on 30 July 2005
"Au Hasard, Balthazar" was made in 1966 and was followed in 1967 by "Mouchette", the only time Robert Bresson made films in successive years. His final black and white works, they are often linked critically as the peak of his cinematographic skill. Themes spill over from the earlier to the later film - Bresson seems to have felt the need to resolve issues of teenage alienation and the bleak future which can face adolescents.
Robert Bresson (1901-1999) began directing in 1934. His thirteen feature films, made between 1943-1983, achieved great critical acclaim, marked Bresson as a major influence on many European and American directors, yet never achieved box office success. Bresson made the films he wanted to make, striving at all times for visual impact; the majority of his films were in black and white - he demonstrates great visual control in this medium. And the visual element can be emphatic - his films are often sparse in their use of dialogue while Bresson makes exaggerated use of natural sound effects (wind, rain, footsteps, creaking boards).
Bresson used unknown or amateur actors - no big names, no easy familiarity with the faces on the screen. He wanted his audience to concentrate on the story and its emotions, even if his style might make these enigmatic, if not cryptic. Note the opening scenes of "Balthazar" - a dying child, a school teacher in an empty class, references which will have later import but which flash by inconsequentially.
Bresson began as a painter and often referred to his actors as 'models' - they were there to provide visual images. They were stripped of emotion - he didn't want them to portray emotion as a public show, but to exhibit something more transcendent. "Balthazar" is the extreme form of this depersonalisation - the star of the film is a donkey, significantly silent throughout most of the abuses he endures, yet whose voice intrudes into the opening credits to fracture the accompanying music.
Heavily influenced by a Catholic vision of predestination, Bresson shuns exploration of psychology. In many of his films the characters simply accept their fate - they know they are destined to suffer and battle against an illusion of free will. Again, Balthazar provides the ideal form, a poor, mistreated beast, exposed to the whims and abuses of human actors to the point where he is resurrected to endure even more torment.
Bresson's pessimism is evident, but he felt he saw the influence of god more clearly and potently in poverty and suffering. The struggle to resolve the conflict between freewill and destiny is, for Bresson, the essential route to spiritual fulfilment. Balthazar at one point escapes, flees back to the happier world he had known in his 'childhood', only to be once again pressed into the service of humans and into a fresh round of mistreatment and abuse.
"Au Hazard Balthazar" has obvious religious references - the donkey becomes a parody (or even parable) of Christ; the film rides on the donkey's back, is carried in procession by this creature. We can imagine birth in a stable, we have symbolism of bread and wine, Balthazar is crowned with flowers, baptised, resurrected, humiliated, yet transcends all with dignity - emphasised by raucous braying.
The theme is sin and suffering, the donkey acting as both witness and victim. The film follows Balthazar's life - a caricature epic, shot in short episodes, carrying the viewer along at rapid pace. You observe a densely packed narrative - this is a film you need to return to three or four times to absorb all the detail Bresson serves up.
Much of the storyline is enigmatic. Marie, the daughter of a schoolteacher, adopts the new born Balthazar. The farmer, owner of the donkey, loses his child, loses interest in his farm. Marie's father takes on the farm, applying rigorous scientific knowledge in its management. He is plunged into scandal - financial, sexual? The donkey has been sold into a life of toil but escapes and is rediscovered by Marie ... only to be tormented by her delinquent lover and returned to a life of abuse. On his travels he watches the degeneration and corruption of the people who touch his life. Hardly the commercial fare of a Hollywood epic, but an epic none the less.
"Au hasard" suggests danger, risk, but is best translated as 'chance', suggesting that Balthazar's life is random, beyond control ... certainly beyond his control. It's an allegory of human life. Donkeys are born to suffer. So are humans. Marie, in particular, is stripped of control over her life as her brief, idealised childhood descends into the abuse and humiliation of adolescence.
But none of the characters in the film have any control over their lives - they are all driven by forces beyond their ken, are all pawns in a larger game. Bresson casts sin and morality into a bleak light - how do we judge the sinner if the sinner is simply damned to sin? Is the sinner any less deserving of sympathy than the sinned against? The film does contain 'villains', but they too are propelled by an unknown hand and destiny.
An epic, a classic piece of cinematography, an enigmatic flow of narrative, "Au Hasard Balthazar" is beautifully transferred to disc in crisp, high contrast black and white with a largely naturalistic soundtrack. This is a well-produced, well-packaged offering. The DVD delivers an hour-long 1966 French TV programme on the film and a short interview with film scholar Donald Richie, and some printed notes further enhance your analysis of and understanding of the film. A movie worthy of great critical acclaim, but hardly commercial in its themes and style.
Balthazar is a small donkey, a dumb beast who is seldom used well by his owners, who is mostly abused and worked hard, who accepts what comes, who is born and who dies. Please note: elements of the plot are discussed below. Balthazar was born on a small French farm. We meet two children who love him and who grow up thinking they love each other. The girl's father loses the farm and everything he has because of pride. The young boy moves away, but returns as a man, Jacques (Walter Green), still loving her. And the girl, Marie (Anne Wianzemsky) grows up to be a sad-eyed young woman who is almost as accepting of her fate as Balthazar. She is attracted to Gerard, (Francois Lafarge), a bully and a young criminal. He and his gang steal, beat people and begin to smuggle things across the border. What do you see in that boy, Marie's mother asks her. "I love him. Do we know why we love someone? If he says, 'come,' I come. 'Do this,' and I do it."
Balthazar moves from owner to owner. He's often beaten and kicked. He plows the ground, hauls logs, delivers bread. In a brief moment of glory, he's trained to do number tricks in a provincial circus. His owner finds him and takes him back. Once, he finds his way to the farm where he was born and Marie embraces him. He works circling a well, drawing water up to be bottled by a miserly, cynical farm owner who doesn't feed him well. One night Marie flees her parents and comes to the man's farm. He takes her in, looks at her wet dress, finally offers her some money. Marie pauses but turns him down. She says that her father has had to give their last cent to the creditors. "That's what happens when you place honor above everything," the man tells her. "He's spent his life creating obligations for himself. What for?...Do I have any obligations? I'm free, obliged only to do what serves my interests and can bring me a profit -- and a handsome profit at that. Life's nothing but a fair ground, a marketplace where even your word is unnecessary. A bank note will do." Marie spends the night.
Marie meets Jacques again. He wants to marry her. She refuses. "You see our names carved on this bench, our games with Balthazar. But I don't see a thing. I've no more tenderness, no heart, no feelings. Your words don't affect me anymore. Our vows of love, our childhood promises, move in a world of make-believe, not reality." She walks away.
Old and tired, Balthazar still is given no rest. Gerard and his gang steal him to carry contraband. They are discovered by border guards and shots are fired as they flee. At sun up Balthazar slowly moves from the forest into a meadow. He is bleeding from a gunshot wound. A herd of sheep move toward him. Balthazar rests on the meadow, with the sheep bleating around him, nuzzling him, moving past him. As the sheep move on, Balthazar has died. The movie ends.
This is a sad, poignant movie into which one can read all kinds of meanings. What stands out for me is the sense that life simply goes on whether or not a person is happy. The film is full of characters who are petty, sometimes cruel, jealous, naive or full of pride. Yet they aren't caricatures. They are simply people with many flaws. Balthazar finds himself in their lives. We see things where Balthazar is, but Balthazar doesn't see these things. He doesn't observe and he isn't used by Bresson to make a point. He is a passive, dumb beast who accepts what people do to him. We wait just as Balthazar waits. The movie is permeated, in my view, with great sadness and with the recognition that once a person is on a path, it's not all that easy to change. I'm not particularly sentimental, but the death of the little donkey in the field, surrounded by the sheep, had me wiping my eyes.
