Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), written and directed by Robert Bresson, is an unusually paradoxical film, even for this director. On the one hand, Bresson enthusiasts often rate it as his greatest and most moving work. But on the other hand, interpretations of the film, when they are forthcoming at all, are varied and inconsistent. There is little common ground concerning what the film means and why one might be disposed to like it. The story follows the troubled life, from birth to death, of a donkey, named “Balthazar”, whose fateful circumstances crisscross with those of a young girl, Marie, who occasionally attends to him. The French title of the film might be translated to mean “The Misadventures of Balthazar”, or more loosely, “The Random Fate of Balthazar”. It recalls the French title of Bresson’s greatest film, “A Man Escaped, or the Wind Bloweth Where it Listeth” and emphasizes how we are all subject to the arbitrary machinations of events in the world that are (almost) completely beyond our control. But this film reflects Bresson’s increasingly pessimistic view of human weakness and failure.
The story is told in Bresson’s familiar ascetic and progressively more mannered presentation style. This included the use of nonprofessional actors, who were instructed to read their lines in a flat, unemotional style that disconnects from any narrative continuity. Bresson often drew his actors from intellectual circles, however. Anne Wiazemsky, who plays the role of Marie, was the granddaughter of Francois Mauriac, and later, after marrying Jean-Luc Godard and appearing in several French New Wave films, became a successful novelist. Pierre Klossowski, who plays the miserly miller in the film, was a well-known French novelist and brother of famous French artist Balthasar [!] Klossowski de Rola.
Bresson provides no backstory information about the characters and avoids any establishing shots that can contextualise a given scene. The narrative continuity may have been further compromised in this instance by the fact that this is one of the few times Bresson did not base his script on an existing written story or text; apparently it is entirely his own construction. There is a characteristic, almost obsessive, focus on closeups of hands and feet (these often introduce a scene) in the act of some mundane movement or operation. The closeups remind us of the key, interactive nature of existence – it is primarily through our hands and feet that we interact with the world, and these interactions are more fundamental and primitive than our artificially constructed mental reflections. In addition, the sound features highly articulated individual sounds, often of activities taking place offscreen. The overall effect gives rise to the characteristic Bressonian mise en scène: that of a dreamlike collection of generally dissatisfied souls who are cut off from fulfilment or genuine community. The narrative proceeds through five phases, although the boundaries between these phases are indistinct:
- Introduction. This brief section moves astonishing quickly. The young children of a French farmer convince their father to keep a donkey that has just been born, and they name him “Balthazar”, after one of the Three Wise Men. The children and the donkey have an idyllic existence flooded with affection, including a blooming childhood love between the farmer’s son, Jacques, and Marie, who is the daughter of a schoolteacher. But the death of one of the farmer’s daughters causes their family to move to the city, and Jacques and Marie are separated. All of this takes place in just six and half minutes.
- Gerard. Roughly ten years have now gone by, and Balthazar has been sold and turned into a draught animal. After a road accident enables Balthazar to escape from his cruel owner, he finds his way back to the old farm, which is now tended by Marie’s father, who is trying make a go of it as a farmer. Marie is now a pretty young women, and she attracts the attention of the local hood, Gerard, whose sole interest seems to be wanton destructiveness. Jacques, now grown into a honorable young gentleman, returns for a visit and expresses his continued interest in Marie, but she prefers the reckless and abusive Gerard. Soon she is Gerard’s sexual slave, receiving no tenderness from him in return. After economic and legal disasters ruin Marie’s vane father, Balthazar is sold to a baker, who employs Gerard for bread deliveries. Gerard demonstrates his continuing evil nature by whipping and abusing Balthazar at every chance, stealing from the baker’s cash drawer, and making the baker’s wife his sexual slave, too.
- Arnold. In connection with the investigation into a local murder, the plice question Gerard and his gang, along with a local impoverished drunkard, Arnold, who is a simple fool when sober, but becomes violent and destructive when inebriated. Arnold gains possession of the now-ill Balthazar just before the baker was about to “put him away”, and after restoring Balthazr to health uses the donkey for odd jobs. But life isn’t all that good for Arnold and Balthazar. Arnold is routinely the soft target of Gerard’s thuggery, and whenever Arnold is drunk, he cruelly beats his beleaguered donkey. Eventually Arnold comes upon an inheritance and celebrates with a party at an inn, but Gerard and his hoods come and trash the place and then ply Arnold with so much alcohol that he later falls to his death on the road. Balthazar is then sold by the police at auction to a miller in town.
- The Miller. The miller harnesses Balthazar to walk in circles turning his mill while relentlessly whipping him. After sleeping with Marie, who has been abandoned by Gerard and reduced to being a homeless prostitute, the miller returns Balthazar to Marie’s family, who have come to take Marie back home.
