Au Hasard Balthazar is one of the most excruciating spiritual experiences I have ever witnessed on the screen and it is directed by the only person that could pull off such a remarkable achievement, the great French director Robert Bresson. It's a tragic film full of pain, anguish and human suffering, a story that is Bresson's heartbreaking prayer to the world. The story follows two different lives, one a young farmers daughter, another a donkey named Balthazar. (Which Bresson named after the Three Wise Men). We first see Balthazar as a newborn drinking milk from his mother before being sold off to farmers. You see the beginning of adolescence for Balthazar as he begins to take his first steps which will soon enough lead him to the painful branding of his hooves, which is the initiation of a life that will involve slavery and burden. Over the course of the film Balthazar will be passed from cruel master to cruel master, traversing the stations of the cross, and be beaten, whipped, slapped, burned, mocked and in the concluding crucifixion end, shot and abandoned to die alone on a hillside like a modern-day Golgotha. The film mostly is seen through the donkeys eyes where it shows him as a simple dumb animal, noble in his acceptance of a cruel world in which he has no control. While we witness Balthazar's suffering, we will watch the farmers daughter Marie being passed from man to man and whose tragic fate sadly parallels his. Robert Bresson is considered one of the great masters in the art form of the cinema and most of his films center around such spiritual themes which include salvation, sin, redemption, and the defining and revealing of the human soul.
We first see Balthazar as a newborn donkey drinking milk from him mother as you see a young child named Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) saying to her father, "Let us have him." Her father who is a local schoolmaster agrees and purchases the donkey out from the rest of the herd and take him home in a rural French town. In time you watch the young donkey taking his first steps which leads to a beautiful scene where children are sprinkling water on his head to baptize him into the family and naming him Balthazar: "Balthazar, I baptize thee in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen." You see the beginning of adolescence for Balthazar as the children play with Balthazar in the hay. One day a young Marie and her childhood friend Jacques are on the tree swing together while Jacques older sister is severely sick and bed-ridden.
Jacques says to Marie that they will one day get married and even engraves their initials on a bench in the park. One summer Jacques has to go away with his family to attend to his sick sister. Years pass as Balthazar gets older and soon you witness the painful branding of his hooves which is the initiation of a life that will involve slavery and burden.
Years past and Marie and Balthazar develop a very strong relationship together. Many of the locals use Balthazar and return him, with one incident a hay cart completely flips over. The farmers eventually track Balthazar down after he runs away and ends up in Marie's fathers barn.
In their rural town their is a young gang who are a bunch of misfits that wear leather jackets and drive motorcycles and are led by a boy named Gerard who is a sadistic young man. In one sequence Gerard for his sick entertainment greases the streets with oil and then watching car's slip and get into auto accidents. Him and his friend decide one night to break into Marie's father's property and they watch Marie in the barn caressing Balthazar. Marie loves Balthazar and in this sensual scene Marie decorates Balthazar's head like a crown with sticks and flowers similar to what Christ wore before being crucified. Gerard say's to a friend, "She may really love him...Him too." Marie is sitting down outside on the bench knowing Gerard and his gang are out there. When Gerard reaches out and touches her hand she quickly pulls away and heads into the house. Once Gerard and the gang get into the barn they pointlessly start beating Balthazar, with Marie doing nothing to protect him.
Gerard, is a ruthless violent young man who ironically attends the same church Marie and her father go to with his mother whose the local baker. There's a creepy contrast after watching Gerard cruelly abuse Balthazar where attending church the next morning, Marie looks up to see Gerard in the church choir singing; and the holy words in the song now give it a different meaning.
One day Jacques younger sister dies after a long sickness, and his father is so grief-stricken he decides to leave the town entrusting the farm to Marie's father leaving a note: "As I am too sad to return to this house since my daughter's death and failed to sell the farms, why not farm the land yourself using modern techniques, as you once said you'd like to? You would have to close the school and resign. Enclosed is my proxy for any sale, purchased or exchange of land. My attorney will advance the funds to cover your initial expenses. I trust you entirely. You have carte blanche. You needn't consult me or send me the accounts."
Although Marie's father has managed Jacques' father's farm with perfect honesty, and yet he refuses to produce records or receipts to prove to everyone that he's not a thief. Now Jacques's father wants the accounts examined as they're rumors in the town believing Marie's father has been stealing money from the land that was loaned to him. But Marie's father is a victim of his own pride, is furious on these rumors, and doesn't want to prove that they are wrong. "And if I refuse. I'm under no obligations," says Marie's father not wanting to show any paperwork to prove that he hasn't been stealing.
Jacques talks to Marie about her fathers accusations and says, "We began getting letters, all anonymous, claiming the proceeds all went into your father's pocket, not mine. But without proof of course. That's the cost of your father's success. Envy and jealousy." Marie says, "Papa's blameless. He can look your father in the eye. He's hurt papa, who never asked for anything in return." Jacques looks at Balthazar and says, "Oh, Marie nothing has changed. But you're prettier than ever. Prettier and more beautiful. That I'd love only you." Marie says, "But, Jacques, I'm not sure I love you. If I don't love you, I don't want to lie to you."
Marie's father has a financial discussion with Jacques about the stolen money, and even though Jacques was on Marie's fathers side, Marie's father is stubborn and offended of these accusations, and he angrily throws Jacques out of his home. Because of that and hurt by the rejection of Marie, Jacques leaves town and decides to not return. Because of this the rumors confirm for many of the townspeople on Marie's father's guilt. Because of these rumors, Marie's mother is in despair as Marie's father follows his stubbornness until the family is completely bankrupt.
Because of this, Balthazar is given up and becomes the possession of the mother of the town bakery who unfortunately has Gerard use him to deliver some of the bread to the neighbors, with him pocketing some of the cash. There's one shocking sequence where Gerard is mistreating Balthazar to try in getting him to move, so Gerard decides to take a piece of newspaper and tie it to his tail and then sets it on fire. When Balthazar feels the fire he finally takes off, with Gerard taking pleasure in the abuse.
Later on the road Marie drives in to rescue Balthazar from Gerard's cruelty. Gerard decides to get in Marie's parked car and welcomes her in by extending out his hand just as Jacques had earlier. For some reason she accepts Gerard's invitation and gets in and you see Gerard looking down at her skirt and legs. He starts to slowly caress her and she cries suddenly getting out of the car while Gerard chases her around Balthazar, with Marie trying to fight off her sexual lust for a man she knows is no good. Eventually she gives up and lets him have sex with her in the fields as Gerard afterwards celebrates his victory by blowing through a horn.
Gerard later tries to stop by and see Marie and when her father asks him why he's there Gerard says "Looking for what's mine. Me, I'm not a thief." Back at his mothers, Gerard's mother confronts Gerard on stealing their bread earnings saying from her locked drawer. "Don't deny it. It you need money, ask. I'll see you lack for nothing." Instead of punishing him she buys him a new bike and a small radio. "But I'll take back the radio and the bike, if I see you with that Marie again." Gerard doesn't listen to his mother as him and Marie begin having a secret sexual relationship with each other, secretly meeting up in her father's barn while her parents are away and having sex while Gerard plays his mother's radio.
One day Gerard gets a police summons and is called in to the police station as a suspect of a man who was murdered in their town. His mother immediately believes he's guilty saying, "We'll hide you. You can cross the border tonight." After Arnold the town drunk is questioned by the police, (after spitting on them and telling them to drop dead) Gerard is brought in for questioning. Later when let go Gerard and his gang confront Arnold the town drunk who Gerard believes is the murderer calling him a stool pigeon and who fingered Gerard to throw off the police. "Doubt that a drunken madman like you could murder someone and not remember it? So why'd they take your finger prints. Murderer." Gerard says. Gerard and his gang attack Arnold and kick and punch him while he's down while Marie comes by and stops them. She then slaps Gerard calling him a coward and he smacks her back with them walking away arm in arm.
During the winter you can see scenes of Balthazar outside in the rain and snow and one day he gets really sick where he can't even stand up. "Poor beast. It'll be quick." Gerard's mother decides to put him down with Gerard gladly wanting to help, grabbing a hammer to end his suffering. Suddenly Arnold saves him by walking in and saying, "I'll take him off your hands."
Eventually he brings Balthazar back to life with exercise on the road and nourishment but Arnold is also very abusive to Balthazar when he drinks heavily. One night Arnold makes an oath to God saying, "By Mary, Jesus Christ her son and all the saints. I swear never to touch another drop. Amen!" Unfortunately the next sequence shows Arnold at the bottle, and after coming home drunk, angry and feeling defeated he takes his anger out on Balthazar by taking a chair and beating him with it.
One day while in town with Balthazar, Arnold goes into a pub to drink while Marie's father walks out of the courtroom ashamed at how he was treated. "A court that lets the other party insult me is no court," says Marie's father. Eventually when Arnold leaves the pub drunk Balthazar senses this and runs away eventually ending up in the hands of a performer who runs a circus. In one of my favorite moments in the film, Balthazar is being taken in back by his circus master and he eventually comes across several other of the circus performer's animals in cages. You see Balthazar's eyes look at a lion, a polar bear, a chimpanzee and an elephant, who are also looking at him confined in their cages. In this powerful sequence you can see Balthazar thinking that he is a slave of man like the rest of these animals, and his life like theirs is entirely out of his control.
In a really interesting scene of the film Balthazar is trained by his circus master how to solve multiplication tables by giving the answer by the amount of times his hoof hits the floor. One night during the show Arnold walks in to watch the show and we can see Balthazar noticing him drinking from the bottle. Suddenly Balthazar reacts and starts to get panicky and he eventually becomes uncontrollable on the stage. When the circus performer realizes Arnold was the original owner Balthazar is given back to him.
One morning while home in bed Gerard and his gang come to see Arnold. Gerard tells him, "Wake up quick! Get out of here! There's still time." Gerard lets Arnold know that the authorities have arrived probably on the arrest of the man who was murdered. Gerard cruelly gives him a handgun for Arnold to either shoot back or commit suicide before being arrested while the gang quickly split. When a officer comes in Arnold aims the gun at him and pulls the trigger but it purposely had no bullets. "On your feet Arnold," says the police. "We have some good news for you." He then realizes that the police are not there to arrest him but to reward him because he was inherited a large fortune by his deceased uncle.
When the town discovers this everyone throws a large celebration for him; including Gerard and Marie. Gerard's gang is outside the party throwing firecrackers near Balthazar and frightening him when they go off. Marie's mother stops by to confront Marie because she has been gone from the home for some time, now officially dating Gerard. "I wanted to know what you were up to," her mother says. Marie's mother asks Marie, "what do you see in that boy?" Marie says to her mother, "I love him. Do we know why we love someone? If he says come, I come. Do this, I do it. I'd follow him anywhere. If he'd ask me to kill myself, I'd kill myself for him."
"Jerk! Moron! Leech!" Gerard purposely exploits Arnold's new found fortune by having him get extremely drunk and then Gerard purposely damages the bar knowing Arnold now has the money to pay for the damage. Marie's mother tells Marie, "Your father's suffering. He only lives for us. The grief will kill him." Marie says, "He loves his misery more than us. He thrives on it." Marie's mother asks her to come back home or they will take her by force. Marie runs back inside to Gerard and says, "Save me. Let's leave. Take me far away." Gerard pulls Marie away and cruelly dances with another woman.
When he gets Arnold drunk enough to the point of Arnold passing out, him and his friends coldly put him on Balthazar and says, "Hurray for Arnold!" Gerard kicks Balthazar to make him go faster as Balthazar rides Arnold off home as a drunk Arnold says to Balthazar, "Farewell, my poor dear friend. Doomed to spend all your days watching the same fools go by." It unfortunately ends tragically for Arnold, when Arnold falls off Balthazar drunk and cracks his head on the pavement and dies.
After Arnold's death Balthazar is back on the market and is bought by a rich merchant who is a bitter hermit in the town and who is also a good friend of Marie's father. He cruelly whips Balthazar during grueling jobs, mostly having him rotating the pumping of his well to have him produce drinking water. When the merchant is told that Balthazar needs proper harnesses because of him getting severe sores the merchant ignores it and says, "No need. I'll do him in when the rains come."
One rainy night Marie knocks on his door and asks if she can come in out of the rain. The merchant says, "Shame on you! Go home to your father! He had a position in society. You've disgraced him." Marie begs for him to give her a place to sleep telling him that she ran away from her father and has had enough with Gerard and his gang. Marie says, "If you want...I'll give you a kiss." The merchant tells her to dry off and come inside, making sure no one sees her come in. He wraps Marie up in dry blankets and she says "It's ugly here. This is no place to die in. With no regrets." The merchant says, "Who mentioned dying?" When Marie asks what the hermit believes in he says, "I believe in what I own. I love money. I hate death." Marie asks to eat something, all the while slapping away the merchant's prying hands. Marie knows that the rich merchant stores gold coins away and the merchant offers her some money. Marie tells the hermit that her father gave the creditors his last cent and the family now has nothing. "Not even the house and yard are ours," she says.
The hermit says, "that's what happens when you place honor above everything. He's spent his life creating obligations for himself. What for? No one in ten believes he's innocent. Do I have any obligations? I'm free, obliged only to do what serves my interests, and can bring me a profit...and a handsome profit at that. Life's nothing but a fairground, a marketplace where even your word is unnecessary. A bank note will do. Paying people frees you from any obligations. Better still, get them to work for nothing. Not everyone sees things my way. You quickly learn you can do as you like and still command respect. It just takes nerve and flair." Marie returns the money she gave him and tells him, "It's not money I need but a friend. A friend who can tell me how to run away. I've always wanted to. A friend to share my pleasures and pain." That evening the two of them have sex and she eventually leaves that morning. When Marie's parents an hour later stop by the hermit happily offers them Balthazar for Marie saying, "Take her. It'll make Marie happy."
Later on that next day Marie returns home and later when out with Jacques; they sit together with Balthazar on the bench that he initialed their names on when very young. Jacques tells Marie that his father wants to return what her father lost in the suit, but his pride wont accept it. "He's retreated into his pride. He takes pride in his suffering," Marie says. Marie then says, "Oh, Jacques, how I've dreamed about you, a boy like you. Honesty, be silly who'd say, 'Be mine.' It's not your fault. But what an awakening! Enough to drive you mad. But you know everything now. You still want to marry me? You'll be ashamed of me later. You'll never blame me for any of this? A commitment for life? But, Jacques, marriage, it's out of date."
Jacques says yes, and even though they will be poor he will work hard for her. Marie turns to him and responds coldly by saying, "you bore me. You see our names carved on this bench, our games with Balthazar. But I don't see a thing. I've no more tenderness, no heart. No feelings. Your words don't affect me anymore. Our vows of love, our childhood promises, were in a world of make-believe. Not reality. Reality is different." Marie gets up and leaves.
Marie decides later on to confront Gerard, ending their relationship, and when Jacques offers to come along, she tells "I want to have it out with him" She meets up with Gerard in an abandoned house. One shot of her is walking in, and the next shot is sometime later where Gerard and his friends are running out throwing her torn clothes into the air. Marie is later found stripped, beaten and locked in the abandoned home by Jacques and her father, after she was gang-raped by Gerard and his friends.
(Like the fate of most of Bresson's character's Marie's fate is left ambiguous.) Jacques drops by to see Marie, and her mother states, "Marie's gone. She'll never come back." Marie either ran away from home, died from Gerard's attack or committed suicide. (I believe she ran away.)
Because of his daughter running away her father is in despair and is dying while a priest comes to comfort him asking him to forgive everyone but Marie's father turns away and rejects the priests words. Marie's mother sits outside and prays to God saying, "Lord, don't take him from me, too. You know how sad and miserable my life will be." The next scene is her walking into her husbands bedroom finding out that he has now died.
Now a widow and mourning her husbands death, Gerard and his gang come by and ask if they can lend Balthazar for a smuggling operation. Marie's mother says, "He's old. He's all I have. Besides...he's a saint." After the father's funeral, Gerard and his gang sneak by the farm in the middle of the night and snatch Balthazar. Gerard and his friends lead Balthazar on private land but once the gang begins to here gunfire they take off and leave Balthazar. Balthazar is shot and is now slowly bleeding to death.
He then wanders into a meadow where a large herd of sheep are passing. You eventually see Balthazar collapse and in near death, as the sheep all wander up around him. The next shot is Balthazar who has finally died laying lifelessly in the field, with the sheep coming up and nuzzling against him, taking little notice. This last shot of the film has Balthazar resting lifelessly in the meadow now away from the horrible and harsh world that was tragically brought upon him.
After making A Man Escaped and his theory of 'pure cinematography' director Robert Bresson wanted to move onto a different style of film-making. Au Hasard Balthazar was originally inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Idiot and each episode in Balthazar's life represents one of the seven deadly sins. Bresson later stated that the film was "made up of many lines that intersect one another" and that Balthazar was meant to be a symbol of Christian faith as Bresson produced the film with help from the Swedish Film Institute. According to Wiazemsky's 2007 novel Jeune Fille, she and Bresson developed a close relationship during the shooting of Au Hasard Balthazar, although it was not consummated. On location they stayed in adjoining rooms and Wiazemsky says "at first, he would content himself by holding my arm, or stroking my cheek. But then came the disagreeable moment when he would try to kiss me ... I would push him away and he wouldn't insist, but he looked so unhappy that I always felt guilty." Later Wiazemsky lost her virginity to a member of the film's crew, which she says gave her the courage to reject Bresson as a lover.
Godard’s famous claim that Au hasard Balthazar is “the world in an hour and a half” suggests how dense, how immense Bresson’s brief, elliptical tale about the life and death of a donkey is. The film’s steady accumulation of incident, characters, mystery, and social detail, its implicative use of sound, offscreen space, and editing, have the miraculous effect of turning the director’s vaunted austerity into endless plenitude, which is perhaps the central paradox of Bresson’s cinema. So concentrated and oblique is Balthazar, it achieves the density, to extend Godard’s metaphor just a little, of an imploded nova.
Bresson’s twin masterpieces of the mid-sixties, Au hasard Balthazar and Mouchette—his last films in black and white—are rural dramas in which the eponymous innocents, a donkey and a girl, suffer a series of assaults and mortifications and then die. With their exquisite renderings of pain and abasement, the films are compendiums of cruelty, whose endings have commonly been interpreted as moments of transfiguration, indicating absolution for a humanity that has been emphatically shown to be not merely fallen but vile. Both “protagonists” expire in nature, one on a hillside, the other in a pond, their deaths accompanied by music of great sublimity: a fragment of Schubert’s Piano Sonata no. 20 and a passage from Monteverdi’s Vespers, respectively. (That these contravene Bresson’s own edict against the use of music as “accompaniment, support, or reinforcement” is significant; he later regretted the rather sentimental employment of the Schubert in Balthazar, and the film without it would be significantly bleaker in effect.) The representation of both deaths is ambiguous. The sacred music in Mouchette (Monteverdi’s “Magnificat,” with its intimations of the Annunciation), Mouchette’s three attempts to “fall” before succeeding, and the held image of the bubbles on the water that has received her body imply to many a divine, even ecstatic deliverance (and a perhaps heretical consecration of suicide). Similarly, Balthazar’s death, accompanied by the secular, albeit exalted, Schubert, as he is surrounded by sheep, suggests to several critics a glorious return to the eternal, a revelation of the divine.
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,” and on the film’s many references to Dostoyevsky—especially The Idiot—ascribes to the animal a Christlike status. In this schema, Balthazar, after enjoying a brief, paradisial childhood, apparent in the image of his nuzzling his mother’s milk that opens the film and in 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 slowly 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 and thereby the liturgy, “Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.” 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.
The 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 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.
But Bresson’s art never proceeded by strict or simple analogy—he is no C. S. Lewis, no Christian allegorist—and he always resisted such a reductive reading of Balthazar. While the name “Balthazar” alludes to that of the third magus and thereby to the birth of Christ, for instance, one wonders if Bresson, who began as a painter and was inspired by Chardin, among other artists, also had in mind the art historical references conjured by the name: Balthazar appears in several Adoration of the Magi paintings, by Dürer, Mantegna, Leonardo, et al., often portrayed as the African or Ethiopian king, following medieval custom. And just as the pale, sculpted face of Marie’s father reminds one of a Bellini doge, her garland of flowers, which returns as an ornamental spray on Balthazar’s harness in the circus sequence, certainly also suggests the feathered or jeweled turban of the third magus that was a common index of his “exotic” origins in these paintings.
A transcendental reading of the film also ignores the pessimism of Bresson’s vision—what he preferred to characterize as lucidity—which was to intensify in his subsequent films. Indeed, one is reminded more than once of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s acidulous Le Corbeau in Bresson’s insistence on the iniquity and malice of French provincial life, in particular with the anonymous letters sent to condemn Marie’s father. Resolutely turning away from the spiritual or metaphysical subjects of his previous films—the belief that “all is grace” in Diary of a Country Priest or that the hand of God guides humanity to its predestined fate in A Man Escaped—Bresson here begins the trajectory to the materialist world of his last film, L’Argent (in which Yvon Targe’s cellmate, echoing Marx, calls money “le dieu visible”). In Balthazar, little is numinous. We are placed in a hard, corporeal world of rucked, muddy fields and of things and objects, some of them signifiers of a modernity Bresson finds wanting: cars, carts, coins, benches, guns, tools, booze, jukeboxes, telegraph poles, deathbeds, transistor radios, and—especially—official documents (police summonses, audits, wills, orders of sale) and instruments of control and incarceration (harnesses, bridles, chains, muzzles). The latter manifest the film’s theme of liberty and freedom, of Balthazar’s and Marie’s parallel captivities. She, too, passes from master to master (her father; Gérard, into whose subjugation she willingly enters; and Jacques, the childhood sweetheart who sustains an ideal image rather than any real sense of her), but there is no release from her suffering. She simply disappears near the end of the film, one infers into a universe of servitude.
The elliptical, sometimes clipped rhythm of Bresson’s editing, the physicality of his sound world (the skidding cars, Balthazar’s braying, the clanking chains with which Gérard is repeatedly associated), and his fragmentation of bodies through truncated framing—the focus on torsos, legs, and hands, in particular—amplify this sense of materiality. Money and its equivalents (bread, land, contraband) are insistently shown, alluded to, and invoked, especially in the grain dealer’s speech about loving money and hating death. This avaricious miller is played by writer Pierre Klossowski, expert on de Sade and older brother of the painter Balthus, and he briefly takes the film into Buñuel territory as he surveys the shivering Marie, who swats his hand away from her neck and hungrily spoons compote from a jar. He offers her a wad of francs for sex, fulfilling the command of the young man who danced with her at Arnold’s party: “If you want her, pay!” In this monetary setting, Balthazar’s circuitous journey to death suggests less a traversal of the stations of the cross than an exchange of value, like the passing of the false note in L’Argent. His transit from hand to hand does not unleash “an avalanche of evil” as the trading does in the latter film, but just as determinedly reveals a world of moral and physical barbarity.
Using a rhetoric of reversal, in which a prayer or promise or characteristic is bluntly contradicted, sometimes within just one edit (a cut or dissolve), Bresson repeatedly depicts religion, or at least the church, as false, ineffectual. The casual criminal acts of Gérard, which Gilles Jacob says “introduce a satanic element” in the early sequences—slicking a highway with oil so that cars spin out of control and crash—are immediately followed by a sequence in which Gérard sings angelically at church, inciting Marie’s enthrallment with his beatific evil. Arnold cries to Christ, the Virgin, and all the saints that he will never drink again but within a quick edit is once more slugging back the booze. And as Marie’s father lies dying from grief at the end, a priest tells him, “There must be forgiveness for all. You’ll be forgiven because you have suffered.” The ailing man turns his body away from the priest and the latter reads from the Bible: “He may punish, yet he will have compassion. For he does not willingly afflict the children of men.” Even as we wonder what compassion we have witnessed in the film, aside from Marie’s tender ministrations toward Balthazar—the dubious kindness of the baker’s wife toward Gérard, perhaps?—Bresson all but ridicules the priest’s teachings. Outside, the dying man’s wife prays: “Lord, don’t take him from me too. Wait. You know how sad and miserable my life will be.” The priest’s hand beckons her through the window. She goes in. Her husband is dead.
The mourning wife tells Gérard, who wants to borrow the donkey for a smuggling operation, that Balthazar is “a saint,” much, one assumes, as Bresson’s gaunt, alcoholic country priest had become a saint, through his ceaseless suffering. In his famous essay on Diary of a Country Priest, André Bazin notes “the analogies with Christ that abound toward the end of the film.” A transcendental reading of Balthazar relies on a similar proliferation of signs: the donkey’s death, serene and glorious, sanctified by the Schubert andantino; the sheep and their pealing bells; his physical burden and spurting wound; and the silence that engulfs him before the screen fades to black. But Bresson’s lucidity sees the death differently, as the prolonged expiry of an old, abused animal, too wounded to bray, too exhausted to do anything but collapse to the earth, his value depleted.
Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar is so extraordinary because Bresson displays in this film the closest thing we can come to trying to know what an animal is thinking. (It is most obvious in the circus sequence when Balthazar is being taken in back and the audience watches Balthazar's eyes look at a lion, a polar bear, a chimpanzee and an elephant, who are also looking at him confined in their cages.) Maybe Balthazar isn't thinking anything, but the genius of Bresson's technique is that he never singles out a seen showing the donkey's expression that could be described as a 'reaction shot.' Au Hasard Balthazar is not a Disney movie where cartoons sing and dance, make emotions and show facial expressions. Bresson shows Balthazar as an animal who regards everything with the simple ignorant clarity of a donkey who knows simple pleasures of eating or drinking, or feeling or not feeling pain. Bresson portrays him as a donkey, plain and simple. The only exception is hearing his bray which is usually when he is in pain and unfortunately is the only sound this beast can make in this harsh world that he embodies. There are no exaggeration shots to make the audience feel more sympathy for the animal then they already do, because if Bresson did that Balthazar would be a cartoon character. All Balthazar knows is that he's a burden to life and that things are equally beyond his control. Even though there is no way Bresson can portray what Balthazar is thinking that doesn't stop us as an audience for supplying them and we feel sympathy with all the experiences the donkey goes through throughout this film.
Bresson's spiritual purpose in most of his films is that he has the audience go to the character's and learn to inhabit them, instead of passively letting them come to us. For the general audiences to do that is extremely difficult but when mentally challenged to invest yourself in the film can be in the end much more intellectually and emotionally rewarding. What's sad is that in most mainstream movies, everything is done for us and it makes it easy for the audience to not have to invest any work towards the picture or the characters within the story. Most movies are cued on when to manipulate the audiences emotions and let them know when it is OK to cry or OK to laugh, because most movies treat audiences unintelligently. You know how many times I've watched a movie and when a scene that is attended to be funny occurs, everyone laughs or when there's a scene that's attended to be sad with the right melodramatic music everyone knew when to tear up. Alfred Hitchcock called these kind of movies 'a machine for causing emotions' in the audience. Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, Carl Dreyer, Andrei Tarkovsky and even Yasujirô Ozu's approach is much different. They ask us to be patient as an audience and to take in the most we can from the characters and the story and at the end of it we arrive at our own conclusions on what we think. This is the cinema of empathy, which unfortunately isn't done very often because it's a more subtle artful approach to film making.
The biggest controversy with Bresson is how he trains his actors because he actually doesn't train them at all. Bresson was known to cast nonprofessional actors and use their inexperience to create a specific type of realism in his films. He was known for creating the 'actor-model' technique and considered his actors less as actors and more as dolls. He forbids his actors to act or show much emotion. He was known to shoot the same shot 10, 20, or even 50 times, until all acting was drained from the characters faces, and eventually the actors were simply performing the physical actions and speaking the words. Much has been written about with Bresson's rejection of actors, which remains, for many, an obstacle to enjoying his films. Bresson most famously didn't like to shoot character's faces as much as shooting the character's fragmentation of their body parts through his framing; for which he focused on legs, torsos and hands which give the film a more naturalistic power. Bresson believed that actors, indeed acting itself, were alien to the medium of film, because the camera could detect the slightest sign of artificiality and calculation. This conviction not only proscribed the use of professional actors given to a familiar repertoire of facial expressions, physical gestures, and vocal inflections, it also ruled out the kind of nonprofessionals found, for example in Italian neorealism films, which were very popular at the time, who were encouraged to exude emotions and sentiments in order to emotionally move the viewer.
Bresson's refusal to agree to a cinema dominated by the actor affected the overall look, structure, and tone of his films. Rather than grounding them in performances and dramatic scenes Bresson shifted the emphasis to the inherent aspects of the medium: the framing, duration, and editing of shots, and the use of sound and off-screen space. These were the features that determined the rhythm of a film's movement toward its goal. In other words, for Bresson, the word performance did not refer to something that actors did but something the entire organic structure of a film did. In referring to his métier, therefore, he chose the word 'cinematography' over cinema, because the latter was associated with the more traditional form of dramatic filmmaking.
This doesn't mean that Bresson was indifferent to his characters or the people who played them. It is more a matter of how he chose the latter. He sought people for their transparent innocence, their virginal presence before the camera, and the unstudied nature of their physical gestures. These qualities rendered them as pliable as framing, lighting, and camera angles. As such, they were not actors at all, said Bresson, but 'models,' whose faces, hands, voices, and body language could be carefully fashioned, molded to fit the contours and audiovisual dynamic structure of each film. This approach, powerfully introduced a new kind of narrative filmmaking, which was soon labeled as 'Bressonian,"and was a style adopted by many European filmmakers in subsequent decades. The economy, purity, and rigor of Bresson's aesthetic are directly related to his vision of the world, a complex perspective that carefully balances a belief in free will against the notion of preexistent design.
Anne Wiazemsky who played Marie in the film said in her 2007 novel Jeune Fille, "It was not his intention to teach me how to be an actress. Almost against the grain, I felt the emotion the role provoked in me, and later, in other films, I learned how to use that emotion." Bresson most famously didn't like to shoot character's faces as much as shooting the character's fragmentation of their body parts through his framing; for which he focused on legs, torsos and hands which give the film a more naturalistic power.
A lot of people have criticised Bresson's style of acting in his films and said his films are filled with emotionless zombies, but I disagree. By simplifying the performance to just have them do the action and speak the words achieves a unique purity that make his films more powerful. Because of having actors not show much emotion, it makes us want to feel more about them, and we than have to decide for ourselves what these characters are thinking and feeling, which I believe leads to much stronger emotions for the audience because we are now forced to empathize. Critic Roger Ebert says, "Given this philosophy, a donkey becomes the perfect Bresson character. Balthazar makes no attempt to communicate his emotions to us because he's just an animal, and he communicates his physical feelings only in universal terms: Covered with snow, he is cold. His tail set afire, he is frightened. Eating his dinner, he is content. Overworked, he is exhausted. Returning home, he is relieved to find a familiar place. Although some humans are kind to him and others are cruel, the motives of humans are beyond his understanding, and he accepts what they do because he must."