The Region 1 Criterion black and white picture transfer is excellent. There are two particularly fine extras, an interview with Donald Richie and a French TV show about the movie which features Bresson, Louis Malle, Jean-Luc Goddard and members of the movie's cast and crew.
Other reviewers have discussed the film so well that the prospect of adding something seems almost presumptuous; nevertheless I would add that the film appeals to me precisely because a certain sentimental enjoyment necessarily arises by virtue of the donkey's sweetness, his solidity being set against his helplessness. This mystery of appearances can then be added to all the other paradoxes Bresson is concerned with. One of the things I find is how much I forget the complicated plot after seeing it - except that the girl falls for a thug who is completely unworthy of her. In this sense each viewing is a kind of rediscovery as it comes back, but what I do retain is a sense of the purity of the animal as set against the compromises and skulduggery of the human world. The moment when it canters off into a field, thinking it has found freedom (alas for all too short a time, as it turns out) is joyous, and the final scene where it is in the field with all the sheep, played out against Schubert's sublime inspiration, is infinitely affecting. You are left feeling the dignity of Balthazar, his pathos, and with a sense of the terrible sadness of neglect.
I reviewed the VHS version of this some years ago, and having acquired the recent DVD I have no reason to revise my enthusiasm. It is one of those films where, however often you see it, new depths reveal themselves. Bresson has brilliantly interwoven various sub-plots, including murder and financial skullduggery, which you barely notice first time round in this birth-to-death story of a donkey. All the characters seem to be victims of destiny, acted upon rather than acting, with the sole exception of the evil Gerard, who seems able to do what he wants. This pessimistic view of human nature, which becomes more evident in Bresson's later films, is observed throughout by Balthazar, clearly a Christ-figure who seems to understand everything while remaining silent. My one complaint is the lack of extras, unlike the Criterion edition which apparently includes a long French TV discussion of the film.
This film comes in the middle, and many would say at the zenith, of Bresson's career.
This 1966 work by Robert Bresson really is like no other work of cinema that I can recall. Of course, one of the well-established maxims of working in film (and TV) is never to work with animals or children, but here Bresson breaks both these 'rules', focusing on the story of a donkey, Balthazar, the trials and tribulations of whose life are portrayed as a spiritual allegory for the shortcomings of this 'beast of burden's' human counterparts. Not surprisingly perhaps, Bresson's film is not exactly a barrel of laughs, being shot in his trademark minimalist style and with largely deadpan performances from his cast of non-professional actors, but I found myself being increasingly drawn into what is a profound and moving (but fundamentally unsentimental) tale.
The sensorial appeal of Bresson's film is conveyed via Ghislain Cloquet's stark, black-and-white cinematography, full of Bresson-style off-kilter camera angles and truncated camera shots, and the haunting piano music of Schubert (with some 'modern' jazzy content courtesy of Jean Weiner), which is overlaid on Balthazar's tale, as he is passed between various owners (some kindly, but mostly not), thereby overseeing (and experiencing) the vagaries of humankind. Anne Wiazemsky's impressive, and deluded, daughter Marie, shows initial kindness to Balthazar, before being tempted by cruel, criminal gang member, Gérard (a similarly impressive performance by François Lafarge). The perils, and negative effects, of drunkenness are also convincingly brought home by Jean-Cluade Guilbert's portrayal of the wayward down-and-out, Arnold, whose wrath Balthazar is also forced to suffer.
Although Bresson's film suffers, to some extent, from his typically disjointed (and, at times, superficial) approach to narrative, for me at least, this limitation is overshadowed by his mesmerising portrayal of his central character. Not only is the donkey featured in some of the film's key scenes, such as those where (in a rare moment of humour) Balthazar is introduced to his circus audience as 'the most powerful brain of the century' and where he stares into the eyes of his fellow trapped (circus) beasts (tiger, polar bear, chimpanzee, elephant), but Bresson's camera repeatedly comes to rest on his protagonist's increasingly perceptive-looking eyes. It is via this 'all-seeing' presence that Balthazar seemingly conveys his (and Bresson's) dismay at the human frailties on display - of temptation, cynicism, materialism, hedonism, wantonness, love of money, family breakdown, the transitory nature of human infatuation and the general lack of spirituality. The religious connotations are obvious, and are initially foreshadowed by Balthazar's watery baptism at the hands of a group of children.