- Final Fall. At this point some hope for salvation appears. Marie and Jacques are back home, and Jacques returns from the city to press his romantic case once more. But Marie spurns his love and rushes off to Gerard’s cottage, where she is gang-rapped and abandoned again. Marie then runs away, forever it is assumed, and her prideful father, frustrated by all his humiliating failures, dies of grief. Gerard comes to steal Balthazar for a smuggling operation near the border, and in the event, Balthazar is shot and dies. The closing shot has the dying Balthazar wandering into a meadow where a flock of sheep surround him. He lies down in the grass and slowly passes away as the recurring musical theme of Schubert’s mournful piano Sonata in A Major is played on the soundtrack
A common reading of Balthazar, relying on an orthodox sense of Bresson’s Catholicism, on the Palm Sunday imagery of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on “the foal of a donkey,” . . . ascribes to the animal a Christlike status. In this schema, Balthazar, after enjoying a brief, paradisal childhood, apparent in the image of his nuzzling his mother’s milk that opens the film and his playful baptism by three children, lives a calvary. Passed from cruel master to cruel master, Balthazar traverses the stations of the cross, beaten, whipped, slapped, burned, mocked, and, in the concluding crucifixion, shot and abandoned to bleed to death, the hillside on which he perishes a modern-day Golgotha. That he dies literally burdened (with contraband) suggests, in this reading, a sacrifice for humanity. This meaning is intensified by Balthazar’s sole, stigmata-like wound and by the sheep that flow around him, a tide of white that surrounds his dark, prostrate form. With their tolling bells, they evoke the Agnus Dei [Lamb of God] and thereby the liturgy, “Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis [who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us].” Balthazar has died for the sins of those who have transgressed against him—the alcoholic Arnold, the vicious Gérard, the mean, miserly merchant—and of the few who have not, particularly the martyred Marie, whose fate parallels his.My own response to the film, though, lies in a rather different direction. In this connection it is useful to remember that Bresson always forces the viewer to construct his own, individual diegesis. Bresson argued that when we experience immediate events in our everyday lives, there is no causality. A causal understanding of experience is only produced later, upon reflection. Bresson wanted the audience to have this direct causal-construction experience with his film narratives, and for this reason he didn’t want his actors (which he preferred to call “models”) to inject their own interpretive causal renderings in their roles. He didn’t want them to “perform”, because this would inevitably lead them to introduce their personal causal interpretations that would disadvantage the constructive experience for the viewer. It is for this reason that he insisted on those flat performances of his models, with downcast eyes that disconnected the players from each other. As a consequence, each viewer of a Bresson film will construct his diegetic interpretation within the framework of his or her own experiences. For someone steeped in Catholic symbolism, perhaps the account outlined by Quandt would make sense. But I think Bresson’s film is both more profound and more ambiguous than that account.
This interpretation is tempting in its simplicity. That Balthazar passes through the hands of seven masters suggests to some a numerical trace of the seven words from the cross, the seven sacraments of the church formed by Christ’s Passion, or the seven deadly sins. The mock baptism performed by the children and the auditory equation of church bells with Balthazar’s bell indicate the animal’s divinity; Marie’s name suggests the mother of God, and the garland of flowers she makes for Balthazar is reminiscent of Christ’s crown of thorns; the strange bestiary in the circus implies the ark; the smugglers’ gold and perfume are the equivalent of the offerings of the magi; Gérard’s band of blousons noirs [black jackets] represent Christ’s tormentors (or, as Gilles Jacob has suggested, the thieves of Ecclesiastes); the wine that Arnold drinks and the bread that Gérard delivers both suggest transubstantiation; Arnold is in many ways a Judas figure; and so on.
— James Quandt, "Au Hasard Balthazar", The Criterion Collection, 2005.
The donkey Balthazar is a sentient being, but when we look into his expressionless eyes, we don’t have any understanding of who or what he is. His vocabulary is limited to braying when he suffers: all we are aware of his suffering, but the rest is obscure. Yet throughout the film he is held by various characters in the film to be hard worker, a loving being, a fool, a genius (he can perform multiplications on multi-digit numbers), and even a saint. They look into his eyes and attribute these things to him based on the schemas that underlie their own mental frameworks. All of these frameworks are symbol-based and dualistic – they can never capture the raw passionate nature of existence, since that existence is beyond essence and explanation. In Dostoyevky’s The Idiot, Prince Myshkin remarks that he was cured of his melancholy one day in Switzerland when he heard the braying of a donkey in the marketplace. Bresson has remarked that his Balthazar was inspired by that very passage. This contrast between rationalized mental schemes and pure existence is highlighted during the opening titles when Schubert’s contemplative piano theme is interrupted and overtaken by the persistent loud braying of Balthazar. The discordant braying of the donkey is pure passion, with no further comprehensible semantics. For the remainder of the film, we will see men and women who apply their own prejudices, whether benign or malicious, on this poor animal who watches and suffers. Certainly Balthazar is not a true saint: whatever virtue he might have is merely the absence of malice. It is Marie’s mother who sees his stoic suffering as saintly. But Balthazar is the perfect Bressonian “model”, because he is completely “causeless”. We and the characters in the film are responsible for how we see him.
