The most memorable donkey in the history of cinema is an infinitely better actor than his human counterparts in Robert Bresson’s emotionally stunted Au hasard Balthazar.
Director of Photography:
Running time: 95 minutes
Even though they almost always deal with profoundly spiritual issues, most of Robert Bresson’s films cannot be taken very seriously because the acting is so unbelievably bad. The French director famously used amateurs because he considered them blank canvases onto which it was easier to project fictional characters than would be the case with professional actors. And yet, the result, inevitably, is people uncomfortably saying lines that sound like a machine reading a page instead of an actual person speaking his/her mind. It’s diction without emotion, and the result is one laughably robotic line reading after another. Luckily, the main actor in Au hasard Balthazar is not a human but a donkey. And he is unaffected by these demands from Bresson, which makes the film at least somewhat acceptable to watch.
One of Bresson’s most highly acclaimed films (in the 2012 Sight and Sound critics’ poll, it took the 16th spot, handily beating out the director’s other entry on the list, Pickpocket, at no. 63), Au hasard Balthazar is certainly very successful at its anthropomorphism. But while we see the donkey as a person, it is very unfortunate that we also tend to view the lethargic characters as donkeys, or even worse, inanimate still lifes incapable of change.
The most grating example of this passivity is the non-donkey lead in the film, Marie (Anne Wiazemsky). Early on, she tenderly places a crown of flowers around the head of her pet donkey, Balthazar. She sits back down on a bench and looks fondly at him. Behind her, a petty criminal, Gérard (François Lafarge), sneaks up and touches her hand. Marie’s response? She simply gets up and moves gingerly into the house. Looking back timidly at Gérard, she sees his gang of good-for-nothing buddies have joined him in brutally kicking poor Balthazar for their own amusement. She makes no effort to protect the donkey, nor does she display any particular revulsion at his suffering.
A few days later, after her family has hired out Balthazar to a baker, who coincidentally employs Gérard to deliver the bread, Marie spots the donkey alone next to the road. She strokes him, lovingly, as she always does, when she sees Gérard appear with a lascivious look on his face. She slowly moves back to her car, but Gérard follows her onto the passenger seat. But she says nothing, and she does nothing. Two tears roll down her cheeks. And then he rapes her.
A few days later, he does the same. Her response? She starts dating him.
This narrative progression is not only sickening but makes Marie one of the weakest characters ever to grace the silver screen. And worst of all, she does not demonstrate any trace of doubt or self-reflection or anger or shame. For her, resistance is not only futile but unimaginable.
But let’s forget about Marie for a moment, as she is clearly unworthy of our empathy and perhaps even discussion.
The plot advances episodically with very awkward transitions between its various parts. Balthazar grows older and is passed from one owner to the next, each of whom whips him, kicks him or smashes a chair over his back. Although Balthazar is merely a donkey, he often realises this treatment is inhumane and sets off for greener pastures. The same, alas, cannot be said for Marie. She may be a fictional human of flesh and blood but clearly has no common sense.
The actions (or rather, the lack of any action) around Balthazar continually become more and more peculiar. The first owner from whom the donkey manages to escape is a farmer. In its youth, the donkey’s trot turns into a full-fledged gallop while it is transporting a heavy load of hay, and the attendant instability causes the cart and its cargo to keel over. Within seconds, a group of rowdy townspeople, pitchforks in hand, arrive to take out their anger (?) on poor Balthazar, who manages to scamper away just in time. These people are cartoonish in every way, seemingly the French version of Frankenstein‘s mob, but there is no explanation for their sudden appearance.
Since she is one of the film’s two main characters, let’s return to Marie for a moment. Another head-scratching moment comes late in the film after she appears to have been gang raped. Naturally, Gérard is one of the aggressors. Our first glimpse of the devastating scene comes after the fact, when a group of people, including Marie’s childhood love and hopeful wannabe beau, Jacques, peer expressionlessly through a window as she sobs, bruised and naked, inside. His inaction is yet further proof that this film’s characters are wholly devoid of human emotion.
The film’s visual style relies on a great many close-ups – sometimes to an obsessive degree. The shots are mostly of hands and feet, whose meaning is open to interpretation, but also of Balthazar’s face. This kind of intimacy draws us close. We may not get any information about his state of mind, but by being closer to this victim of human cruelty and indifference, we feel we can almost stroke him and put him at ease. Such shots make us forget, even just for a moment, about the chilling interruption (a donkey braying) of Massimiliano Damerini’s otherwise gentle “Piano Sonata in A Major” that plays over the opening credits.
Au hasard Balthazar does not have the narrative focus of Bresson’s Pickpocket nor the visual clarity of his A Man Escaped. The motivation for its characters’ (in)action is mostly unclear or simply incomprehensible. The only character that appeals to our emotions is Balthazar. Sadly, his presence alone cannot lift the film out of the realm of mediocrity.