Au Hazard Balthazar is a film that, for me, grows in stature as it progresses (and on subsequent repeat viewings) and ranks as one of the finest works from one of cinema's most innovative creative artists. It is, in fact, a great shame that the latest Artificial Eye release of the film contains no extras on the making of the film.
The movie follows the life of a donkey - Balthazar - and the people he comes in contact with. Bresson makes it a classic - some saying Balthazar incorporates the stoicism and taking on the sins (and punishment) of others as a metaphor for Christ. Whether that is so or not will remain to be judged by each viewer but the beauty of this overall relatively tragic story is that neither Balthazar, nor Marie - one of the owners and the female protagonist - see themselves as victims. They endure.
The story gone through in a relatively short movie is amazing and the cinematography, music / sound effects are simply astounding, as is the symbolism of the movie. In spite of the message of predestination, drudgery of life (both for the donkey and the humans coming into contact with it), difficulty of adolescence etc. Bresson still manages to sneak in the odd humorous moment (the painters renting out Balthazar describing action painting).
This is not a happy movie and does not make for easy watching - as mentioned by the other reviewers Bresson did not shot movies for commercial success. But the movie is strangely fulfilling nevertheless, and one can return to it many times - something that will make you discover new elements and get a deeper appreciation of it every time you see it. In that sense it is a true masterpiece of cinema and something definitely worthwhile having on DVD.
on 11 December 2013
That is what Jean-Luc Godard said in Cahiers du Cinema. Anne Wiazemsky who also stars in La Chinoise by Jean-Luc Godard and ends up marrying him after he ends his relationship with Anna Karina is in fact not the only one one who shines in this film. It is actually the donkey who has the leading role in this unique, marvelous, stunning, outstanding, sheer beautiful - words fail me to describe all the superlatives i can think of - movie. It is so sad to see how the lovely animal gets mistreated and beaten by mainly a group of youngsters and other men who take (mis)advantage of the animal. It breaks my heart to see it when humans hurt animals It says a lot about a human being when a human being hurts an animal for any reason or like sometimes in this movie out of the blue for no reason at all. Donkeys are known for their stubborn character however they are lovely creatures. They have the same pride as the most beautiful horse. A horse is a noble animal and the donkey should be treated also as an animal to cherish and to love. All creatures need love. However it is not only the donkey who is abused also Marie suffers from practically the same people so in fact they have a parallel story. Towards the ending of the film - let's say the last 15 minutes - Bresson cuts the strings of my heart and shows he is a true and unique director. I wept. I could not keep my eyes dry. This one crawls under your skin and remains there dangling until the bitter end. Thank you Robert Bresson for making such a beautiful film about a donkey called Balthazar.
on 13 May 2005
All of Bresson's films are masterpieces and essential viewing for anyone interested in the history of 'cinematography' (Bresson regarded this the best description of what he did - 'painting with film' - rather than 'cinema' which he said was just the filming of theatre). But Balthazar has a special place in my heart because of the absolute distilation of the ideas for which Bresson stood: most particularly, the notion of redemption. What Ingmar Bergman called a 'boring film' is actually a highly condensed consideration of the frailty and despair of human life and the potential for redemption. Balthazar stands for all that is wrong with humanity - he suffers mans' cruelty and torment - whilst showing the ability to withstand it. Eyes cast down, hands nearly touching, all of the Bressonian images are there. But what comes through is the ideal of love - love that can endure, withstand, and above all redeem. The donkey is indeed Christ; but Christ is also love in a human form.
