Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
Director: Robert Bresson
Cast: Anne Wiazemsky
My Rating: ★★★★★, or 10/10
In Short: Bleak, harrowing and heartbreaking; Bresson’s best film ever
Au Hasard Balthazar, Robert Bresson’s most popular film, marked the rare occasion where his embittered, persecuted protagonist is not human, and thus the film is in its own right different from all those Bresson made. Of course, the leading human characters are typical Bressonian martyrs and murderers, but it is the animal in this film that is the point of focus. This is a film is about an animal treated with indifference, contempt, and coldness. Even when it is treated with kindness, which is rarely, Bresson directs the act in his usual cold style, making even the film’s lighter moments seem cynically artificial.
Au Hasard Balthazar is the greatest film Robert Bresson ever made. Though it is almost completely emotionless, it is so intensely moving that I am reduced to tears every time I see it, and so is nearly everyone else I know. It is not so much the story of a donkey as it is the story of the cruel greed and hatred of humanity, and how true peace and equality lies within the indifference of quiet animals like Balthazar, a donkey who is cared for by children in his early years, then sold off and treated almost barbarically by a variety of people, before being rescued and treated as a “saint” by an old man, and even spending time in the circus as a donkey that can solve mathematical equations. From the moments of contentment, such as its “baptism” as a youth, to its moments of terrified loneliness, such as when the cruel Gerard (one of cinema’s most disgusting villains) sets his tail on fire, Balthazar never betrays an emotion, and never becomes a “cartoon animal,” capable of thinking on the same level of humans or smarter creatures. Balthazar is a lowly donkey, and nothing more.
This is the most brilliant aspect of the film. Balthazar is treated as what he is, and never anthropomorphised, like other animals in the movies. Take recent films such as War Horse for example, which treat animals as superior beings capable of incredible physical strength and mental acuity. These films feed the audience a falseness, and treat their protagonists as something exceptional. In Au Hasard Balthazar, the donkey, while being the protagonist, is also the most idiotic and pitiful character, because really, that’s what donkeys are. While we identify and sympathise with the creature, we are also forced to confront the fact that he is a donkey, and not a human, and Bresson consistently reminds us that we must see him for what he is, not what we want him to be.
In this film, however, Bresson does not treat Balthazar like an idiotic donkey. Nor is a humble one. He simply is. He feels emotion, but has no comprehension of what these emotions mean, and only a vague understanding of what has triggered them. Donkeys are among the dumbest of creatures, and Bresson’s most amazing achievement is that he manages to make the audience sympathise and feel for such a creature without bringing the animal to a human level.
Though Bresson is ostensibly a cynic, this film has to have one of the lighter endings of any of his films. Though yes, Balthazar does lie down and die, it is at a remarkable setting. Though he has been shot while alone, he stumbles into a farmyard filled with sheep, and lays down next to them. In his final moments, he is comforted by their presence, the presence of animals who are equal to him, who feel and think the same ways he does. As he closes his eyes, we can feel the acceptance in them of death, though not the realization of it. There is no profound moment of understanding, there is simply passing into darkness, and perhaps the faintest hint of gratitude, for a life however hard and long, is still a life, and still to be valued.
Previous films in the Bresson-athon:
Les anges du peche(1943)
A Man Escaped(1956)
The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962)