Au Hasard Balthazar, by French auteur Robert Bresson, is an austere, scathingly honest film, beautifully simple and full of meaning at the same time. The film is, in many ways, a study of human cruelty and indifference on every level. It’s a very depressing and pessimistic (or as Bresson would say, lucid) view of mankind. And yet there’s something transcendent and very nearly hopeful about the film–about the fact that somebody made an empathetic film about a donkey, about the chance to look at our world from a different perspective, and about the great beauty of the film itself.
Aside from all of this, beneath all of this, Au Hasard Balthazar is the life story of a donkey. The film begins with a ringing of bells, and with Balthazar as a foal, suckling from his mother on a beautiful hillside on a beautiful day. He’s given to some children as a pet, and they seem to love him. The next shot shows him many years later, as an adult, surrounded by a group of men who beat him brutally. And so the film goes, Balthazar passes from owner to owner, some are crueler and more abusive than others, but none of them are kind, none of them care about the donkey. His happiest home is probably with Marie (played by Jean-Luc Godard’s second wife, and future star of La Chinoise, Anna Wiazemsky). But her story of abuse is parallel to the donkey’s. At some level, as a human, she is allowed to make regrettable choices, and the donkey is not even allowed that privilege. Though she is gentle with him, she doesn’t defend him, and we are left to wonder if a lifetime of abuse weakens a human to the extent that they have no choices, no voice, no power.
The film is relentlessly, exquisitely sad, but it is not manipulatively so. Bresson had a passion for developing a cinematic language separate from theater, and he used that language as one of the great poets of cinema–sparingly, perfectly. Each element, though presented with great simpleness, is suggestive and evocative of a world of meaning. He was determined not to elicit emotion or sympathy using any of the tricks of theater–there is nothing sentimental or maudlin about his films. He uses almost no non-diegetic music, he relishes the noise that the world makes: footsteps, gates closing, the braying of the donkey. And he treats his actors as models, who perform movements and say lines, but who do not ham it up, or try to convey emotions they don’t feel in order to provoke those emotions in others. This means that as viewers our response to the film is sincere. Any sympathy or empathy that we feel for Balthazar, or for Marie, or any of the other characters is a natural and true response. This is a frighteningly powerful technique.
Much has been written about the possible meanings of the film, and in particular about its function as a religious parable. In this light, it does seem packed with symbolism: Balthazar has seven owners who could represent the seven deadly sins, the seven stations of the cross; he endures great suffering and is called a saint; the film is bathed in images of wine and bread, and in beautiful shots of hands. Ultimately, the bread and the wine don’t feel like religious imagery, they feel very human. And the beautiful disembodied shots of hands, which could be from paintings of saints, are living human hands, reaching to one another with kindness or cruelty or grace. These symbols remind us that religion addresses our very human needs and frailties, and the religion portrayed in Au Hasard Balthazar is not one that teaches kindness.
At the end of the film, the wounded donkey is surrounded by sheep, they stream around him like a river, showing him the first real compassion and kindness that he’s experienced in the film. You feel such love for the donkey and for the sheep, who have found something that all the humans in the film have missed, as we clutter their lives with boredom, pettiness, casual cruelty, and self-imposed misery. We tend to make everything hold meaning for us as humans, but what the sheep and the donkey know feels deeper than allegories and metaphors and stories humans need to tell ourselves: It feels fundamental and honest and beautiful, and the movie ends the way it began, with the ringing of warm bells.
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