on 17 June 2014
Robert Bresson's revered 1966 masterpiece Au hasard Balthazar is a film of quite extraordinary intellectual depth, piercing metaphysical perception and spiritual profundity. All 13 of this director's films are essential viewing, but this is the one you will want to return to the most to gain fresh insight as so much complexity lies buried under a surface of apparent simplicity. I have seen it many times and find new things on every re-acquaintance. Some people find Bresson's austerity hard to take, but here it is leavened with the use of soft romantic Schubert on the soundtrack (Piano Sonata No. 20), a beautifully warm (defiantly non-model-like) performance from Anne Wiazemsky and a donkey as the main character. The film is undoubtedly one of the greatest ever made and if I prefer A Man Escaped (1956) it is simply a subjective personal choice on my part. There's no question in my mind that Au hasard Balthazar is the greater achievement and critical consensus (though far from unanimous) would appear to agree.
The great beauty of the film lies in the simplicity of the story. Set in rural France, a donkey is born in a stable, has a brief idyllic early life before being put to work by the first of 7 owners. They use and abuse him in various ways before he finally dies in a meadow. On the most obvious level the film is about human cruelty and if you are an animal rights activist you might find this film tough to sit through. The donkey is kicked, poked, hit with a stick, burned, shot, over-burdened with heavy loads, exploited in a circus and used in crime. Furthermore it is witness to various unmentionable acts of cruelty perpetrated by man on fellow man. In true Bressonian style the camera stares at the donkey continually while a myriad of sub-plots happen around it (largely off-screen) with such elliptical subtlety that you definitely won't catch everything on a single viewing. If we watch and listen carefully we can catch a murder, a long-running land dispute, a love story, a smuggling yarn, a rags-to-riches parable, a miser's tale, a meditation on mother-son dysfunction, a dissection of bigoted parochial village life and a disturbing sex attack. In short Bresson encapsulates a whole rural way of life which he shows as being fundamentally evil by refracting it through the poor innocent donkey. Bresson went on to make an even more damning view of the French countryside in his next film Mouchette (1966), another masterpiece, but one that has to be one of the most depressing movies I have ever sat through. The afore-mentioned Schubert merging with the suffering of the poor beast, Au hasard Balthazar avoids that accusation and manages to be astonishingly poignant to the point where I defy anyone with a heart not to be moved to tears by the end.
In Au hazard Balthazar Bresson recognizes that while many films focus on man inflicting cruelty on man, nothing is more moving than seeing it inflicted on an innocent animal. Why can audiences watch bodies blown to bits and limbs hacked off in commercial cinema without turning so much as a hair, and yet feel such concern when an animal is simply prodded with a stick? Could it be that animals are somehow better (closer to God?) than man and one of Bresson's reasons for making this film is to convey his disgust with the nature of mankind? Certainly if we look at the films he went on to make after this we find a progressively stronger misanthropic edge to his work, especially evinced in The Devil Probably (1977) and L'argent (1983). The donkey finds grace by the end of Au hasard Balthazar as does the girl Mouchette in the following film. With his color films `grace' becomes much more elusive with Bresson apparently giving up on his fellow man altogether.
This theme of grace refers us to the Catholic predestinarian Jansenism that informs every single Bresson film. Time and again protagonists simply function in any given narrative to fulfill whatever has been predestined for them to fulfill. They have no free will of their own and are 'acted on' from on high. Usually the film charts a journey which becomes a metaphorical search for spiritual grace, for salvation. Conventional character psychology has no place in a Bresson work - it doesn't matter what happens between birth and death, the result will be the same - such is the nature of predestination. We are taken on a journey together with any given protagonist and are made to feel as they do as they approach salvation. In the case of our donkey, his journey through life via use and abuse is his fate and through his death in a beautiful meadow surrounded by sheep he finds his salvation away from his tormentors. The fact that he is a knowingly innocent victim of life's circumstances makes for a truly heart-breaking conclusion to the film.
