A simple overture plays over black and white pages of credits. Suddenly, the music is interrupted by the braying of a donkey, oddly beautiful. The first shot we see is the closeup of a donkey's flank, its baby nursing beneath it. French writer/director Robert Bresson ("Diary of a Country Priest") charts the sainthood of this beast of burden, suffering for the sins of all he encounters, in "Au Hasard Balthazar."
Rialto Pictures resurrects Bresson's masterpiece, unavailable for thirty years, in a new print with new translations and subtitles. Bresson and his editor Raymond Lamy ("Pickpocket") skirt around more traditional storytelling techniques, dropping the viewer into and out of the lives, sometimes overlapping, of whoever currently owns Balthazar, for a cumulative impression of sin and spirituality. "Au Hasard Balthazar" becomes richer with repeated viewings.
Children walking through a field with their father beg him for the baby donkey they discover, lead him home and baptize him Balthazar, giving him the 'salt of wisdom.' Young Jacques and Marie, the daughter of the schoolteacher on his father's land, enjoy a childhood romance that is cut short when Jacques' sister dies and his father returns to the city. Years later, Balthazar has moved from pet to laborer, drawing a cart. When it overturns, he runs from his angry owner, returning to his childhood home which we now see is run down and for sale.
The adult Marie (Anne Wiazemsky, "La Chinoise") is pleased to see her old friend, but the relationship between her father (Philippe Asselin) and his old employer turns into a local scandal when monies are unaccounted for. The adult Jacques (Walter Green) arrives to renew his love for Marie and arbitrate the situation, but he is thrown out by Marie's proud father and simply shrugs when Marie asks if she will see him again. From this point on, Marie drifts into a destructive relationship with local tough Gerard (François Lafarge). Marie runs away from her family, eventually degraded to the depths of prostitution. Marie's old pet is worked harshly by the local baker (François Sullerot), whose wife (Marie-Claire Fremont) enables their employee Gerard's criminal behavior. Gerard is as cruel to Balthazar as he is to Marie, even setting the animal's tail on fire in order to make him move.
Gerard is connected by an unsolved murder with a drunken bum, Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert, "Mouchette"), who saves Balthazar from being put down by the baker, only to beat the animal in drunken rages. Balthazar literally runs away and joins a circus, where a trainer declares him exceptionally intelligent, but the donkey's success is cut short when Arnold attends a show and reclaims him (in a prime example of Bresson's story progression, we only see Arnold recognize Balthazar and approach the ring, a bottle upraised threateningly - the next scene shows the man once again leading the animal along the road - we're left to fill in the connective narrative).
After all these characters intersect again over an inheritance, Balthazar ends up in the hands of a mean merchant (Pierre Klossowski), who mistreats the animal worst of all. Marie reaches her lowest point at his hands as well, offering her body for some food and shelter. The merchant gives the donkey to her parents when they come to retrieve her, but Marie runs away again and her father dies of heartbreak ('he's proud of his suffering' claims Marie rather heartlessly), leaving her mother alone with Balthazar. The louse Gerard interrupts Marie's mother grave side, asking to borrow Balthazar, but she refuses, calling him a saint who has worked enough during his life. Gerard steals the donkey that night, using him to smuggle stolen goods, but customs officials begin firing - the boys scatter and Balthazar takes shelter in some shrubs. Bresson cuts to daybreak, reveals that Balthazar has been hit and shows him finding the place where we first saw him, in a field surrounded by sheep. The donkey dies as a lamb suckles its mother. Just the act of writing this synopsis has brought back tears, so moving is Balthazar's spiritual transcendence. The Catholic filmmaker makes the death of a donkey the joyful release of an untainted soul burdened with humankind's sins. The most modern equivalent of this final scene may be the ending of Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves."
