Robert Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar announces its originality and deep knowledge of the art of cinema and the individual elements that it comprises before the film even begins. The opening credits of older films can be somewhat tedious (though preferable to the current setup, in which the caterer's assistant gets a mention in the endless closing scroll), a bit of bombastic fanfare over still images of text that often clashes harshly with the content of the film itself.
Balthazar opens in a similar fashion, the lilting strains of Schubert's piano sonata no. 20 filling our ears and inviting us calmly into the movie. Then, the music abruptly halts, replaced by the sounds of agonized braying as a donkey gives birth to a foal. The intense screeching carries on for a few seconds before Schubert comes back in as if nothing ever happened. In this sequence is the entire film: a fleeting moment of beauty scarred by pure, rending pain.
It also establishes one of the key aspects of the film's technical mastery: Bresson's use of sound. The audio track of the film is crystal clear, and much of the noises we hear occur somewhere off-screen. Planes flying overhead, cars revving past characters framed in close-up. Godard said of the film that it was "the world in an hour and a half," and this usage of sound outside the frame helps craft a world through which the camera moves as opposed to a strict narrative that focuses only on what's immediate.
This would also explain the editing, an elliptical staging that often skips a number of steps between scenes. After the credits sequence, Balthazar opens on the mare having given birth to her foal as it suckles for the first time. A man and his children approach and the kids beg the man to purchase the foal. He refuses, yet in the very next cut we see the man and the kids headed home with the donkey in tow, where they baptize him. How did the kids convince the adult? Perhaps Bresson suggests that the power of children to influence those who should know better is absolute, and that's about as close as the film ever gets to anything cheery. Soon after, the man's ailing daughter dies, so he takes his son Jacques and leaves the farm. The timeline jumps several years, as the young girl, Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), Jacques' childhood friend, has grown up and lives on the land left to her father, a schoolteacher, by Jacques' dad. They still own the anointed Balthazar, whom Marie treats with tender care, but disputes between Marie and Jacques' fathers over profits from the land, combined with the indefatigable pride of Marie's pop, take everything from the family. As a result, Marie must part with her beloved donkey.
Balthazar is generally accepted to be a Christ parable, with the titular donkey traveling through various situations of abuse and neglect that reflect the Stations of the Cross, and Bresson's strong Catholic upbringing certainly lends credence to this interpretation. It's a justifiable explanation, but one that could easily mislead those who haven't seen the film. Those who would claim the film as a spiritually validating work -- Balthazar is listed as the 6th most spiritually significant film by Arts & Faith -- ignore the abysmally deep level of cynicism on display.
Consider that elliptical editing. Most of it skips over what might have been endearing or at least lighter moments to create harsh juxtapositions. One of the boys in town leads a biker gang: like a combination of Brando's roles in The Wild Ones and A Streetcar Named Desire, he wreaks havoc yet manages to retain some semblance of charisma. We see him leering hungrily at Marie and dumping oil in the middle of the road to cause passing drivers to lose control of their vehicles. Yet the next scene shows the townspeople in church, as the young rapscallion wows the crowd, and especially the previously disgusted Marie, with his angelic singing voice, emphasizing how hollow and meaningless church attendance and participation is as a barometer of morality. The thug, Gérard, and his family buy Balthazar, and the boy tortures the poor beast by burning and beating it even as he exploits it to get closer to Marie. Arnold, the local drunk, takes Balthazar when the creature nears death from a harsh winter, and we then see him leading a healthy donkey around the city. Bresson skips whatever nursing care might have healed Balthazar to jump to Arnold showing off the creature before beating it in a drunken rage. Later, he swears on the Virgin Mary to give up alcohol, yet in the next scene he is guzzling another bottle.
