on 24 March 2017
Robert Bresson’s famous, simple story of Balthazar the donkey is also a complex allegory. Like Balthazar, we find ourselves standing in a world we haven’t made. Why this should be, why we are here, is unknown.
In childhood we’re the centre of everything. We have no objective perspective outside ourselves, so all this — all that I survey — is my kingdom: the world came into existence for me. We are limited in what we’re able to grasp. Such is the freedom and incarceration of childhood.
As time passes we grow and learn, acquiring some ideas that help us make partial sense of things. Some tell us we have free will, conscious choice, so we’re nominally architects of our destinies. But others say this is illusory, that chaos in the form of randomness and luck determines our fates. If so, we are more passive, less free, than we think.
Balthazar’s passivity is conditioned by his extreme lack of freedom. Not only is free will absent; the consciousness to know that it is missing is absent too. Thus for him acceptance is all, rendering resistance pointless. The days and nights come and go. He lives, breathes, eats, sleeps. Home is his stable, hay his food, the wider world outside unexplored. If he is taken anywhere, it’s with a rope or chain strung round his neck and pulled. He does what others desire him to do — ploughs fields, hauls goods, pulls wagons, carries riders. It’s how the world was made, the only one he knows and experiences. Survival depends on his resignation and obedience, his acceptance of the inevitable. He is powerless.
His social life is conditioned too. He makes contact mainly with people, his masters, not with other animals, though he encounters dogs and sheep, and for a while he spends time in a local circus with other circus animals (a bear, tiger, elephant and monkey). But life is largely one of solitude for him, even when surrounded by others. Although he is present, he barely participates in events, a silent witness to them. If he does participate, it’s almost always because of the action of others.
When the story opens Balthazar is tiny, a baby donkey just a few months old. He is slightly springy on his new legs and actually trots and bounces a bit. Local children in the village adore him, especially Marie, a shy farm girl. She and her good friend Jacques play with Balthazar, adopt him as their own. It is Marie who christens him Balthazar (named after one of the Three Wise Men). She and Jacques baptise him in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, sprinkling holy water on his snout. Now he is truly a child of the Lord who will surely look after him. But God is otherwise engaged and will ultimately fail to protect him.
The children are kind and tender to Balthazar. They frolic and play with him, ride him too when he is old enough to support their weight. Marie kisses and rubs his snout tenderly. One warm spring day she also picks wildflowers and makes a garland for his head. Throughout all this he is accepting, though he can make no direct response to the tenderness Marie gives him.
Time passes. Balthazar grows and so do the children. Marie becomes an attractive young girl of 16. Her pale white skin is soft, her hair and legs long. Some boys in the village have their eyes on her. Jacques has moved away to another village, but Marie will always be his sweetheart because when they were young they pledged themselves to one another. Jacques carved their names in a heart on a wooden bench to announce the truth of their love to the world. He is devoted, so when the time comes, when they are old enough, he will return for her and they will marry.
But in his absence Marie is plagued by forces she can’t protect herself from. Gérard, perhaps 18, is a local teddy-boy biker in a band of teenagers on loud mopeds. He sees Marie as a silly farm girl but wants to impress his mates with his ability to pull birds. Marie is afraid of him at first and dislikes him, but gradually he worms his way into her affections. She knows he’s no good and her parents say so too. She knows she should resist him, but eventually she cannot, subdued by his biker image which to her naïve mind seems exciting. He says he loves her but we know he’s lying, even if she doesn’t. He’s selfish, dishonest and cruel, but even when Marie discovers this she remains under his spell. In way she is like her donkey, his Balthazar, passive and pliable, ready to be what he wants her to be.
And we know what Gérard wants. Marie’s pretty face, soft skin and long legs interest him. He will get what he desires at her expense and she will be made to suffer for it.
Marie’s father is the local schoolmaster in the village. He has also taken over the care of a farm belonging to the father of Jacques, the father having decided to leave the village with his son after the man’s wife died. Jacques’ father trusts Marie’s father completely. But as it happens Marie’s father will make problems for himself with the estate. What problems? He suffers from a stubborn sense of pride. Although he manages the farm honestly, he will not show records of it to any public officials who wish to see them, feeling his honour will be impugned by doing so. This prompts nosy villagers to spread rumours about his integrity, privately saying he is stealing from estate in order to enrich himself. This disrespect will lead him to despair.