Of course the donkey is a lot more than just a donkey. He is named `Balthazar', the name of one of the three Magi who visited baby Jesus in Bethlehem. One obvious reading of the film is to treat it as a Passion play with Balthazar taking on the attributes of Jesus Christ. He is born in a stable, is owned by 7 people which represent the 7 Stations of the Cross which he has to negotiate en-route to his Calvary. Golgotha is the final meadow where he dies for all of man's sins - his crucifixion made real amidst his followers (the sheep). On the journey, various aspects of religious practice are obliquely referred to and part of the fun is to spot them as they fly past in this short and rigorously intellectual film. Balthazar's most loving owner is named Marie (played by Wiazemsky), obviously referring to Jesus's mother and also to Mary Magdelene the whore. Marie's suffering mirrors that of Balthazar throughout the film especially when she takes on aspects of whoredom in a dance and when she sells herself to the grain merchant (Pierre Klossowski). Balthazar is baptized by kids at one point, the bells around his neck symbolizing church bells. Then he is draped with flowers and decorations as if preparing for Palm Sunday's grand entrance to Jerusalem. We see transubstantiation invoking the Eucharist when the evil village boy Gérard (François Lafarge) delivers bread and the drunken Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert) knocks back his red wine. Noah's Ark is recreated at the circus in an impressive montage bestiary sequence which Bresson gives us showing us the various caged animals who are all as doomed as Balthazar to the life of servitude.
As well as the 7 Stations of the Cross we have the 7 deadly sins - lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride which should be (but mostly aren't) balanced with the 7 Catholic virtues - chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility. This dichotomy is reflected within the 7 owners who show all these qualities to varying degrees. If this was simple religious allegory each owner would represent one sin, but Bresson knows real life is more complicated than that - all sins and virtues exist together and feed off each other. Therefore each of the seven owners pointedly exhibit them all as one. There are several scenes where characters display opposite emotions in short succession - Arnold swears he will never drink again but then in the very next shot he is knocking back a bottle of wine. Gérard takes on the role of Satan in the film. He is the cause of much of the crime and discontent in the village. He pours oil on a road to cause a car crash only in the very next scene to take up his place in the organ loft of the church to sing like an angel with the choir. Watch carefully and we realize that what Bresson gives us in this film is the whole world in microcosm where the basic metaphysics of our existence on this planet are laid out for us to unravel. Jean-Luc Godard said it best when he said Au Hasard Balthazar is "the world in an hour and a half". It is an extraordinarily deep metaphysical journey, but is never pretentious in any way.
At various points I was reminded not only of Dostoyevsky's The Idiot (the donkey and Prince Myshkin share Christ-like similarities), but also of the acidic religious films of Luis Buñuel. The drunk Arnold belongs to the world of Viridiana's derelicts and his death (one look up, one look down, then falling off Balthazar to crack open his head) is classic Buñuelian sardonic humour. Then the grain merchant appears to have stepped straight out of Nazarín (1958) and in his scene with Marie the old man lays out the mantra of the perfect life as being one of self-help, greed and gluttony. The man makes advances on the poor girl who just wants shelter (she repeatedly removes his hand from her shoulder) leading eventually to her rejecting the money after his lecture on human dissolution is paraded as a positive. Note she gives herself to him in the end, probably taking the money as well. The casting of writer Pierre Klossowski here was significant - he was a famous expert on the Marquis de Sade and is one of the names listed in the glossary opening Pier Paolo Pasolini's monument to the excesses of Fascism, Saló, or 120 Days in Sodom (1975). In 1964 Klossowski had been responsible for the French publication of Sade's book and no doubt Bresson had in mind the depravity in mind and spirit of Sade when he asked the writer to play for him. Significantly, Buñuel also borrows from Sade in Nazarín. Equating the values of provincial country life in France with those of the Marquis de Sade was hugely controversial, but Bresson obviously thought he had a point.