Bresson uses nonprofessional 'actors' and his cinematographer, Ghislain Cloquet ("I Sent a Letter to My Love," "Le Boucher"), often focuses their extremities. For example, we see Balthazar's hooves trotting along, or the twitching of his ears, almost as often as we see his face. (In fact, when Marie puts her clothes back on at the merchant's, we see the shadow of Balthazar's tail twitching on the wall.) People's hands are frequently shown performing everyday tasks - driving, emptying money into a till. Sound is natural, sometimes accompanied by a Schubert sonata on piano. Only once is this cinema verite style given magical qualities in the brilliantly edited sequence where Balthazar meets the circus animals - a tiger, a polar bear, a monkey and an elephant. Closeups of the animals' eyes, always cutting back to Balthazar's, suggest a communion.
Just how does Bresson show such beauty and spirituality in a simple donkey? This is one of the profound mysteries of "Au Hasard Balthazar."
As the opening credits run we hear the braying of a donkey in distress. The first image we see is a baby donkey hungrily feeding from his new mother. It is an idyllic episode in the young creature’s life as two children, Jacques and Marie, play with their pet on a small farm in rural France. But summer soon ends, Jacques must return to the city, leaving Marie behind, and the little donkey’s tranquil life will soon change for the worse in Robert Bresson’s 1966 classic “Au hasard Balthazar.”
Little Balthazar, now years older, is seen hauling a very heavy wagon under the whip hand of his cruel owner. As the donkey’s life continues he comes under a variety of new masters, users and abusers as he is forced to perform incredibly hard labor, beaten, starved and mistreated. Occasionally, when he finds Marie again, he is treated with kindness but this is always all too fleeting. In the last act, poor Balthazar is a part of an illegal smuggling operation by young thugs but, finally, finds peace. Balthazar, like Blanch Dubois, relied “on the kindness of strangers” but saw little enough of it in his brief life.
This description, though, does not even scratch the surface of Bresson’s film. The lives of the human characters that come into Balthazar’s life are each given full shrift. Grown up Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) suffers along with the little donkey as she is denied being with Jacques (Walter Green) by her stubborn, schoolteacher turned tenant farm father (Philippe Asselin). She comes to the attention of Gerard (Francois Lafarge), a young tough who delivers bread and leads a gang of thugs on motorbikes. Marie rebels against her father and takes up with Gerard but this will lead to pain and tragedy. Marie’s plight parallels Balthazar’s as we watch both lives spiral downward.
There is retribution, at times, for those responsible for the suffering inflicted on both the title character and Marie. One, Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert), a drunken owner of Balthazar who, in his alcohol induced haze, has no compunction against beating the poor creature with a chair. Arnold comes into a great fortune but this does not stop fate from taking a hand as he rides, passed out, on Balthazar one rainy, treacherous night. But, other wrong doers, like Gerard, do not always get their just desserts.
While “Au hazard Balthazar” tells a harsh story about the little beast of burden and a broken young woman, helmer Bresson uses off-camera violence to push the tale along. Of course, this is a film made in a different time when imagination, not graphic on-screen brutality, was needed to convey the director’s intent. Nonetheless, the suffering experienced by the protagonists is poignant and gut-felt, leaving the viewer with a sad, empty feeling in the end, but one mixed with relief for our little donkey.
The cast is made up with all newcomers to film, at the time, and the amateur acting shows. But Bresson’s strong narrative works to take advantage of the unspoiled thesps. Anne Wiazemsky shines best as Balthazar’s only soul mate. There is a sadness and hopelessness to Marie that keeps you sympathetic to her tragic end. Francois Lafarge carries a weight of violence and menace to the role of Gerard, the bad boy who attracts Marie after she is denied Jacques because of her father’s selfish stubbornness. The rest of the cast is wooden, yes, but the religious symbolism of their characters is palpable.
This is the first Robert Bresson I have seen and it is a disturbing work that does not even try to make a happily-ever-after ending. The suffering is tempered, though, with the sense of small relief for the quiet little donkey that captured my heart. I give “Au hazard Balthezar” an A.
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