Thomas Lowery, Contributing Writer
Au Hasard Balthazar’s greatness and beauty lie in its tragically honest, u n c o m p r o m i s i n g adherence to the reality of man’s moral shortcomings. The film, directed by the legendary Robert Bresson in 1966, follows a donkey, Balthazar, from birth to death, focusing on his several owners and the ill manner in which they treat him. Balthazar’s doleful journey propels the story, but Bresson uses him more as a device to examine the enigmatic nature of human cruelty. Balthazar is a victim, as is his first owner, a young farm girl who is the only one who ever really loved him. Harsh reality, concerning both the business of life and the morally wayward people who sometimes control it, separate the girl and the donkey, thus setting up Bresson’s challenging yet sublime narrative.
Bresson, arguably France’s finest director and one of the most eminent auteurs of the 20th century, was as much intrigued by the possibilities of film as he was concerned with separating it from theatre. The histrionics of the latter are never present in his work, as evidenced by his use of nonprofessional actors and the lack of emotion in which their scenes are performed. Bresson referred to actors, somewhat tongue-incheek, as models, human faces to be placed in front of the camera for the viewer to study. Rather than using theatrical drama to spell a mood or idea, Bresson relied merely on raw human emotion found in the face to convey his interests.
Bresson would at times shoot a scene repeatedly until an actor was worn down, devoid of any artificial sentiments. This may sound like a recipe for insipidity, yet Bresson’s technique creates a surprisingly potent experience. We feel we are seeing human beings rather than performers attempting to exhibit emotions. Consequently, his movies can seem formidable, for by not allowing his characters to spoonfeed the audience, the viewer must study them, their expressions, their solemn words and figure out what is trying to be said.
Au Hasard Balthazar might be Bresson’s most difficult film, because not only does he use this unusual method with his actors, but he tackles some of the murkiest depths of the human soul without giving any clear insight into his subject. The movie demands multiple viewings, and even then it might not be fully understood.
Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that “Bresson is one of the saints of the cinema, and Au Hasard Balthazar is his most heartbreaking prayer.” We see this in the innocence of the victims, Balthazar and the farm girl, and in the rugged, modern society in which they are torn to pieces. There is a dark, at times inexplicable beauty to the movie, chiefly lying in the purity of the donkey and the girl, the mystery as to how they could be treated with such indignity, and the solemn grace with which Bresson manages to capture it.