I could go through the film shot-by-shot or character-by-character bringing out all the subtle themes and references, but that would spoil it for you. Acquainting yourself with Bresson's masterpiece is something the viewer must do on his own. As with the very greatest art, the more effort one puts in, the more one gets out in the end. Au Hasard Balthazar is one of those films that you could spend a lifetime getting to know, reliving the experience as one relives the Passions from the Bible. Once you penetrate beneath the surface simplicity I would say this film is far from an easy experience, but it is certainly a deeply rewarding one.
The only negative thing I have to say concerns the lack of extras on this Artificial Eye DVD. A scholarly commentary and a perceptive documentary are surely necessary for the presentation of such a marvelous film. The film positively cries out for help for it to be more readily understood, especially in today's world where few have little time for the austerity of the likes of Bresson. Even on a light gossipy level this film has interest and surely something could have been added to the disc. For example, one of the reasons Anne Wiazemsky's performance is so warm is that Bresson was in love with her during the shoot. His advances on her were rejected so she later said. Later of course Wiazemsky met and married Jean-Luc Godard, appearing in his Le Chinoise (1967) - something Bresson was reportedly angry about. Wiazemsky and Dominique Sanda (star of Une femme douce ) were the only two Bresson `models' who went on to have successful acting careers. There are no complaints about the quality of the transfer. Visually it is excellent (aspect ratio 16:9 - 1.66:1) and the sound is ideally sharp as it needs to be to catch everything that goes on. Shame about the lack of extras, but this is a film which should be in every collection. Strongly recommended.
AU HASARD BALTHAZAR, (1966). This 95-minute black and white film from greatly respected director Robert Bresson is generally considered a classic of French cinema. It is considered part of a trilogy with the director's A Man Escaped [DVD], which I loved and reviewed in these pages, and Pickpocket [DVD] . In fact, it is generally considered to be a religious fable, from the very Catholic French director, who also wrote it. In it, he traces the lives of a farm girl, Marie, and her pet donkey, whom she names Balthazar. The two will eventually become separated, but their experiences seem to follow strangely parallel paths. As a young woman, Marie is cruelly abused by her lover, while Balthazar suffers at the hands of a number of indifferent, cruel owners. But their torments, according to the critics, ultimately become the vehicle for their spiritual transcendence and redemption.
A unique film, AU HASARD BALTHAZAR was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. As was true of the honored, revered even, director's work at this point in his career, the film is an ingenious monument of minimalism. The actors are nonprofessional, and it seemed, as often as not, were viewed only by their legs and feet. The film is greatly restrained, tightly edited, with carefully composed monotone images, long silences, broken only by a simple piano sonata that underscores its mood.
The critics also generally agree that the purpose of a film is to establish a mood, to transmit emotion, to generate feelings. Well, I found the life and death of Balthazar, from idyllic childhood surrounded by loving children, through adulthood as a downtrodden beast of burden, to be unbearably sad. However, the film also made me angry. We first see Marie as a child who dotes upon the young animal. Then she gets boy-crazy, and, boy, she really knows how to pick her lovers. As she gets more involved in her troubled life - troubles brought upon her by herself-- she ignores Balthazar, paying no attention to his well-being, leaving him outdoors in rain, cold and snow to the point where he gets sick, allowing him to be taken by a series of exploitive new owners. She walks right by the animal without even acknowledging his presence. It seems to me the poor creature, living in a world he cannot control, would be heartbroken long before his death, which he well might have welcomed. Can't help thinking the poor creature would rather have been treated well than transfigured.
Now, I admit it, like many an air-headed Hollywood starlet, I'm greatly concerned about animal welfare, and Bresson, and the critics, might never have expected this film to be viewed by a person with this strongly held viewpoint. Whatever; masterpiece the movie may be, moving it certainly is, but I really was not able to enjoy it.