Over the years, countless reams of film scholarship have been written about the work of French director Robert Bresson (1901–1999). Within those lofty tomes, it’s doubtful you’ll find precise agreement from any two critics on the true nature of Breeson’s oeuvre, or the universal truths hidden in the director’s obtuse messaging. Bresson’s meaty, meticulous films are comprised of vague allegories and faint adumbrations, begging to be analyzed and dissected down to the granular level. Yet his filmography’s cinematic DNA remains a sublime mystery, as his films manage to edify and illuminate, often while leaving his viewers utterly dumbfounded.
Au hasard Balthazar (1966) is a prototypical Bresson dirge. Set in a dismal provincial backwater seemingly untouched by modernity, the film is the story of a donkey colt, his young owner Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) and their eventual expulsion from paradise. As Anne and the wooly-headed Balthazar grow and mature, there is no longer time for childhood frolics in the wild grasses of their country home, and each must proceed to their individual destinies. For Balthazar, this means a life of toil and misuse at the cruel hands of a variety of local farmers, while the penniless Marie must rely on her wits, as well as her budding sexuality, to survive.
For the viewer, there is much here to unpack as Breeson spares no biblical allusions or religious iconography in the unspooling of his parallel stories. At times, Au hasard Balthazar feels like a grafting of a Disney film unto The Passion of the Christ, as Balthazar’s tortured struggles lend him a saintly, sacrificial air. One could also make a case that Au hasard Balthazar is an unadorned, no holds barred feminist homology, as Marie and Balthazar often find themselves exploited by the same slack-jawed male miscreants, and always for reasons that boil down to ego and avarice.
For current sensibilities, Au hasard Balthazar can be a tough film to watch. Despite Breeson’s noble intentions, the donkey’s travails amount to graphic animal cruelty, and the film would likely be subject to protests and boycotts in today’s world. It’s true that such gristly scenes are important to Bresson’s thesis, but it’s cold comfort and prevents me from giving the film a whole-hearted recommendation. Those game for an immersion in Bresson’s mundane yet mystical worlds should seek out Diary of a Country Priest (1951) or A Man Escaped (1956) for a more palatable entry into this director’s unique and haunting filmography.