Continuing this month’s retrospective on the work of filmmaker Robert Bresson at The National Gallery of Art, their theater will be screening Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) next week. Here is a strange film that compares the lives of its human characters to that of its titular star, a donkey.
The film follows the life of Balthazar as it changes hands from owner to owner in a small French village. In the opening we meet two young kids (around 10 or so), Marie and Jacques, nestled into each other’s arms on a swing set. They make promises to marry when they are older. You have to hand it to the French, they fall in love fast! In a ritualistic game, the two kids baptize young Balthazar. Perhaps they want to make sure it will make it into heaven. Marie falls in love with it and takes care of it for years.
Unfortunately, Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) and Jacques (Walter Green) are not destined to be together. Jacques’ father believes Marie’s father might be stealing from their family farm, as neighbors have been suggesting. Marie’s father is as stubborn as a mule, and instead of attempting to prove his innocence, walks out during court simply because he is offended at the notion that his work methods might be anything less than admirable. Marie is no better. She is in love with a hoodlum named Gérard (François Lafarge) who runs around town with a group of local ruffians. Gérard mistreats Marie (and Balthazar) severely, but she (and the donkey) accepts the abuse with a quiet humility.
After escaping the abuse of Gérard, Balthazar is taken up with Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert), a drunkard who recently killed a man while intoxicated. He treats it well enough. Later, Balthazar wanders off and has his fifteen minutes of fame. He is billed in a circus as a donkey that can do mathematics. He is passed around from person to person as a commodity until he dies.
Balthazar takes his licks and keeps on ticking. His fate is always decided upon by others. Bresson is suggesting that Balthazar’s fate is the fate of us all. No matter how much we try to control our lives (and control others further down the food chain), we are still shackled to fate. In the grand scheme of things, we have no more control than Balthazar does. All of life’s blessings and curses happen au hasard (“haphazardly” or “by chance”).
Balthazar is a saint. I mean that both literally and figuratively. His simplicity is noble and candid, but it is there by nature. It does what a donkey does because it is a donkey. But, if it were a human with such an approach to life, he would be canonized. By comparison, Balthazar is probably the most likable and sympathetic character in the film. This is yet another movie that shaped Robert Bresson’s legacy as the “Catholic director.” It portrays the life and death of a donkey with a saintly disposition, sure, but this film goes beyond Bresson’s usual themes and delves into a broader metaphysical terrain. It still stands as one of Bresson’s most interesting films.
Au Hasard Balthazar will play at The National Gallery of Art on March 18 at 4:30 in their east building concourse. The film will screen along with another one of Bresson’s classics, Mouchette (1967). The film is available on DVD from the Criterion Collection, along with many other works by the director. For more on The National Gallery’s Bresson retrospective, as well as other film’s they’re screening, you can download their film program from their website here.