken our world, if he exists us all. Yet Bresson's approach is so direct and natural that the film doesn't play like 'meaningful cinema.' Its appeal is as basic as a silent melodrama, or a bittersweet Chaplin film, minus the overt sentimentality.
There's really nothing like Au hasard Balthazar. His life story could be that of any domesticated beast of burden, and he shares a destiny with the flawed people around him. Balthazar has a faint awareness of kindnesses, and definitely retains a memory for those who torment him. Opportunities are offered to read any number of Christian parallels - Balthazar is baptized, his 'mother' is Mary (Marie), she makes him a crown of flowers, he performs circus miracles, suffers stigmata and so forth. Yet nothing is forced. The symbolic use of bread and wine is not a writer's conceit; the donkey delivers for a bakery and one of his owners is an alcoholic. Despite all the allusions to Christian suffering and grace, the film can just as easily be interpreted as a demonstration that God and faith are cruel illusions.
Bresson's filming style precludes the inclination to dismiss the tale as slick storytelling or a merely clever narrative device. The camerawork is direct, with many cuts to ordinary details like walking feet (or hooves). The audioscape is important; off-screen sound enlarges the world of the film with outside factors we don't see. No special emotionalism is attached to the suffering of either Balthazar or his unhappy owners. Balthazar is kicked, struck with sticks and burned for fun; Marie is seduced, slapped and humiliated. We watch it all from an objective middle distance. The cutting contrasts Balthazar's painful harnesses and overloaded carts with modern things he cannot possibly understand: Cars, radios, guns.
Bresson's people are non-professionals. He calls them 'models' and claims to prefer their natural behaviors to those of trained actors. He often made his subjects repeat simple actions dozens of times until their movements were free of any conscious attempt to 'perform.' Their muted actions have a strange lack of individualism. It isn't realistic, but it's also not acting as we've seen in other movies. We stop reading faces and look beyond in search of the film's meaning.
Marie's every motion carries a deep sadness. Like Balthazar, she is never free. She is first the prisoner of her father's will and then the involuntary puppet of Gerard, who more or less rapes her before claiming her as his property. Gerard beats and torments Balthazar in the same way he abuses Marie, using casual brutality to maintain an illusion of power.
The middle section of the film concerns an alcoholic vagrant named Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert). Bresson cuts directly from Arnold's prayers to stop drinking, right to his next drink being poured in a bar. The lonely Arnold also uses Balthazar as a scapegoat for his rage, calling him Satan when he's sober and his dear friend when he's drunk.
Balthazar is traded, sold, lost and found. He returns to earlier owners and is continually 'borrowed' by Gerard. His short life in the circus begins with a truly weird encounter with several exotic animals. In their chains, they are captive alien souls as isolated from each other as Balthazar is from his human masters.
The donkey's travails are matched by Marie's sad downfall; this movie about spirituality is constructed entirely from mundane despair. A cruel miser gives her shelter from the rain, only to selfishly take advantage of her. Marie has little will of her own and her abasement at the hands of Gerard ruins her for the idealized affection of the grown-up Jacques. Marie cannot reconcile with her parents and is brutally humiliated by Gerard when she tries to break off with him. Eventually she just disappears. The logic of her corruption mortifies us, yet seems more honest than the melodramatic histrionics of Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves. Bresson isn't interested in a sensational spectacle and knows we can connect the dots of Marie's degradation on our own.
(spoiler) The pathetic end of Balthazar is strangely peaceful, and plays out over soothing classical piano music. Marie's grieving mother has just called the tired old donkey a saint and as he bleeds to death, white sheep surround him in a pastoral setting. There is no hint of spiritual intercession, just the utter solitude of an ignorant beast breathing his last. Bresson has a spiritual conscience but creates a world of isolation, ignorance and cruel injustice. One positive value is revealed - we're moved to cry for the pure Balthazar more than any of his human companions. By Christian standards, he dies in a state of Grace.
Criterion's DVD of Au hasard Balthazar presents a flawless enhanced transfer of this stunning B&W film. The clear recording brings out details in Bresson's interesting soundtrack, as when the braying of a donkey interrupts the piano piece heard under the main titles.
The disc extras show filmmakers and experts doing their best to interpret Au hasard Balthazar. Frequent Criterion commentator Donald Richie appears on camera to express his personal relationship with the film. A 1966 French television special contains the now-famous quote in which Jean-Luc Godard says the film is "all of life in 90 minutes." Bresson answers questions about his quiet masterpiece but steers away from the religious interpretation the movie invariably elicits from viewers. He asserts that it is not an average photoplay, but 'cinema': An experience that can only be communicated through a camera and cutting. Bresson reserves his most reverent words for the miracle of the movie camera.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Au hasard Balthazar rates: