Balthazar, the donkey of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, rarely protests the miseries of his life. Occasionally he kicks and brays, but these actions seem intended to remind humans of his presence, momentarily breaking the spell of their self-consumption. Balthazar is the embodiment of what Bresson sought from actors: a mournful stoicism that’s so supple yet elusive it means nothing and everything. This religious parable is ironically concerned with the transcendence of abandoning religion.
Balthazar is a “saint” because he seems to require no rationalization for his life, abiding in a post-religious state, and so the humans’ religious honoring of him feels superfluous. Isn’t this state what we seek when we flock to religion, art, yoga, and recreational drugs? Balthazar looks atrocity in the eyes without indulging in hysteria or self-pity, and his thoughts remain a mystery. Occasionally and hauntingly, one can swear that he’s smiling in response to moments of rare pleasure, though this might be a Kuleshov effect.
Above all, Balthazar possesses a mighty dignity. His unflinching sobriety parallels that of Bresson, whose lack of sentimentality has been overstated. Bresson isn’t without compassion for his characters, particularly Balthazar, but he finds the declarative emoting of melodrama to be evasive and cluttered. A stark image of Balthazar as he’s whipped by a greedy farmer—who forces him to circle a field to draw water in a metaphor for the repetitive disappointments of our lives—is enough on its own. Bresson doesn’t condescend to Balthazar by pitying him, because pity is a human emotion and Balthazar isn’t humanized the way animals usually are in films.
Bresson withholds traditional emotional crescendos, strengthening audiences’ connection to Balthazar, who perhaps look to him as a barometer for what they should be feeling. Such desire for orientation is human nature, which is what Bresson deconstructs. As Paul Schrader observed in Transcendental Style in Film, this withholding intensifies the overt emotionalism when it arrives, leading to catharsis. In Au Hasard Balthazar, this catharsis occurs when Balthazar, dying from an action wrought by human absurdity, is surrounded by sheep in a field as Schubert’s Piano Sonata no. 20 is reprised on the soundtrack. This moment of grace—in which Balthazar’s heroic dignity is recognized and given its due by other subjugated animals—is one of the most beautiful and surpassingly moving stanzas in art. A world in which Balthazar would go unnoticed is a world that might not be worth saving.
The donkey is noticed by humans, especially the farm girl Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), who shows him tenderness, kissing his face and crowning him with flowers. But this bond is troubled and ambiguous, as Bresson renders Marie less readable than Balthazar. How can this girl proclaim her love for Balthazar’s chief tormenter, Gerard (François Lafarge), an abusive thug who surfaces throughout the film? Abusive relationships are plentiful, but Marie and Gerard’s situation is deliberately random and unconvincing, as if forged by a god (Bresson) for the sake of suffering. Many such riddles govern the film, which is unusually rich in plot for Bresson, though the narrative strands—inspired by the seven deadly sins—exist at odds with one another, connoting a prickly world of baffling and pointless happenstance. A murder is accorded less emphasis here, for instance, than Gerard’s spiteful destruction of a bar, which explodes the violence and sadness that’s latent throughout the film.
Bresson weds an elliptical plot with explicit religious symbolism with exacting details of everyday life, fostering an ecstatic sense of simultaneous coherence and incoherence. Au Hasard Balthazar feels as if it can never be quite known, and there’s a simple and precious freedom in watching scenes that aren’t emotionally coded, allowing one to savor texture. Balthazar is a stunning figure in part because the film’s other elements don’t distract from him; when the humans are playing out their heartbreaking feuds, one wonders where he is. Close-ups of his feet in the mud as he completes awful, thankless tasks have religious power for being allowed to occupy the entirety of the frame, and for the rapturous amount of time that Bresson holds those frames. Our biorhythms slow with such emphases, as one’s made aware of the existential drama that is a farm animal trudging the earth. Such dramas unceasingly play out, largely unnoticed, in a world of ineffable multitudes. Bresson’s merciless precision is an act of paying attention—an act of respect and empathy.
The whites of this image look a little shrill and soft, as they did on the Criterion Collection’s previous edition, though this may be inherent to the film’s visual design. Blacks are rich and dense, and the level of detail in this image is striking, honoring the film’s hallucinatory sense of specificity. Balthazar’s hair has a thick intensity, and Marie’s face has a porcelain quality that suggests her to be a trapped doll. Facial and background details are extraordinary throughout this image. The monaural soundtrack has been more noticeably upgraded from Criterion’s prior edition. Balthazar’s brays have a piercing, guttural power, and one’s continually aware of the feast of balanced diegetic noises that ground this world in a busy and tactile reality. Franz Shubert’s Piano Sonata no. 20 has a piquant, exacting clarity that contrasts movingly with Balthazar’s spontaneous cries of pain.
"Un Metteur en Ordre: Robert Bresson," a 1966 French television program about the film, featuring Robert Bresson, filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and Louis Malle, and members of Au Hasard Balthazar’s cast and crew, has been ported over from Criterion’s prior edition of the film. The 60-minute documentary is good to have for the sake of posterity, but it’s awfully dry. It’s weirdly encouraging, however, to see even artists of Godard and Malle’s stature struggle to describe the film’s strange, holy emotional effects. The interview with film scholar Donald Richie from 2004, also ported over from the prior disc, is more succinct and profound. Richie discusses Bresson’s cinema as being concerned with characters who are waiting, and he powerfully articulates the mystery and density of the film’s construction. James Quandt’s essay, from 2005, intimately examines Au Hasard Balthazar’s religious framework, while observing a central paradox of Bresson’s work: that his "vaunted austerity" yielded "endless plenitude." The theatrical trailer rounds out a solid package that’s nevertheless in need of an update.
A solid transfer and extras package, but Au Hasard Balthazar is a masterpiece that deserves an updated edition with a wider range of commentary.