Meanwhile he has consented to lend Balthazar to the local baker. Although she might have resisted such a thing, Marie is too passive to prevent it. Or it could be she consented because the son of the baker is Gérard, the rebel delinquent who professes to love her but doesn’t. The baker puts Gérard to work delivering loaves of baguettes. His moped is too small for the job, so he uses Balthazar for his deliveries, two large burlap sacks flung over the donkey’s back, both of them filled with long loaves of French bread.
Gérard is a bully and bullies love nothing more than to pick on the weak and unprotected, on those who who can’t fight back. Balthazar fits the bill perfectly and is subjected to Gérard’s perverse cruelty: whippings, beatings, kicks, even his tail lit on fire at one point. Gérard immaturely glories in his strength, which is no strength at all, just a prankster’s idea of causing pain in others.
Balthazar endures the maltreatment. He does what is expected of him, even if it is to absorb violent blows for reasons he cannot comprehend.
A town drunk named Arnold takes pity on Balthazar and briefly rescues him from Gérard, refusing to return him. But Arnold is rarely sober and can’t properly tend to Balthazar, so it’s he who gives him over to the circus, though Balthazar’s stay there is also brief.
Jacques returns to the village and tries to engage Marie in his affections again. But she is cool, distant, and disrespects him, calling him boring. She thinks marriage is stupid and she’s never seen a happy one yet, so she thinks theirs will end up just as bad. So even weak and passive Marie who is usually kind to others is cruel in the end to Jacques, a boy who sincerely cares for her. Jacques has no other option than to let her be and leave, which he does.
Gérard and his gang assault Marie one afternoon in a remote hay barn. Her father finds her there, naked and crying. She will not say what happened to her but her father guesses the worst. His pride and reputation are further damaged. Thus Marie decides to run away. Where she goes nobody knows, including us.
Gérard gets involved in smuggling. He and a mate use Balthazar to run contraband over the hills into nearby Spain, it seems. They are shot at one evening in the moonlight but manage to escape, running back to the village without Balthazar. A stray bullet catches the donkey in the hind leg. He bleeds and is weakened by the wound. He sleeps on the mountain during the night. The following morning he wanders down to a meadow where a shepherd is herding his sheep. Among the sheep he lies down for a rest. Maybe he thinks it will be temporary and brief, but it turns out otherwise, the bleeding uninterrupted and no one to care for him, not even the shepherd. The sheep look on in wonder at this different-looking being. Balthazar lays his head down in the grass, the sun shining brilliantly on it. He closes his eyes as the film ends.
As the main protagonist, Balthazar is obviously an existential being. His existence is curtailed as are the existences of everyone and everything. But his restrictions are acute. Never once do we know what he thinks, if he does. From what we can see he is just property, a convenient thing to be used. Which could raise the question, what else is a donkey? And to that question the obvious answer is: a natural being, not a piece of property. But not to these villagers, Marie and Jacques (and maybe Arnold, the village drunk) excepted. Property is all he is, a slave and beast of burden. The villagers are peasants, rough and insensitive. Cruelty is everywhere in nature, a part of life, of village life too. The strong dominate the weak, the aggressive push out the passive.
Marie leaves. So does Balthazar in a sense, dying in a meadow far from the village, all alone apart from the uncomprehending sheep round him who baah because they can.
Some have compared Balthazar to Christ in spirit, both misunderstood, maltreated, banished, and it’s true Christ was associated with both donkeys and sheep. He famously rode a donkey into Jerusalem, if the New Testament is to be believed, and he was often among sheep and lambs, using them to illustrate the famous parables he told. He was largely passive and accepting, rarely forcing his will on others. He was loved and cared for by some, but most treated him indifferently or cruelly. These comments could seem far-fetched, but Bresson himself never fully denied such assertions.
What can we say?
The fate of the passive may not turn out well. This is one possible reading. We can be accepting and probably should be, but only selectively. If we are too weak or trusting, the wrong persons may exploit us. If there is willpower or something like it, it is there to be used. If we can’t protect ourselves when we are old enough and strong enough to do so, who will?
Balthazar, the solitary existential, existed for all to use or abuse. No longer a child of nature or God, he became their instrument. He surrendered his essence and got little in return for doing so. The world is not evil but can be dangerous, so sometimes it pays to be active in our doubts and suspicions.