Au Hasard Balthasar (1966)

Au Hasard Balthasar (1966)

Bresson uses an animal to make a powerful spiritual point in a simple but insightful movie

Director: Robert Bresson

Cast: Anne Wiazemsky (Marie), Walter Green (Jacques), François Lafarge (Gérard), Philippe Asselin (Marie’s father), Nathalie Joyaut (Marie’s mother), Jean-Claude Guilbert (Arnold), Pierre Klossowski (Miller), Jean-Joel Barbier (Priest), François Sullerot (Baker), Marie-Claire Fremont (Baker’s wife)

Robert Bresson valued naturalism in his actors above all things. So much so he would make them rehearse even the simplest actions hundreds of times, to drain all artificiality and performance from it and make it as ‘real’ and controlled as possible. He worked best with non-professional actors, whose lack of training meant there was one less barrier of artifice for him to break down. So, its perhaps not a surprise that one of his best collaborators, in one of his finest films, was such a non-professional he wasn’t even human. He was a donkey.

Au Hasard Balthasar (or Balthasar, at random) also throws in Bresson’s other great strength: a profound, but not overbearing, spirituality, a mark of Christian faith that turned simple stories told on an intimate scale into searching and intriguing metaphors for the human condition. He achieves something quite remarkable here, with a film that places a donkey near its centre but then becomes a meditation on the human condition and our capacity for cruelty and selfishness. And the donkey himself becomes a passive, Christ like figure, undergoing his very own passion on the way to his own Calvary where he will literally die because of – and maybe for – our sins.

Balthasar’s life is one of seemingly random, disconnected movements from one owner to another, all of whose lives loosely entwine. First, the kindly Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) who, as a child, adopts Balthasar and brings him into her home. This blissful life lasts a short time before the donkey is palmed off to farmhands then a baker whose delivery boy Gérard (François Lafarge) is a tearaway and criminal. Gérard treats the animal poorly – largely because he envies Marie’s love for it. They enter into an abusive relationship, while Balthasar is taken on by alcoholic Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert) who uses him to guide tourists up the Pyrenees. Balthasar works as a circus animal and a beast of exhausting labour for a miller, while in the background the threat of Gérard and his malign influence on Anne and his abuse of Balthasar lurk.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Au Hasard Balthasar is how readily Bresson embraces the nature of the donkey. Balthasar is never anything other than a dumb animal. He has no insight into what is happening around him. Instead, he stands passively chewing. He only rarely seems to recognise and respond to people. Events happen to and around him, but there is no attempt to show them having any impact on him. He is – and remains – simply a donkey, incapable of anything other than what a donkey can do. Bresson allows not a second of anthropomorphism. Babe this isn’t.

Instead, what happens to this donkey tells us more about the humans he encounters around him. This gives us a stunning insight into humanity and how we treat those below us. To most the donkey is not a person or even a creature, it is just a tool. As the miller says, it will be worked until it can work no more and then it will be euthanised. Gérard sees it as a petty scab to pick, a chance for a bit of casual sadistic fun, tying fire-crackers to its tail and watching its distress. The closest to a companion he has, outside of Marie, is Arnold – and even Arnold works him incessantly and drags him back to servitude from a brief release at the circus.

What Bresson does with this, is invest this donkey’s story with immense spiritual impact. The events that happen to Balthasar parallel the stages of the cross, moments of tenderness from strangers and friends mixed with labours dragging his own cross and the mockery of those who watch him. He’s met with indifference and disregard so many times, that his suffering eventually seems to be providing some sort of chance of retribution for the deeply flawed characters around him, that by treating him well the might save their own souls. Instead, Gérard will drag him over the border carrying smuggled goods and he will, uncomplainingly, suffer the punishment for him.

We can but hope that it is to give Gérard a second chance. But I doubt it. Bresson’s impact with his actors, beating the ‘acting’ out of them gives them a flat naturalness – but also allows us to layer our own feelings on top of them. Gérard is a choir boy with an angelic voice – but he’s also a selfish sadomasochist and a bully, charismatic but naturally cruel. Nevertheless, he has a demonic charm. The baker’s wife willingly covers him his theft and showers him with gifts.

And of course, Marie is drawn towards him with self-destructive yearning. She should love her childhood friend Jacques, but he’s a dull, uninspiring, sap. Gérard is rough, tough, wears a leather jacket and can sing like an angel and (you imagine) cuss like a demon. Their first encounter sees Marie torn between fear, fascination and attraction, as a roadside encounter leads to a sexual encounter in a car that has the whiff of lack of consent. Despite this, Marie returns again and again to Gérard, throwing away parts of her life and family to hang on his arm.

It’s only Balthasar it seems she can connect with. Perhaps because they are both sacrificial figures. Marie’s father loses his farm due to pride and stubbornness. She devotes herself to a bad man and rejects the one who idealises an idea of her. Marie’s motives defy logic to us – but maybe this is because she is closest to the donkey and, like him, content (condemned?) to lead a life where she is buffeted by events and people rather than controlling them.

Bresson plays this all out with a quiet, unfussy, contained camera, playing shots out in controlled takes and carefully selecting moments to cut to Balthasar. He avoids moral judgements but presents actions as they are. After all, shouldn’t a miller work a donkey hard? Shouldn’t a baker need him to walk miles? Don’t we go to the circus or zoo all the time and not think about the animals performing for us? Things are presented as they are and we are not pushed towards one view or another.

Except at the end as Balthasar makes his final sacrifice, lying down on his personal Calvary as Schubert plays on the soundtrack (the film’s only real sustained use of music). Quietly, life drains from this animal as sheep flock around him as if to pay tribute. It’s profoundly simple but somehow intensely moving – as if the pointless culmination of this life somehow sees the donkey transcend into something higher and more meaningful, and eternal symbol of virtue and sacrifice.

It’s what makes Au Hasard Balthasar linger in the memory. Bresson’s signature simpleness and restraint, his deliberate, observatory distance from characters and events leave it open to us to interpret what we will. Maybe it’s just a story about a dumb animal. Maybe it’s a story about all of us, about how we exploit things around us and how we treat each other with selfishness and greed. Eventually Bresson leaves it up to us to decide what we can take from it.

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