Au Hasard Balthazar: Life in a world that hates us.

In New York City at the moment there is a Bresson retrospective and I am insanely jealous – what wouldn’t I give to be in New York to see this at the Forum at the moment (besides the obvious – the cash to get there)! One of the films on offer will be Au Hasard Balthazar, a film I finally got to watch on the weekend, after waiting for almost a year to get my hands on a copy.

Au Hasard Balthazar is the story of a donkey and a young girl who occasionally tends him. Each creature grows to face their own and each others suffering at the hand of a deeply cruel world. The French title of the film might be translated to mean “The Misadventures of Balthazar”, or more loosely, “The Random Fate of Balthazar”. It emphasizes how we are all subject to the arbitrary machinations of events in the world that are (almost) completely beyond our control. But this film reflects Bresson’s increasingly pessimistic view of human weakness and failure.

The film stars Anne Wiazemsky, who plays the role of Marie.  She appears to have lived my dream life in that she was the granddaughter of Francois Mauriac, and later, after marrying Jean-Luc Godard and appearing in several French New Wave films, became a successful novelist.

In the breif introduction to the film, the young children of a French farmer convince their father to keep a donkey that has just been born, and they name him “Balthazar”. The children and the donkey have an idyllic existence flooded with affection, including a blooming childhood love between the farmer’s son, Jacques, and Marie, who is the daughter of a schoolteacher.

Roughly ten years have now gone by, and Balthazar has been sold and turned into a draught animal. After a road accident enables Balthazar to escape from his cruel owner, he finds his way back to the old farm, which is now tended by Marie’s father, who is trying make a go of it as a farmer. Marie is now a pretty young women, and she attracts the attention of the local hood, Gerard, whose sole interest seems to be wanton destructiveness. Jacques, now grown into a honorable young gentleman, returns for a visit and expresses his continued interest in Marie, but she prefers the reckless and abusive Gerard. Soon she is Gerard’s sexual slave, receiving no tenderness from him in return. After economic and legal disasters ruin Marie’s vane father, Balthazar is sold to a baker, who employs Gerard for bread deliveries. Gerard demonstrates his continuing evil nature by whipping and abusing Balthazar at every chance, stealing from the baker’s cash drawer, and making the baker’s wife his sexual slave, too.

In connection with the investigation into a local murder, the police question Gerard and his gang, along with a local impoverished drunkard, Arnold, who is a simple fool when sober, but becomes violent and destructive when inebriated. Arnold gains possession of the now-ill Balthazar just before the baker was about to “put him away”, and after restoring Balthazr to health uses the donkey for odd jobs. But Arnold is frequently the target of Gerard and his gang. When drunk, Arnold cruelly beats Balthazar. Eventually Arnold comes into a lot of money through an inheritance, but Gerard and his friends crash the celebration party, smash the bar up, and ply Arnold with so much alcohol that he falls on the way home and dies. His possessions, including Balthazar, are sold.

The miller buys Balthazar and treats him poorly, badly harnessing him and beating him into submission all the time. After sleeping with Marie, who has been abandoned by Gerard and reduced to being a homeless prostitute, the miller returns Balthazar to Marie’s family, who have come to take Marie back home.

Marie and Jacques are back home, and Jacques returns from the city to press his romantic case once more. But Marie spurns his love and rushes off to Gerard’s cottage, where she is gang-rapped and abandoned again. Marie then runs away, forever it is assumed, and her prideful father, frustrated by all his humiliating failures, dies of grief. Gerard comes to steal Balthazar for a smuggling operation near the border, and in the event, Balthazar is shot and dies. The closing shot has the dying Balthazar wandering into a meadow where a flock of sheep surround him. He lies down in the grass and slowly passes away as the recurring musical theme of Schubert’s mournful piano Sonata in A Major is played on the soundtrack.

It is interesting reading around all the different interpretations of this film. There are many;  however most revolve (of course) around the donkey Balthazar (the name of one of the three wise kings who come to see the Christ child in the manger) and the stong biblical references around the figure; Marie is the girl who parallels his existence (another name for Mary), Balthazar is christened by the children, Maries crown of flowers looks like the crown of thorns, Balthazar is passed around seven owners who each represent the 7 deadly sins, it was a donkey carried the pregnant Mary to the manger, the Golgotha style hill-side where he dies, the stigmata style wound etc. What people state over and over is their surprise at being so powerfully moved by a donkey. It’s difficult to place your finger on the direct cause, but by the time Marie’s mother declares Balthazar a saint, toward the end of the film, we enthusiastically agree with her.  It’s almost impossible to imagine a film since this where an animal has been able to provoke such a strong response.

I will give my attempt at an answer to this.

It is worth remembering Bresson’s own style in relation to how this film works so well – it also highlights (in my opinion) what an extremely brilliant film maker Bresson is – far greater than all the metaphor analysis imply. Bresson specifically made his films with a view to forcing the viewer to construct his own, individual diegesis. Bresson belonged to a school of thought that argued experience has no causality. We assign meaning to things later, but at the time the meaning is missing. Bresson made it well-known that he wanted the audience to have this direct causal-construction experience with his films narrative. This is well documented, and is his reason behind not choosing actors to play in his films, but rather ‘models’ to almost ‘read’ out the parts assigned them. He didn’t want actors imposing their own personal causality that might impact on the films interpretation for the viewer. This si why the performances are so ‘flat’ and why there are so many downcast eyes. The downcast eyes deflects the mirror of the other, reduces the interactive experience and therefore the interpretive causality.  As a consequence, each viewer of a Bresson film will construct his diegetic interpretation within the framework of his or her own experiences.

Now, in terms of a ‘model’ that will not transmit its own causal interpretation, a donkey is the absolute perfect Bresson ‘actor’.  His eyes are expressionless and many moments of witness throughout the film have Balthazar standing to the side, with his back to the ‘action’. The donkey can’t speak expect to bray in the most primal way – a response only to physical discomfort.  However, throughout the film, designs and interpretations of ‘who’ the donkey is, are repeatedly cast upon him. Balthazar is held by others to be a hard worker, a loving being, a fool, a genius, and even a saint. Each character imposes on Balthazar an interpretive reflection based on their own mental frameworks. All of these mental frameworks  are symbol-based and dualistic – they can never capture the raw passionate nature of existence, since that existence is beyond essence and explanation.

In Dostoyevky’s The Idiot, Prince Myshkin remarks that he was cured of his melancholy one day in Switzerland when he heard the braying of a donkey in the marketplace. Bresson has remarked that his Balthazar was inspired by that very passage. In the instant experience of the donkey, our history of what a donkey is (a very saintly biblical character) collide with the raw primal actuality of the creatures existence. This contrast between the rational mental schemes and the primal nature of pure existence are highlighted in the opening titles when Schuberts contemplative piano theme is interrupted and then sublimated by the persistent and loud braying of Balthazar. There is nothing but passion in the donkey’s braying. Balthazar is not a saint. He is not a sinner. His only ‘virtue’ is the absence of malice. However, he is completely ’causeless’.  Bresson places the weight of his interpretation completely on our shoulders in every way.  We are entirely responsible for how we see him.

For me, this is partly why the connection with Balthazar is so pure. He ‘is’ existence. It is also why the interpretations fall so far short of what Bresson was trying to do. Bresson is preaching nothing to us here. He is revealing the misery of life – a certain kind of truth. However, through Balthazar, and his refusal to administer any causality, our experience of the film is our own and an intensely personal one. More personal than say, if Bresson was trying to ‘send’ us a message.

The contrast between the paltry schemes concocted by mental reflection and the wonder of pure existence is a continuing theme of Bresson’s work. Here, however, the focus is a lamentation on the abject state of man rather than the beauty and passion in the possibility of existence. Bresson posits technologies against each other to represent man’s exploitative impositions: motorcycles, cars and transistor radios. All these things appear out-of-place next to Balthazar, his carts, bread and the idyllic French farm-scape. Indeed it is Gerard, the depths of man’s inhumanity who is usually seen with these noisy devices.

One of the problems with the film is the character of Marie. Bresson has pared down his films so much by the time we get to Au Hasard Balthazar that there is little room for romantic passion. The connection to Jacques seems more plausible than the connection to Gerard. Marie says to her mother, “Do we know why we love someone? If he says, ‘come’, I come.” She goes on to add, “I’d kill myself for him.” This level of passion for another person is completely unmotivated in the film and seems so absurd that the viewer is tempted to dismiss Marie at that point.

however, there is a disturbing theme within the film that comes out of this love of Marie’s and that is the self-destructiveness of Marie, her father, and Arnold, which is brought about by their separate withdrawals from human affairs and their refusal to take defensive action. This converts an existential loneliness into an expressionistic nightmare. Marie’s father stubbornly refuses to defend himself because of his ego. Marie ruins herself, because she seems to want to abolish her ego and become the slave of Gerard. Arnold swings wildly between overweening ego (when drunk) and egolessness (when sober). When they each abandon their will to take action, they become the subjects of cruel dominators, just like Balthazar (who, unlike his human fellows, has no choice in the matter).  This self destructiveness is the chilling dark side of the film. Except in the case of Marie (about whom we don’t know) this refusal to defend themselves will bring about death for these characters – even Balthazar, who didn’t have the choice.

What we have here then is an example of the deadening and demanding life of the French peasants without the life-affirming exhilaration that go with it. In Au Hasard Balthazar there is no seeker (except for Jaques), no salvation, no redemption, only suffering. Marie is ruined and then abandoned by the narrative.  Balthazar is killed by a random bullet. there is absolutely no expectation in either of these main characters that they will transcend their surroundings of have any experience of the sublime. Interestingly, Bresson went on to make Mouchette after this.

There is SO much more to talk about. Doors, doors doors – Bresson uses doors to great effect here – similar to the way he did in Pickpocket. Hands and feet. There is more emphasis on hands and feet in this film than I have seen in any of Bresson’s films. We learn about the world through our senses but we act in the world through our hands and feet. Actions are our response to what is going on inside us and the way we are seeing and interpreting the world. Downcast eyes, clothes, wraps – money money money. So many themes I can’t go into right now because this post is already way too long.

See if for yourself, and let me know if there is anything you’d like to talk about in the comments.