Every edit seems to paint a bleaker portrait of mankind, whether it follows the donkey or Marie. Both, in essence, are treated the same way, shuffled off from one abusive, domineering master to the next. Yet there occasionally converging arcs differ in their subtext: Balthazar's story reveals the ineffectual, even cruel, nature of religion and the Church, while Marie's trials bring out the dispassionate pain brought on by modernity. Those cars and planes that pass by outside the periphery highlight how stifling the world has become. The schoolteacher prospers with the farm because he follows traditional methods as laid out in old almanacs and guides, and he is undone by lawsuits. Marie's own status as every bit the tradable community that the donkey is comments on the same thread Godard spent most of the '60s examining, that of the sociopolitical pressures weighing down women. Gérard abuses her, horribly so near the end, and at one point she winds up at the home of the miller, a miserly old man, soaking wet and starving. She brushes off the lecherous man's advances at first, but he offers her money, which she takes in order to help her father. "That’s what happens when you region honor above everything," the miller says, "He’s spent his life creating obligations for himself. What for? …Do I have any obligations? I’m free, obliged only to do what serves my interests and can bring me a profit. Life’s nothing but a dazzling ground, a marketplace where even your word is unnecessary. A bank stamp will do." Modernity has placed a price on everything, including decency and independence.
The blocking of the film could be another jab at modernization. Balthazar is one of the most meticulously blocked and visually orchestrated films I have ever seen, each character arranged in such a way as to be immediately identifiable and separated from the crowd. In retaliation to the influence of verité among the contemporary French filmmakers and their attempts to find truth by staging their films as if accidents (and perhaps as a response to his own Pickpocket), Bresson makes here a film that, for all its minimalism, makes no bones about its staging. How strange and perfect, then, that it should paint a more complete portrait of the world than the up-and-comers. Martin Scorsese once said, "Cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out," and Au hasard Balthazar stands balanced between the two, placing as much emphasis and weight onto the sounds of objects and people outside the frame as the carefully blocked mise-en-scène; characters often stand slightly out-of-frame as if to further stress this dichotomy. Bresson combines the two into a nearly hopeless vision of the present, yet one that proves emotionally visceral and incessantly moving. Besides, if the boring, clinging Jacques, the symbol of a more traditional time in Marie's life, is any indicator -- to say nothing of Balthazar's status as a Jesus stand-in -- the director hardly has any flowery thoughts for the past either.
The final section of the film bridges the two storylines as the narrative builds into a massive rejection of the social and religious constraints that no longer hold any meaning. Marie's father turns his back on the priest as he sits on his deathbed. Outside, his wife prays, "Lord, don’t take him from me too. Wait. You know how sad and miserable my life will be.” Before she can finish the final syllable, the priest beckons her inside to find her husband dead. She then treats Balthazar, returned to the farm, as a saint in honor of her husband, a moment that combines so much despair, delusion and desperation I started to check the credits for "Ingmar Bergman" or some alias thereof.
Nothing can compare, however, to the ending, as Balthazar, burdened as ever with contraband, collapses on a hill and dies as if on his Golgotha. After watching the poor ass' mistreatment through winces for an hour and a half, this quiet moment of death hits harder than all the previous torture. It is said that the ending is transcendental, the capper to the Christ parable that communicates His sacrifice. To that I would ask how anyone could find redemption or the slightest sliver of faith in this scene. Balthazar is initially surrounded by a group of sheep -- sheep of course being one of the most dominant symbols in Judeo-Christian mythology -- but the flock moves on as he dies, a visualization of the rejection of Christ at his death but also clear, terrible proof that Jesus, despite being killed as public entertainment, died alone. Further calling attention to the hollowness, the horror and the pain of this moment is the final shot, as we can clearly see the donkey still breathing. Perhaps the ass they used was simply a "bad actor," but to see the beast still breathing, to be dying instead of dead, adds a whole other dimension of suffering and agony. Frankly, I should have known better, as Bresson clues us in from the start. "Au hasard" means "by chance," proving that this donkey isn't Jesus: it's just a beast like any other, left to die alone in a field.
Au hasard Balthazar is a technical marvel and an emotionally draining experience. It is one of the greatest masterpieces I have ever seen. I cannot claim it to be Bresson's finest, having seen only two of his features, but if he made a better film then he must be one of the truest masters the cinema ever saw (even if he didn't, that claim is hard to argue). But spiritual? Tell that to the carcass rotting out in the French countryside.