Au hasard Balthazar

Director: Robert Bresson
Screenplay: Robert Bresson
Stars: Anne Wiazemsky (Marie), François Lafarge (Gerard), Philippe Asselin (Marie's father), Nathalie Joyaut (Marie's mother), Walter Green (Jacques), Jean-Claude Guilbert (Arnold), Pierre Klossowski (Merchant), François Sullerot (Baker), Marie-Claire Fremont (Baker's wife), Jean Rémignard (Notary)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1966
Country: France / Sweden
Au hasard Balthazar Criterion Collection DVD
Au hasard BalthazarRobert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar is one of the great, heartbreaking achievements of cinema. In a career of memorable humanist masterpieces like Diary of a Country Priest (1950), Pickpocket (1955), and L’Argent (1983), Au hasard Balthazar is Bresson’s greatest achievement. It’s a film that takes an endearingly simple premise that, in the hands of another filmmaker, could have been a sentimental disaster and turns it into a deeply felt fable about the pitfalls of human cruelty, which Bresson sees as the unfortunate essence of human nature.

In the simplest of terms, Au hasard Balthazar tells the story of the life of a donkey from birth to death. The film’s opening shot is a poignant scene of the baby donkey nursing at his mother’s side, after which he is adopted by a farmer’s family in rural France. The farmer’s children hold a baptism for the animal (my first inclination was to describe it as a “mock” baptism, but that would be misleading because, to the children, it is utterly meaningful) and christen him Balthazar, which is the name of one of the magi who visited Christ in the manger.

At this point, Balthazar’s life is a thing of pastoral beauty, as he spends his days playing with the farmer’s children and their neighbor, Marie, the daughter of the local schoolmaster. The film’s first tragedy is when one of the farmer’s children dies and the farmer leaves with the rest of his family in grief, turning over responsibilities for the farm to the schoolmaster (Philippe Asselin). This is the first point at which Balthazar changes hands, but it won’t be the last time.

Balthazar’s life changes once he is grown and takes on the charges of being a “beast of burden” -- yoked to plows and carts, he begins the lifelong drudgery of working for others hauling hay, plowing fields, turning mills, carrying goods, pulling carts. At key points in the film, he is exchanged among owners, most of whom treat him with a mixture of casual and overt cruelty. Because he is just a donkey -- a dumb animal -- he is treated with the accord reserved for a tool or a machine.

Yet, we feel for Balthazar, and not because Bresson loads his film with sentimentality or because he attempts to anthropomorphize Balthazar and make him appear “human.” Bresson doesn’t insult the audience by giving us cute reaction shots or funny moments. Rather, he lets us recognize Balthazar as a pure creature of God, a true innocent in the pre-Eden sense of the word -- he doesn’t understand the world around him or the differences between good and evil. He simply is and therefore accepts his life with the simple nobility of a creature who bears his burden as best he can. Despite being largely expressionless, Balthazar grows on you as the film progresses, and soon the smallest details of his behavior – a raising of his head, the flapping his ears, the particular place in which he stands -- become extraordinarily expressive.

In a sense, a donkey is the perfect Bressonian actor because Bresson was famous for discouraging his actors from emoting, sometimes running them through a motion dozens of times until they stopped “acting” and simply “were.” On the surface, this would seem to suggest that his characters are dull and their acting wooden, but actually the opposite effect takes place because the viewer is forced to seek out and find the emotion in the dialogue, the situation, the story. Small details become all-important, and Bresson’s lifelong themes of love, death, suffering, and redemption are allowed to inform everything in his films, including the life of a simple donkey.

Balthazar’s life is roughly paralleled by the life of Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), the schoolmaster’s daughter who is, in her own way, also an innocent. Yet, unlike Balthazar, the suffering she endures is often of her own making, rather than just the result of living in a world beyond her control. Bresson paints the world as a cruel one, but he does not turn his back on the notion of human choice.

