Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

Directed by Robert Bresson


Anytime I write about a Robert Bresson film I feel the need to talk about Bresson’s mannequin-like actors, so I’ll just get it out of the way now because it’s important to reiterate what to expect from a Bresson film before analyzing it.  In his films, actors are stripped of emotion.  They are essentially robots programmed to do various actions, and the lack of emotion allows the audience to read into the action as they like.  This creates a chilling effect as the characters are extremely hard to relate to.  They are unlike the world around us, but because they are such blank slates, we can’t help but attribute certain emotions to what they are doing, even as they offer us no clues.

So what you see in a Bresson movie, to some extent, is what you see in the world.  Granted, this doesn’t mean there are no arcs to his stories or no emotions in his characters, but it’s all told to us.  Characters may be in love, but they profess love in such a cold way that you wonder how that could possibly be true.  Maybe the point is to distance us from them and even to doubt them.  The result is at least that we look at these stories as if from above, with a certain omniscience like we are God watching our creation with a distinct lack of understanding of why they do the things they do.

That’s because so many characters in Bresson’s movies do bad things or have bad things happen to them.  They are greedy and/or desperate to survive (Pickpocket, L’ArgentA Man Escaped), or they can just barely tolerate the cruel world around them, as in this film and 1967’s Mouchette.

A Bresson film, like a Jacques Tati or Wes Anderson film, exists in its own world, but it very much comments on our own.  It’s like Bresson has a few broad takeaways about our ways of living and extrapolates those to become the entire world of his stories.

This, from Roger Ebert: “Bresson’s most intriguing limitation is to forbid his actors to act. He was known to shoot the same shot 10, 20, even 50 times, until all “acting” was drained from it, and the actors were simply performing the physical actions and speaking the words. There was no room in his cinema for De Niro or Penn. It might seem that the result would be a movie filled with zombies, but quite the contrary: By simplifying performance to the action and the word without permitting inflection or style, Bresson achieves a kind of purity that makes his movies remarkably emotional. The actors portray lives without informing us how to feel about them; forced to decide for ourselves how to feel, forced to empathize, we often have stronger feelings than if the actors were feeling them for us.”

In Au Hasard Balthazar, we watch the mistreatment of a donkey named Balthazar and a young woman named Marie.  Their stories briefly run together, but the movie follows their journeys even as they go their own ways.  This juxtaposition forces us to consider that their fates may be tied, even if just symbolically.

Marie starts as a young girl who is in love with a young boy named Jacques.  This affection mirrors the affection by the two for the young donkey.  Soon the three are off on their own, and Marie spends most of the story in an abusive relationship with a boy named Gerard who alternates between too much and too dismissive.  Marie accepts this mistreatment, like the titular character in Bresson’s next film, either because she chooses to overlook it or because she mistakes it for love.  In one moment she says to another that she would do anything for Gerard, even die for him.  Her version of love is nothing but loyalty.

At the same time, we witness Gerard abuse the donkey, even beating him in front of Marie.  Perhaps Marie identifies the donkey as a kindred spirit, explaining why she never stands up for him.  When Gerard and his gang of greaser-like friends beat the donkey, it’s not hard to imagine that Marie thinks of herself as that same donkey.

Because of Bresson’s emotionless characters, the donkey becomes just as emotive as Marie.  The camera often remains static on her blank expression just as it remains static on the donkey’s face.  By taking away so much from the actor’s performance, Bresson is able to link both person and animal, putting them on the same level.

I suppose an animal might be the best performer for a Bresson movie.  The donkey just walks this way and that or stands still, and that’s it.  Outside of an actual mannequin or those large, inflatable tube men at car dealerships, this donkey might as well be to Bresson what De Niro was to Scorsese.

Eventually Marie leaves Gerard, and eventually the donkey finds himself in a circus, then in the hands of a murderer and finally, well all I remember is that he dies in a field surrounded by sheep.

Marie reunites with Jacques who maintains that he still loves her even after all these years.  Marie’s response is to say that such love was from a simpler time when they didn’t live in the real world, and now that they do, his affection for her is like a currency from a country that no longer exists.  Marie leaves Jacques, and then we watch as Balthazar is shot by a stray bullet and then slowly lies down to die in a field.  Fin.

This film is very similar in nature to Bresson’s next film, Mouchette.  That story follows a young girl, Mouchette (transated to “little fly), as life just keeps kicking her when she’s down.  It ends with her rolling into a lake and apparently drowning.  Bresson said about that film that Mouchette’s sadness can be seen everywhere around them, referencing the Holocaust in his description.

Au Hasard Balthazar is straight from that same worldview.  It’s Werner Herzog-like, a story of an innocent made to feel nothing but pain from the world around them.  Like Mouchette, Marie gets to a point where she mistakes such cruelty as love, so accustomed to this mistreatment that she thinks she deserves or even needs it.

Now that I mention it, I suppose that Marie does stand up for herself in the end, at least for a brief moment.  She leaves Gerard and demonstrates a hardened persona, shaped by this cruel world, to Jacques, a boy who seems as though he hasn’t aged a day since she last saw him.

When thinking about this film, two other movies come to mind: 2011’s War Horse (Steven Spielberg) and 2016’s Wiener-Dog (Todd Solondz).  The latter is not unlike Au Hasard Balthazar, though the Spielberg movie has little in common with this one.

Whereas War Horse sought to make the horse a character, brave and majestic, this movie and the Solondz dark comedy emphasize that there is nothing special about this animal.  In Wiener-Dog, in fact, the dog barely factored into each of the four vignettes that made up the story.  The dog was just passed along by a baton, and the ending (in which the dog is unceremoniously run over) is meant to draw a reaction from the audience that the director can be sure was not evoked by the grim fates of any of the other characters).

Au Hasard Balthazar embraces this idea of animal as a blank canvas.  We love animals, for the most part, and in movies they reflect a certain purity of spirit.  In this film, the donkey is the recipient of great affection, mostly from children, and great cruelty, mostly from Gerard.  The way these characters treat the animal is an immediate, clear depiction of who they really are at their core.

Bresson, in his unceremonious and unsentimental style of filmmaking, worked to derive meaning from the simplest tools, the juxtaposition of shots and the characters’ blocking.  An animal, in this case, is like a short cut.  He shows a silent donkey and an expressionless kid.  The kid hits the donkey, and boom, we don’t like that kid.

The donkey, then, is hardly a character, and the film doesn’t pretend that there is anything special about him.  He is born, he lives, and he dies, and that’s it.  It’s an unspectacular life, and the meaning comes from how those around him treat him.

The emphasis, then, is very much on the world around us.  We all might as well be the donkey, right?  I mean, he’s saying something about how we make our ways through the world and how we can expect a certain amount of affection but also a certain amount of poor treatment.  The world is an uncaring place, and you just live to survive.  Perhaps that’s too negative, but nothing in Marie’s story seems to undercut this idea.  She lives, barely scraping by, until she accepts that the world is out to get her.  When she comes across an older man who isn’t shy about making a pass at her, she quickly slaps away his advances and keeps eating.  She understands the way the world works now and even anticipates the mistreatment.

Up Next: The Rock (1996), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)

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