Au Hasard Balthazar's two parallel stories about emotional and physical abuse of a young woman and an innocent animal are very similar. The only difference is Marie lets herself be controlled, let's herself be treated cruelly and lets it happen with her own free will. Balthazar has no choice or free will and hasn't had a choice in anything since he was brought into this world. What we see through Balthazar's eyes is a town filled with sad, flawed, weak people, in a world where goodness is not common and cruelty comes easily. This is not a sentimental picture and Marie is not a character you really feel pity for. She is a naïve young girl who openly rejects the sincere Jacques when he returns as a young man, to say he still loves her. For somewhat reason she prefers Gerard, who controls, mistreats and physically abuses her; and yet she still feels love for him.
Robert Bresson has created several masterpieces throughout his career, and many of the themes in his films seem to stem from his early Catholic background. One film titled Diary of a Country Priest told the story of a young Priest having to deal with the guilt of judging others and himself being judged in a small town, Pickpocket is about an isolated man who is a professional pickpocket thief, A Man Escaped is about a French Resistance activist who is imprisoned by the Nazis, Mouchette is about a young girl and her struggles with adolescent life which is very similar to Marie's character in this film and can be considered a sort of companion piece, and his final masterpiece L' argent, is a story about the evils of money and greed. And yet I believe Au Hasard Balthazar to be his best film and the one that contains most of his religious symbolism. For instance, Balthazar passes from seven masters which suggests a numerical trace of the seven words of the cross, the seven sacraments of the church, or the seven deadly sins. The garland of flowers Marie makes for Balthazar is reminiscent of Christ's crown of thorns. The mock baptism performed by the children in the beginning of the film and the ringing of Balthazar's church bells which symbolizes Balthazar's divinity. Recurring themes that Bresson uses in his films include salvation, redemption, defining and revealing of the human soul. It seems that every basic character in the story ends up tragically. Arnold eventually drinks himself to death as he falls off riding Balthazar, the rich merchant is left to die alone and miserable with his money, Marie's father dies from grief because of his daughter running away. Marie's mother after her husband's death now becomes a widow. And Marie and Balthazar both die with Marie dying spiritually and Balthazar dying physically for our sins; which resembles the death of Christ. Ironically the cruel Gerard is the only one who isn't a victim in this bleak story even though most of us would like him to be. I think I understand what Bresson is trying to get at with Au Hasard Balthazar; he is saying 'we are all like Balthazar' in several ways. The only difference is that we as humans have the intelligence to choose what we make of ourselves and our lives, where the donkey does not. Everything that had happened to Marie was because of her choices, and I think we as humans, as intelligent as we are, are as stupid and weak as Balthazar. Arnold swears to God he will stop drinking, but in the next scene it shows him drinking. Marie's father says he is not a thief, but he is too stubborn to show any proof to everyone that he isn't. Marie knows the violence and cruelty of Gerard, yet she stays with him and believes she loves him. Maybe as humans we are not as bright as we think we are, because when it all comes down to simple human nature we are all like Balthazar: victims of a cruel and mean-spirited world. Au Hasard Balthazar is believed by many to be Bresson's best film as critic Andrew Sarris, says, “No film I have ever seen has come so close to convulsing my entire being ... It stands by itself as one of the loftiest pinnacles of artistically realized emotional experience." The film's religious imagery, spiritual allegories and naturalistic, minimalist aesthetic style have been unanimously praised by film reviewers. According to James Quandt, this "brief, elliptical tale about the life and death of a donkey has exquisite renderings of pain and abasement and compendiums of cruelty that tell a powerful spiritual message." Film critic Tom Milne called it "perhaps Bresson's greatest film to date, certainly his most complex." The final tragic conclusion to Au Hasard Balthazar is one of the most heartbreaking endings in cinematic history. Balthazar is shot after being led on private property by Gerard and his friends and is now slowly bleeding to death. He then wanders into a meadow where a large herd of sheep are passing. You eventually see Balthazar collapse and in near death, the sheep all wander up around him. The next shot is Balthazar who has finally died laying lifelessly in the field, with the sheep coming up and nuzzling against him, taking little notice. This last shot of the film always has me shed a tear, as you see Balthazar finally resting in peace alone in the meadow now away from the horrible and harsh world that was brought upon him. Legendary critic Roger Ebert perfectly sums up what Bresson may be suggesting in this brilliant last shot: "Although the church teaches us that only humans can enter into heaven, surely there is a place at God's side for all of his creatures."