The contrast between the paltry schemes concocted by mental reflection and the wonder of pure existence is a continuing theme of Bresson’s work. His vision here, though, is relatively one-sided, focusing more on the abject state of man than on the glorious possibilities of existence. A recurring iconic motif in this film for man’s limited and exploitative condition is modern gadgetry – motorcycles, automobiles, transistor radios. These are all things that rudely intrude on the natural space of the French countryside and have no natural place there. Thus Gerard, the epitome of inhumanity, is constantly seen with these mean and noisy devices. In fact many of the characters in the film have such a blinkered view of life that they are dominated by a single perspective:
- Marie’s Father: Honour – He sacrifices his living and family, and ultimately his life, in order to spurn those he feels have made him lose face.
- The Miller: Money – He says he loves only money and adds that once you have that “you quickly learn that you do what you want and still command respect.”
- Gerard: Property – His only interest seems to be the possession of exploitable property and the reduction of people and animals to that same status.
- Marie’s Mother: God – She sees the suffering, innocent animal, Balthazar as a saint, mirroring her own feeling of martyrdom.
There are some significant aspects of Au Hasard Balthazar that do not seem to fit comfortably in Bresson’s aesthetics. By and large Bresson’s characters, his models, are presented as isolated from the world around them. In this world of mutually isolated characters, we are reminded of our own existential loneliness. But in Au Hasard Balthazar there is a greater degree of social interaction than in his preceding films, and this is a bit problematic. In particular, the portrayal in the film of Marie’s love for Gerard does not seem plausible. Most critics have ignored this aspect of the story, but it is a significant and emphatically proclaimed element. Marie says to her mother, “Do we know why we love someone? If he says, ‘come’, I come.” She goes on to add, “I’d kill myself for him.” This level of passion for another person is completely unmotivated in the film and seems so absurd that the viewer is tempted to dismiss Marie at that point. Whereas Bresson was able to portray romantic passion in his earlier Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1944), his film aesthetic had evolved to such an austerity twenty years later that romantic passion could not be accommodated within it.
In fact a prominent and disturbing theme in the film is the self-destructiveness of Marie, her father, and Arnold, which is brought about by their separate withdrawals from human affairs and their refusal to take defensive action. This converts an existential loneliness into an expressionistic nightmare. Marie’s father stubbornly refuses to defend himself because of his ego. Marie ruins herself, because she seems to want to abolish her ego and become the slave of Gerard. Arnold swings wildly between overweening ego (when drunk) and egolessness (when sober). When they each abandon their will to take action, they become the subjects of cruel dominators, just like Balthazar (who, unlike his human fellows, has no choice in the matter).
What we have in Au Hasard Balthazar, then, is a presentation of the deadening and demeaning existence of French peasants, but no contrasting moments of life-giving affirmation and exhilaration. The closest we come to it is the serene embrace that Marie gives to Balthazar when she is reunited with him as a teenager. But even this moment is more one of innocence than of love. Bresson’s vision is relentlessly pessimistic here. In Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, there is a final moment of romantic salvation, In Diary of a Country Priest (1950), the protagonist dies with an unfilfilled longing, but at least he is transfigured by the wonder of existence. In A Man Escaped (1956), although the “wind bloweth where it listeth”, the protagonist perseveres and escapes. In Pickpocket (1959), the protagonist, after “the strange path [he] had to take”, finally succumbs to the salvation of love. In The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), the protagonist dies at the stake, but is still unbowed and profoundly innocent. But in Au Hasard Balthazar, there is no seeker (other than the secondary character Jacques), no salvation, no redemption, only suffering. Marie is ruined and even abandoned by the narrative. Balthazar is killed by a random bullet. There is no suggestion that either one of them has ever suspected the possibility of, much less found, any real sublimity. The progression of Bresson's pessimism continued with Mouchette .
The final scene of Balthazar dying in the meadow is undeniably moving, but it elicits different reactions. Some critics find the scene uplifting. To me it was unutterably sad. Balthazar suffered a life of meaningless torment and then finally slumps down in the grass to pass away. The sheep that surround him are also part of the great cycle of nature and have no communion with Balthazar. The lambs that are seen suckling at their mothers’ sides will never reach maturity – they are doomed to be slaughtered within the year and served as meat to their human masters. We watch the simple scene in the meadow, we see the inevitability of lonely death, and we listen to the quiet, melancholy strains of Schubert’s Sonata in A Major.
- My review of Mouchette discusses some of the thematic similarities and contrasts between Au Hasard Balthazar and Mouchette.