Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

Robert Bresson | 1hr 35min

Those going into Au Hasard Balthazar looking for a one-to-one allegory between the trials of its long-suffering donkey and the Bible will come out confused and disappointed. Robert Bresson would never be so obvious – his style is one of understated minimalism and archetypal iconography, fitting nicely into what Paul Schrader would later call ‘transcendental cinema.’ He seeks not to attach his film to classical narrative structures, but to design his own modern parable that is both grand in philosophical contemplations and humble in scope.

Balthazar the donkey is representative of three main figures: Christ passing through the Stations of the Cross towards his unjust death, the same-named magus who visited the infant Jesus bearing myrrh, and also just a mindless, innocent ass who we imprint emotion upon through some well-placed close-ups. His pain is a wholly human experience, mirrored in his many owners who thoughtlessly exploit, abuse, and occasionally caress him. Over these succinct 95 minutes, we see the same familiar figures in Balthazar’s rural French village enter and exit his life, and Bresson positions us right there next to him as a passive observer of their cruelty and hardships.

A crown of flowers given to Balthazar by Mary, representing Christ’s mother. This is a tale full of powerful theological symbolism.

Balthazar begins his small, insignificant existence on a family farm. He is baptised by the children in a mock ceremony, blessing him with “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost” before they go off to play together in the hay. Their neighbour Marie joins in too, treating him with love and eventually taking him in. She decorates his head with flowers and sticks reminiscent of Christ’s crown of thorns, but this adornment carries much greater affection than the Roman instrument of torture and humiliation. It is no coincidence either that her name directly evokes Mary the Mother, being the sole character to show absolute kindness and care towards him, though she also becomes an empathetic companion to him as their respective journeys move in parallel directions, seeing her passed from one man to the next.

Au Hasard Balthazar is not an exceedingly stylish film, but Bresson’s blocking of his actors in the frame is often impressive.

And yet it is not Marie’s perspective we are given, but the animal’s, torn from the stability of any single home or purpose to serve the fickle needs of humanity. A circus teaches him cheap tricks, a merchant puts him to work at a mill, and Marie’s nefarious boyfriend Gerard uses him as his own personal punching bag. On the occasion that he does act out independently, he bolts for freedom, and Bresson resorts to a rapidly increasing montage of his hooves and the wheels of the wagon he is pulling until it overturns, setting him loose. The sequence is a fast-paced release from Au Hasard Balthazar’s meditative, elliptical narrative, though its editing is just as meticulously considered as those long dissolves which delicately bridge one scene to the next, drifting the donkey down an unpredictable yet fateful path.

Bresson’s editing is essential to the progression of his elliptical narrative, connecting scenes through long dissolves and every so often building the pace to a crescendo.

Bresson may not display the sort of audacious stylings his contemporaries were experimenting with at the peak of the French New Wave, and yet his attention to visual detail here is far from nil, crafting elegant medium shots that linger on his actors’ hands. It is a versatile formal device which is present through so many of his films, and while it cannot be put down to a singular interpretation, they do frequently manifest in Au Hasard Balthazar as icons of influence and control. When the donkey’s hooves are painfully branded, one farmer’s hands sturdily grip his leg in position, while the other holds the iron tight. As Marie sits in a car with Gerard, a shot of their torsos reveals his hand slowly creeping around, suggesting a sexual assault when we eventually cut away.

Hands torturing, assaulting, caressing – Bresson’s close-ups on these actions build both character and story.

Given Balthazar’s low line of sight towards his masters, it makes sense that this is the part of humans that Bresson focuses on. Even beyond his perspective though, he frames hands the way Ingmar Bergman shoots faces, studying their subtle contours, purposeful movements, and blocking within environments, such as a slow reach for an object or direct interaction with it. Unlike Bergman’s faces though, these hands assert an active presence, rather than reactive, distilling his characters down to their appendages which shape the course of events. There is certainly emotion conveyed in these shots, but it is very deliberately muted, matching Bresson’s direction of actors which strips away both artifice and realism to turn them into models upon which he imprints a new kind of honesty – one that is in service of the film and its subtle shifts in tone, rather than the bleeding authenticity of any specific moment.

As such, the subdued tragedy of the film comes not through what Bresson explicitly depicts, but from what is held back, making it absolutely fitting that his favourite actors may indeed be animals. We can take what we like from the blank canvas of Balthazar’s emotionless face, to which we gradually attune our own sensitivities until we can swear that we see some flicker of sorrow in his eyes. Even his slow death from a gunshot while crossing the Spanish border comes across as simply another sad, trivialised development in his life. His injury is purposefully reminiscent of the spear wound in Jesus’ side as he hung on the cross, and even the contraband which Gerard strapped to his back burdens him with the sins of man.

The donkey is a perfect actor for Bresson – a blank canvas of a face upon which he imprints emotion.

Unlike Christ though, there is no grand legacy he is leaving behind as he lays dying in an open field, surrounded by sheep and the sound of their meagre, tinny bells which ring in place of those which toll at church. In his final moments, Bresson imbues his wide shots of Balthazar’s quiet death with a gentle beauty, granting him the time and attention which no one else could afford him in life. Perhaps his peaceful resignation to the predestined path set by a God far wiser than him is a choice in itself, though the line between free will, primal impulse, and divine fate remains as obscure as ever. In Bresson’s restrained austerity, such metaphysical questions are spared the insult of easy answers. There is grace in the meditation spurred on by the Bible’s parables, and through Au Hasard Balthazar’s elliptical progression of preordained encounters and archetypal icons, Bresson conjures a similarly pensive consideration of suffering and salvation.

The death of Balthazar paralleling the death of Christ – a cruel murder of an innocent, a wound in the side, and a submission to God’s will.

Au Hasard Balthazar is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

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