France / Sweden, 1966
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 20 July 2005
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Features: Robert Bresson
The critical reception of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar has typically been hyperbolic. When it premiered at the 1966 New York Film Festival, critics collectively shrugged; elsewhere, Ingmar Bergman cattily called it “boring.” Since then, however, most critical appraisal of the film has flowed, even gushed, in the opposite direction: the film is a routine inclusion in lists of the best films of all time, and big words like “masterpiece,” “zenith,” and “transcendent” are continually appended to it. Even the member reviews at Netflix are largely favorable (though I note that one brave soul has idiosyncratically aligned the film’s moral content with that of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). In the face of all of this, trying to find new ways to sing the praises of Au Hasard Balthazar becomes a formidable and slightly boring task.
And yet all of this ebullient praise always seems to butt up against the sheer and stubborn surface of the film itself. Balthazar is such a concise and economical film that such ovations seem to be answered – like the majestic crescendo of the Schubert piano sonata that accompanies the opening credits – with the braying of an ass. Balthazar is a deft, impassioned, and wrenching film, but it is also — emphatically, absurdly — a film about a donkey. Indeed, it hardly pretends to be much more.
Of course, Balthazar the donkey is greeted with as much exaggeration as the film to which he lends his name. He is “antiquated” and “ridiculous” to some, to others a “saint,” “intelligence itself,” and “one of the greatest minds of the 20th century.” In following Balthazar from birth to death, the film tells the story of the donkey’s successive, sometimes repeating owners and the many uses they put him to: mystical symbolism, circus hucksterism, cruel amusement, and (more conventionally) backbreaking labor. For Bresson, Balthazar is the perfect cipher for all of these conflicting forms of human desire, and the viewer is left to ponder which, if any, of these desires the donkey is to stand for.
Parallel to Balthazar’s story is that of the doe-eyed Marie who is herself treated like a possession. Her father attempts to maintain parental control, even as he ignores her desires; her first love, Jacques, lays a weak claim; the ruffian, Gerard, stakes a stronger one, sexually and emotionally claiming her as “what’s mine.” (Two years later, in Godard’s hilariously boring film about Marxism and the Rolling Stones, Sympathy for the Devil, the same actress, Anne Wiazemsky, is similarly besieged in turn by militant Black Nationalists and a belligerent TV interviewer.) Like Balthazar, Marie passes through the hands of many claimants, and the suffering she undergoes by them seems to transform her into a tragic and potentially saintly figure. But Marie’s tragedy is that much more equivocal (and frustrating) than Balthazar’s as it seems to be at least partly her own doing, and not simply the lot of a dumb animal. Late in the film, she dejectedly tells Jacques of her desire to be possessed, absolved—relieved of the responsibilities of living.
Oh, Jacques, how I’ve dreamed about you, a boy like you, honest, a bit silly, who’d say, “Be mine. It’s not your fault.” … But what an awakening! Enough to drive you mad.
All of the idealism of youth, the hopeful anticipation of love and of a world commensurate with her desires are beaten down by experience, by the cruel apathy of others, and by her own naïveté and passivity.
Such passive acceptance of suffering, whether saintly, childish, or merely helpless, is a natural correlate to the questions of fate and free will that weave through all of Bresson’s films. The director’s use of actors as “models,” his overarching asceticism, the excruciatingly rigorous control he holds over all aspects of his films are all stylistic manifestations of his interest in the fatedness or seeming automatism of even the smallest of human actions. (This is particularly evident in Bresson’s fondness for showing the effect of an action before revealing its cause, and in his frequent contradictions of dialogue and action, as when a character says one thing [“Children, it is impossible (to take the donkey home)”] and does another [cut to the children walking home with the donkey].) Balthazar is the apotheosis of the Bressonian model. He does not act, he merely is, and all interpretations of motivation and premeditation are unavailable, if not patently ridiculous. He is a thoroughly inscrutable character about whom all that we know is that his actions more or less conform to Bresson’s script and direction.
What makes Au Hasard Balthazar such an indescribably peculiar experience, one that both inspires and frustrates verbose interpretation and acclaim, is that it is the first of Bresson’s films to wholly immerse itself in the ambiguity of surface reality. All of the director’s previous films exhibit a passionate relation to the written word (usually in the forms of letters, diaries, and documents) and its often oblique dialogue with lived experience. Balthazar plunges the audience into an animal’s world, with only terse bits of language that count for much less than the interplay of actions and glances. In this light, the donkey’s inscrutability illuminates that of the human characters in Bresson’s late films; the motivations of Marie, of Jeanne d’Arc, of the Gentle Woman, of Yvon in L’argent, are as remote to us as the thoughts of an animal. We may instill in them our interpretations or our values, but ultimately we have only the play of their gestures — the turn of a hand or the position of a foot — isolated in Bresson’s spare cinematography. We may argue at length for the divine nature or the donkey’s suffering, or of Marie’s, or we may remain unmoved, like Bergman, by the commonplace, helpless fate of an animal. But perhaps more likely, Bresson’s own interest in Balthazar is not so extreme as either of these reactions. More likely Bresson wishes to demonstrate that there is something like saintliness in even the most simple, maligned, and misguided of creatures, and that this saintly quality, such as it is, is not so rarefied or unattainable after all.