Au Hasard, Balthazar (1966)

“Ridicule is the one thing we must avoid at all costs.”

Au Hasard Balthazar Poster

Synopsis:
A donkey named Balthazar is mistreated at the hands of multiple owners; meanwhile, a meek village girl (Anne Wiazemsky) suffers in her dysfunctional relationship with a local thug (Francois Lafarge).

Genres:

Review:
Robert Bresson’s tragic tale of a donkey abused by his many masters — and the young woman (Marie) who loves him for a time, only to devolve into her own miserable existence as a low-level moll — has been labeled his “greatest achievement… a deeply felt fable about the pitfalls of human cruelty”, and “the supreme masterpiece by one of the greatest of 20th-century filmmakers”. It’s viewed by some as a Christian allegory, with Balthazar a sort of humble Christ symbol, and Marie (“Mary”) his “mother”; others prefer to read it on a more literal level, as a tale simply about “the dignity of being itself”.

While I certainly can’t refute the deeply reverent relationship many viewers have with this film, I must admit that I found myself surprisingly unmoved by it. Bresson’s distinctive cinematic style — strategically designed to emulate a marriage of music and painting, with emotionless, non-acting “models” rather than actors inhabiting roles — is ultimately not for all tastes. While I admire his intentions, his approach doesn’t work for me on a basic empathetic level. I’m so distracted watching his “models” move self-consciously across the screen that I’m overly aware of their role as dramatic placeholders, to the detriment of my ability to relate to the film on any personal level. This is all the more of a shame given that Bresson’s visuals are consistently stunning; frame after frame is lovingly composed, and gorgeously shot by his D.P. (Ghislain Cloquet).

Call me a Bressonian grinch, but I’m only recommending this one as must-see for its undeniable cinematic stamp of approval by most critics. You’ll have to judge its ultimate merit for yourself. Instead, I’ll continue to rally for Diary of a Country Priest (1951) as the film for which Bresson’s unique approach is best suited.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Powerful imagery and cinematography
    Au Hasard Imagery1
    Au Hasard Imagery3
    Au Hasard Imagery6

Must See?
Yes. While it’s not a personal favorite, this film is too historically important and critically lauded to miss. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “Au Hasard, Balthazar (1966)”

  1. First viewing. Not must-see. (This one is really only for the much more adventurous of film fanatics – even ffs who like to ‘branch out a little’ will most likely find this one challenging, without guarantee of a pay-off.)

    Even though Bresson did not consider himself a traditional Catholic, to me this film does rather clearly read as Christian allegory. (Bresson is on record as saying the film was inspired by something the character Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s ‘The Idiot’ says about being cured of melancholy after hearing a donkey bray in a marketplace.)

    It’s not an easy film to watch, but at least it’s a manageable length (95 min.). The storyline is not exactly clear – it’s almost as if the details of the plot are not important beyond the basics, which you can probably manage…but it’s still a bit frustrating. For a film concerned with spirituality, it’s almost totally bleak…as though God only exists through a glass darkly and cannot really be witnessed or felt (much) in life.

    I wasn’t all that bothered by the actors being non-professional. I mostly find the film a bit too much on the lethargic side. But I did note that it was shot by Cloquet, who here seems rather hampered by Bresson’s style. (He would seem more free with ‘Le Trou’, ‘Love and Death’, ‘Tess’, etc.)

    (I intend to see Bresson’s ‘A Man Escaped’ rather soon. Peary doesn’t list it as a title of note.)

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