Au hasard Balthazar (1966)
Directed by Robert Bresson
Perhaps one of the most well-known assertions regarding Bresson’s heartbreaking Au hasard Balthazar was made by Jean-Luc Godard, who hailed the film as “The world in an hour and a half.” Godard was not only alluding to the film’s extraordinary depth in depicting the overwhelming hardship and suffering of a donkey throughout his life in rural France, but was also suggesting a greater, universal dimension to Bresson’s masterpiece—one that elevates the plebeian animal to higher, even heavenly levels.
Au hasard Balthazar follows the life and death of a donkey named Balthazar, starting when he is first a foal, throughout his life as he gets passed from owner to owner. Each owner, either inadvertently or purposely, mistreats the animal. Parallel to Balthazar’s travails, a young girl named Marie (Anne Wiazemsky),who is the donkey’s first owner, also experiences similar burdens as circumstances separate them. Both Balthazar and Marie are treated as property by several of the townsmen. One of Balthazar’s owners is the son of a baker named Gerard (Francois Lafarge) who beats and abuses Balthazar. Gerard also happens to be Marie’s romantic interest, despite the abusive nature of their relationship. Of course Bresson never falls into melodrama, even at times when the tension is heightened: like when Gerard chases Marie out of a car as he tries to sexually advance on her. It’s a quiet scene—only Jean Wiener’s gentle piano score fills the ears. Bresson is brilliant in finding poetry rather than dismay in such moments and as in all of his films, one must look past the austerity to find the beauty.
Not shying away from Christian allegory, the film saddles Balthazar with the townsmen’s sins, and he becomes a martyr. Bresson elevates the animal to a holy status. Even towards the end of the film, as Gerard and his gang try to take Balthazar away, Marie’s mother turns to Gerard in tears and says, “He’s worked enough. He’s old. He’s all I have… besides, he’s a saint.” Alejandro Veciana (Nov 23-29 at the Metrograph; showtimes daily)