The brilliant auteur Robert Bresson has been called the father of French cinema. Many of the greats from France’s New Wave movement considered Bresson their chief influence. Other filmmakers from around the world often pointed to Bresson’s work as effecting the shape and form of cinema for generations. He was known for his unconventional style and techniques which found their roots in his own unique philosophies behind the art of cinema.
Bresson had an intriguing filmography and one of his best pictures is his 1966 drama “Au Hasard Balthazar”. His films often focused on lead characters weighed down by or struggling with their circumstances or their inner-self. The conflicts and turmoils they faced often left them physically or emotionally broken. Bresson’s films are not for those looking for a lighthearted affair. They are thought-provoking examinations of humanity that refuse to shy away from our crueler and harsher sides. “Au Hasard Balthazar” is a stirring example of this approach.
The film follows a donkey named Balthazar who encounters a wide assortment of deeply flawed people during his life. We first see him right after birth living on a small rural farm. Over the film’s quick 95 minutes Balthazar changes hands several times . Many of his owners and handlers abuse him often physically but sometimes out of sheer neglect. But Bresson doesn’t take a cheap way out. Balthazar isn’t a miracle animal. He doesn’t speak or come up with clever ways to repay his abusers. No, he’s just a donkey. Simple, innocent, and true to his nature. He knows what donkeys know, feels what donkeys feel, and acts as donkeys act.
Why is that so important? Because it puts the spotlight on humanity. Balthazar is doing what he should be doing. It’s the people he endures along the way who show their very flawed and sometimes wicked sides. It’s an indictment on the reality of how things are. When speaking on the movie the great filmmaker and one-time critic Jean-Luc Godard called it “the world in an hour and a half”. It’s a sad picture that is sometimes hard to look at. And despite his limitations Balthazar is still intensely sympathetic and able to touch our emotions.
But Bresson doesn’t just follow Balthazar around everywhere. He also tells us the stories of several characters who play roles in the donkey’s life. The main one is Marie (Anne Wiazemsky). She lives on the farm where Balthazar is born and shows love towards him. But in another instance of straying from the conventional, Marie also sits idly by while a group of young thugs led by the slimy Gerard (François Lafarge) beats Balthazar. Marie becomes an emotionless hollow soul, in some ways like Balthazar – a victim of her circumstances. But she loses herself in a much darker place.
Gerard ends up with Balthazar on a couple of occasions and his cruelty towards the animal is unsettling. Gerard is a thug, a thief, and is shown to possibly be a lot worse. There are parts of his story that didn’t make sense to me, but Gerard’s brand of sadistic evil is felt by man and beast. Balthazar also spends time with a baker, a traveling circus, and a local drunk. We see all of these people through the clearest and most honest eyes possible – Balthazar’s.
Several of Bresson’s signature style choices are clearly seen in the film. Most obvious is his penchant for using non-professional actors in his roles. You will rarely find room for big movie stars in a Bresson movie. The director would hire unknowns and then train them specifically for their part. He didn’t want an ounce of theatrics from his actors and he was known to film a scene over and over until every hint of performance was removed. Even more, Bresson didn’t refer to his performers as actors. He called them “models” and they offered a raw and reserved take unlike what you see in the mainstream. When watching “Au Hasard Balthazar” this can be a challenge especially for those not accustomed to Bresson’s work. The characters can appear cold and indifferent, but that also causes us to look at them in a very unique way.
“Au Hasard Balthazar” can be a difficult film to take in. Its narrative can be a bit challenging but once you connect with Bresson’s greater message everything falls into place. It’s visceral and heartbreaking. At the same time it holds a mirror up to the world we live in. And while this film was made in 1966, the reflection it casts is just as piercing today as it was then. Godard’s description of the film is spot on. Bresson shows us the world. The question becomes how are we going to change it? Even more, can we change it?
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS