Au hasard Balthazar (1966) dir. Robert Bresson
Starring: Anne Wiazemsky, Walter Green, François Lafarge, Philippe Asselin, Nathalie Joyaut, Jean-Claude Guilbert
By Greg Klymkiw
“Those who fail to exhibit positive attitudes, no matter the external reality, are seen as maladjusted and in need of assistance. Their attitudes need correction. Once we adopt an upbeat vision of reality, positive things will happen. This belief encourages us to flee from reality when reality does not elicit positive feelings . . . [The Law of Attraction] argues that we attract those things in life, whether it is money, relationships or employment, which we focus on. Suddenly, abused and battered wives or children, the unemployed, the depressed and mentally ill, the illiterate, the lonely, those grieving for lost loved ones, those crushed by poverty, the terminally ill, those fighting with addictions, those suffering from trauma, those trapped in menial and poorly paid jobs, those whose homes are in foreclosure or who are filing for bankruptcy because they cannot pay their medical bills, are to blame for their negativity."" - Chris Hedges
Not much has changed since Robert Bresson gave us his extraordinary Au hasard Balthazar. Poverty, ignorance and hatred run rampant, yet hidden within the miasma of humanity is grace. Some of us find it, others sadly discover it in death. Bresson's entire canon of cinema unflinchingly presents an "external reality" so full of depth and I think that perhaps this is no more powerful and apparent than in this heartbreaking tale of a donkey - from birth to death. Bresson begins with the purest state of grace - that of seeming innocence and ends, finally, in the ultimate state of grace where a life lived meets its demise and we hope, finds peace.
This is a movie that always moved me deeply. With each viewing it plumbed spiritual and emotional depths that few movies could offer so consistently. As I grew ever-older and realized how so much had not really changed in the world, it became a film that was alternately ever-difficult to watch and yet, impossible to turn away from. Perhaps this is because I increasingly seemed to take the perspective of the beleaguered Balthazar - watching the lives onscreen that paralleled his own, yet thinking of the lives (including my own) beyond the frame of Bresson's cinematic borders.
This is great art - it grows with you and remains universal.
The tale is simple. Balthazar as a foal receives the love, gentle caresses and blessings of Maria and Jacques (Anne Wiazemsky, Walter Green) who also pledge their eternal love for each other before both the Heavens and the dark coloured, white-tufted gentle donkey. As time passes, however, Balthazar is passed from owner to owner - experiencing brutal beatings and back-breaking work. Jacques continues to carry a torch for Marie, but she finds herself attracted to the cool, leather-jacketed brute Gérard (François Lafarge) who uses her and abuses her. Marie's Father (Philippe Asselin) drives his family and fortunes to ruin with his stubborn pride while her Mother (Nathalie Joyaut) helplessly and disapprovingly casts her eye to the actions of husband and daughter.
Through all of this, Balthazar suffers pain, exhaustion and indignity - his only respite being led to an occasional bucket of food or water and his stable at night. He is briefly passed into the hands of the town drunk (Jean-Claude Guilbert) who treats him with kindness, not unlike Marie at the beginning of his life and the old woman who regards him as a "saint" towards his demise. For poor Balthazar, the only time he receives any sort of adulation is in one of the most extraordinary sequences ever committed to film when he is leased out to a circus and performs a spectacular mathematics trick under the big top.
Bresson never resorts to giving Balthazar "human" reactions to anything he witnesses. As the lives of the people in his life proceed, Bresson will occasionally cut to a close or medium shot of the donkey's poker face and/or seemingly blank eyes. In those eyes, soulful, deep, watery - we supply our own thoughts and perceptions as if Balthazar is the mirror into which we gaze for our soul. It's not unlike those times when one kneels in a church, gazing up at a twisted crucifix bearing Christ - we search for answers in an image of suffering.
The usual reactions we get from Balthazar to anything in the film are when his whole body flinches in pain at the crack of a whip, a blow from a fist, or in one of the cruelest moments, when the nasty Gérard affixes a piece of paper to the donkey's tail and sets it on fire. Even more poignant is a scene when the soulful Balthazar flinches in terror at the horrendous explosions that occur when bunch of drunken young men let off several firecrackers near him.
When Balthazar, near death, rests in a gentle meadow filled with sheep, who at first surround him, then leave him alone to die - quietly and at peace - we weep.
We weep for all of God's creatures and the hope that grace will somehow finally touch us all.
With Au hasard Balthazar, Bresson gives us a film that is as much about this abused donkey as it is about the cruel, prideful, ignorant and uncaring people who wend in and out of his horrendous life. He gives us a world where we must ultimately feel both empathy and sympathy for all of these creatures - a world where we must gaze deep into the eyes of a donkey and experience humanity in all its bitter realities.
It is, finally, as much about us as anything else and there are ultimately few films that achieve this with the grace and power that are rendered here by Monsieur Bresson
"Au hasard Balthazar" is part of the TIFF Cinemtheque's major retrospective organized and curated by the legendary programmer James Quandt. Aptly titled "The Poetry of Precision: The Films of Robert Bresson", this and every other Bresson film is unspooling at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and over a dozen cinemas across North America. The film is screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox Sunday February 26 at 5:00 PM and Thursday March 1 at 6:00 PM. "Au hasard Balthazar" is also available on a stunning Criterion Collection DVD. The extra features on this disc are especially tremendous - most notably, a one-hour French television documentary from the film's time of release that focuses upon the film in such depth that it makes one long for this kind of analysis and exploration in contemporary works in the same way (instead of the pathetic puff-pieces that feel more like electronic press kits). "Au hasard Balthazar" is definitely worth owning, but only AFTER or in TANDEM with seeing the picture ON A BIG SCREEN - ON FILM.