One of the chief pleasures of revisiting older experimental films lies in seeing which cinematic techniques gained mainstream acceptance and which techniques died on the vine. Still widely regarded as one of the principle touchstones of European art house film, Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar is a bold, but somewhat problematic attempt to imbue the intense social realism of the French New Wave with the fantastical themes and imagery of religious symbolism.
The film opens in a field where two children convince a farmer to bring his newly born donkey to the bedside of a sick girl. The kids (literally) baptise the donkey Balthazar and leave him to watch over the sick girl who grows up into aconfused young woman named Marie (Anne Wiazemsky).
Marie’s confusion stems from the fact that her father (Philippe Asselin) is a teacher who gave up his job in order to farm some land he did not own. Determined to give everyone the benefit of the doubt even when they beginspreading malicious rumours about him, Marie’s father comes across as a bourgeois sap who lacks the courage to defend himself, let alone denounce the ills of others. Disgusted by her father’s passivity and cowardice, Marie stumbles into an affair with Gerard (Francois Lafarge) a local farm worker whose sadism and selfishness stand in stark contrast to the passive stupidity of Marie’s father.
Trapped between these two deeply flawed men, Marie soon finds herself having to answer for both sets of perceived moral transgressions: As the daughter of a passive middle-class farmer, she is scorned and mistreated by Gerard and his friends. As the lover of a sadistic working-class thug, she is virtually disowned by her own father. The harder Marie struggles, the more the people around her mistreat and humiliate her until eventually there is nothing left.
The most striking thing about Au Hasard Balthazar is the lack of emotion displayed by any of the actors. For example, Anne Wiazemsky’s Marie is literally destroyed by the people who claim to love her and yet the closest she comes to an emotional outburst is a few sarcastic remarks made to an old miser upon finally deciding to sell her battered body for food. This lack of emotional expression also serves to make the actions of Gerard and the Father seem even more monstrous as Bresson’s refusal to give us any insight into the characters’ emotional states means that we have no real context in which to make sense of their actions. However, despite such heroic emotional restraint, Au Hasard Balthazar remains an incredibly moving film… because of the donkey.
Balthazar is the name of a small donkey that was brought to Marie’s bedside as a child. Baptised by Marie’s friends, the donkey goes on to live a life of almost surreal misery in which he is passed between a series of sadistic and uncaring owners before eventually collapsing in the middle of a field. Aside from mirroring Marie’s treatment by the men in her life, the treatment of Balthazar is imbued with spiritual significance with some often quite heavy-handed religious symbolism.
There is something uniquely grandiose and silly about the thematic structure of Au Hasard Balthazar: This is a film in which Jesus is represented by a donkey that also represents a young woman. The absolutely fascinating thing about this experimental use of symbolism is that while the link between Marie and Balthazar works astonishingly well, the link between Balthazar and Christ seems like a metaphor too far. Indeed, while the donkey helps us sympathise with the impassive and often incomprehensibly self-destructive Marie, the religious symbolism only serves to lend this suffering some sort of dignified legitimacy, as though the donkey somehow died for our sins.
The beautiful thing about this failure is that a case could be made for seeing it as intentional. After all, what is the point of religious belief if not a palliative sense that all the world’s suffering serves some greater purpose? And what greater signifier of atheism than the feeling that such ontological apologism serves only to distract us from the sufferings of real people?
Au Hasard Balthazar is more than deserving of its status as a classic of European art house film. Boldly experimental and intensely moving even when the experiments struggle to pay off, Bresson’s film is as fresh and different today as it was on the day it was first released.