NOTE: There are some spoilers here, but none will affect what Bresson is trying to accomplish in the slightest. However, if you’d like to go into the picture with no prior information of note, you’ll want to skip this review.
Unobtainable in any legitimate form for over 30 years, Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar has finally reemerged in a fully restored print, and what a gift for the movie world that is. Until now, the only way to see Balthazar was via bootleg tapes obtained on e-bay or cult dealer. Now, with a New York theatrical run at Film Forum and a DVD release soon to follow, cinephiles from all over will be able to see one of cinema’s greatest achievements. For those unfamiliar with Bresson’s work, this is not the place to start. Balthazar represents Bresson’s most personal and intense work, an aching look at loneliness and dejection. This isn’t an uplifting film, and it’s probably as anti-Hollywood as anything in the past fifty years. For those used to the mainstream (and even those who’ve seen the work of Kurosawa, Bergman, etc), Bresson’s emotionless style takes a good deal of getting used to, and I recommend beginning with Diary of a Country Priest (1951), A Man Escaped (1956), and Pickpocket (1959). All three contain the same dry distance and visual compositions, but aren’t quite as extreme in their austerity and detachment. After putting yourself through a Bresson crash course, you’re ready for Mouchette, Lancelot of the Lake, and yes, Au Hasard Balthazar.
The story is of the mistreated donkey Balthazar, from its childhood to death, and the mirroring tale of the girl who named him. For those upset that I “spoiled” the picture by alluding to Balthazar’s death, don’t be. Bresson is not concerned with suspense; in fact, the literal French translation of Un condamné à mort s’est échappé is, “A Man Condemned to Death has Escaped.” Bresson is telling us before we watch the film what the results will be, intentionally eliminating any possible intrigue or tension. In A Man Escaped, I felt this detracted from the end result; while the picture was expertly crafted, there was an odd feeling of emptiness throughout, as if all the beautiful compositions and meticulous actions were pointless, since the eventual outcome was inevitable. The mystery genre doesn’t really lend itself to Bresson’s style (though don’t misunderstand, A Man Escaped is an excellent film, simply a bit flawed and not among his very finest). In Balthazar, there are no such problems. It’s a sublime study of mistreatment, and ultimately of downfall and inner peace.
It begins with a lovely medium close-up of a small donkey suckling his mother’s teat. The baby is discovered by Marie and Jacques, two children with strong adolescent feelings for each other, and is taken from his mother. The kids tenderly christen him Balthazar and pamper him with attention, but as years pass, family strife intervenes and Jacques is forced out of Marie’s life by her angry father. So begins Balthazar’s journey through life, paralleled almost exactly by Marie’s miserable trek. Balthazar is frequently sold, given away, and beaten. When the village baker obtains him to help carry bread, Gerard (an employee of the bakery and the leader of the village gang of thugs) sets fire to Balthazar’s tail in a heartlessl attempt to speed him up. When Balthazar is overworked to near-death, Arnold (the drunk) takes him from the baker and revives him, but eventually brutalizes him to such an extreme that the scared donkey escapes. He ends up in the circus, where he’s trained as an animal prodigy of sorts, putting on mathematical displays for the crowd. One day, Balthazar sees an intoxicated Arnold in the audience, recognizes both his former master and his former master’s drunken state, and panics. After (unfortunately for the poor donkey) retrieving Balthazar, Arnold keeps him until he obtains a great inheritance from a deceased uncle. Balthazar is then bought by a stingy old grain merchant, but only remains with him a short time; a shamed Marie appears at the merchant’s door, having run away from her parents (more on this later). She prostitutes herself to him in exchange for food; her family then shows up and reclaims her, and Balthazar is taken along as payment for an old debt. The family slowly implodes, and Balthazar is soon left alone with Marie’s mother, who now believes he’s a saint. Gerard and his band of criminals steal him from her to help with a smuggling operation, but custom officials spot them and begin firing. Balthazar is wounded. And then, in one of cinema’s most poetic moments, Balthazar painfully limps through the fields until he comes across a flock of sheep. Finally at peace, Balthazar lies down in their midst and dies.
Throughout Balthazar’s travails, Marie suffers much as well. After her separation from Jacques, she becomes quite solitary until she drives by Gerard (with Balthazar) delivering their bread one morning. Gerard successfully charms her in the front seat of her car. From that moment onwards, she is completely infatuated with his bad-boy demeanor (nor is it just a demeanor; at various points throughout, Gerard steals, fights, and lies frequently). It’s unlikely Marie could have picked a worse man to fall for; Gerard is a womanizer and rarely shows Marie affection. He nonetheless takes pleasure in defying his bosses, who insist that he have nothing to do with her. Marie eventually is able to push aside her feelings for Gerard after the aforementioned incident with the merchant, at the same that Jacques reemerges in her life, claiming he still loves her. While attracted to the (much-needed) stability that he offers, Marie finds that her desire for excitement and hatred for her former life has demolished most of her feelings for the young man. Not coincidentally, she’s unable to dismiss Gerard so abruptly, and insists on seeing him and his gang one final time for some closure. They beat and rape her, and lock her in a shed. Fatally broken inside, Marie runs away, never to be seen again. Her father dies of grief and shame. Her mother is left alone…with Balthazar. There’s a lot more plot synopsis in this review then is my norm and there’s a reason; in order to fully understand what Bresson is trying to do here, it’s crucial to have a strong understanding of the story arc. This isn’t possible on one viewing—I’ve seen the film three times now and there are still many layers I feel I’m missing. However, I will now do my best to break down the cinematic purpose of Au Hasard Balthazar as best I can.
To start, there’s Balthazar’s name itself and its symbolic representation in the context of Christianity. Balthazar was one of the three wise men who journeyed to Bethlehem and while the religious aspect of the picture is the one I feel least equipped to discuss, it seems likely that this is a direct influence on the revelation at the film’s finale that Balthazar is a saint. Bresson’s films are frequently steeped in Christian values, and this may be his most fascinating and complex examination of all. For before the end revelation, there could scarcely be less faith permeating the picture. Other than Balthazar himself, there are few pure characters. There’s even less happiness, and the only time when we sense content is when Balthazar finally passes away. Consider; Gerard is a heartless thug. Marie has become a cheap lapdog, practically incapable of any deep thought or noble actions. Marie’s parents painfully watch their daughter disintegrate, with her father unable to bear it by the end. Jacques may be tenderhearted but he’s shallow, basking in childhood promises instead of facing the modern day realities (that Marie is no longer the innocent girl of his youth) until it’s too late. All of these people could use a saint; it’s a relief to hear Marie’s mother utter her beliefs about Balthazar near the finale. Unfortunately (and typically), Balthazar isn’t allowed to live out his days in peace with the first owner since his childhood who treated him as more than a slave.
Employing an array of lower-body shots and brilliantly utilizing the weather, Bresson’s compositions are essential to Au Hasard Balthazar’s success. We see Balthazar, framed in the center of the screen, subjected to the rain and snow in a lovely 15-second montage. This serves as a metaphor for the harsh and frequent mistreatment he’s forced to absorb from all angles, sadly including the elements. There’s a remarkable scene when Balthazar first arrives at the circus where he’s taken around to look at the other animals. We see extreme close-ups of their faces one by one, always alternating back to Balthazar after each shot…this is one of the few times in the film that any character aside from Balthazar receives this visual treatment but in each tight shot, the donkey’s eyes are like moist portals of despair. And sometimes…there’s even a vulturing fly buzzing around the poor animal, hungrily awaiting Balthazar’s inevitable demise.
Made within a year of one another, Au Hasard Balthazar and Mouchette are companion pieces, and there are extreme similarities between Marie and Mouchette’s title character. Both are hopelessly wretched girls, regularly surrounded by emotional decay and disgust. These were also the first Bressonian pictures (aside from the very un-Bressonian Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne in 1945, which worked from a script penned by Jean Cocteau) to contain sexuality. Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, and The Trial of Joan of Arc are all completely devoid of any eroticism, making the orgasmic traits displayed by Marie and Mouchette to be initially surprising. After some thought, though, it becomes evident how apt the cold carnal energy is for Bresson’s style. The sexual encounters of Marie and Mouchette all stem from either desperation or a concession to their worthless lives. As a result, no passion comes through the screen. Instead, we feel a chilly sorrow when Mouchette wraps her arms around Arsene’s back, or Marie dully—and without conviction—slaps the merchant’s hands from her shoulder, when it’s obvious that she’ll be sleeping with him by night’s end. The statement made by Mouchette’s mother near the films’ end; “I’m a slut, try to be a good girl,” could just as easily be made by Marie’s mother, and would have been just as in vain.
The opening shot of Balthazar at his mother’s breast becomes even more haunting upon reflection, because the finale in the plains contains several baby sheep with their mothers. Balthazar has come full circle, in Kubrickian fashion—one of the few American directors who has a feel for the emotionless like Bresson)—and perhaps only now can finally recapture the innocent peace of childhood. Dying amongst the sheep, perhaps Balthazar can finally live.