Marie loves Balthazar, at one point expressing her affinity for the animal by crowning him with a garland of flowers. Yet, like all the other characters, she is flawed and weak, and her most shocking act of cruelty is turning her back when a pair of local hoodlums jealousy beat on Balthazar in the middle of the night. One of the hoods, a scabrous punk named Gerard (François Lafarge), later has charge of Balthazar when he is owned by the local baker who has employed Gerard to deliver bread. Gerard’s cruelty is the most overt, and at one point he ties a burning newspaper to Balthazar’s tail just to see the poor animal panic and run. Yet, it is this very sadism that makes him appealing to Marie, and against all better judgment she is drawn to him and away from her childhood sweetheart, Jacques (Walter Green), thus fulfilling the human desire to embrace that which destroys us.

Au hasard Balthazar has been interpreted a number of ways, most commonly as an allegory for the Christ story. The film’s Biblical allusions are numerous, and Bresson’s Catholic sensibilities were well-known to inform his filmmaking, although, like Stanley Kubrick, he repeatedly refused to “explain” his films, but rather allowed them to speak for themselves. Bresson’s most oft-repeated and powerful theme is the power of the transcendental in a flawed and often cruel world. More specifically, he is concerned with grace, the belief in a divine love that allows us to bear our burdens in this world knowing that something greater lies in the next. Thus, when the defeated priest at the end of Diary of a Country Priest says on his deathbed, “All is grace,” even though there is an immediate tendency to read the line ironically, we somehow understand that it is this very sentiment that has allowed him to preserve as long as he did.

It is the same with Balthazar. Our emotional attachment to this “dumb animal” is deeply rooted in the spiritual idea of grace -- otherwise, the film would be an exercise in nihilism. The final five minutes of Au hasard Balthazar are among the most powerful and moving of Bresson’s career -- in all of cinema, in fact -- both emotionally and spiritually. In terms of Balthazar as a Christ figure, he is burdened with the sins of humankind (in this case, literally burdened with packs of illegally smuggled goods) and dies a slow death on the side of a mountain. He is released from this world into the next, his job being done. It is a heartbreaking scene of utterly tranquil beauty, with Balthazar’s dark, broken body surrounded by a herd of white sheep, whose rattling bells juxtapose with the gentle strains of a Schubert piano sonata that has played at crucial moments throughout the film. Bresson doesn’t comment, but simply observes the noble animal’s final moments in the material world. For all his suffering, Balthazar’s end is a peaceful one, the best we could have possible wished for him despite the tears in our eyes, as it infinitely conflates the sadness of death with the beauty of transcendence. It is the greatest and most lyrically evocative passage in one of the greatest films ever made.

Au hasard Balthazar Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioFrench Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • Video interview with film scholar Donald Richie
  • Un metteur en ordre: Robert Bresson a 1966 French TV program about the film
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Essay by Bresson scholar James Quandt
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
    Release DateJune 14, 2005

    The new anamorphic widescreen transfer, taken from the original 35mm camera negative and restored with the MTI Digital Restoration System, is simply marvelous. The image is rich and textured, with wonderful detail, strong black levels, and just the right amount of grain to give it a filmlike appearance. With the exception a few bits of white speckling, the image is completely clean.

    The monaural soundtrack, transferred from a 35mm optical soundtrack print and digitally restored, also sounds excellent. Bresson’s excellent use of off-screen sound and natural sound effects is extremely effective, and the Schubert piano sonata, a rare bit of extradiegetic music in a Bresson film, sounds quite good.

    I would have loved to have heard a screen-specific audio commentary on this disc, especially since film scholar Peter Cowie’s commentary on Criterion’s Diary of a Country Priest DVD was so good. Alas, it is not to be, although at the $29.95 price point, this disc has a nice set of supplements, starting with an emotional video interview with film scholar Donald Richie, another regular Criterion contributor. While he discusses the film in formal terms and within the context of the rest of Bresson’s work, Richie’s discussion is striking in how personal it is, which is not surprising given the film’s emotional power. Another nice inclusion is Un metteur en ordre: Robert Bresson, an hour-long 1966 French TV program dedicated to Au hasard Balthazar. It features interviews with Robert Bresson and several of the film’s actors, as well as interviews with such cinematic and intellectual luminaries as Jean-Luc Goddard, Louis Malle, and Marguerite Duras waxing poetic about the film’s greatness. Also included on the disc is an awful theatrical trailer that doesn’t give any sense of what the film is about, and the insert booklet contains an intriguing essay by Bresson scholar James Quandt, who goes out of his way to read the film against the typical spiritual interpretations.

    Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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