Au Hasard, Balthazar (1965): Robert Bresson Masterpiece–Fable of Donkey’s Life

Robert Bresson’s “Au Hasard, Balthazar” is an original and poignant film, offering a portrait of humanity as seen through the life of a donkey.

The Balthazar of the title is a donkey, born, like all beings, to suffer needlessly and die mysteriously.  When asked, Bresson acknowledged the inspiration of the donkey anecdote in Dostoyevski’s “The Idiot.”

With heightened awareness, we see each of the meager milestones of the donkey’s life.  There’s both good and evil, choice and necessity, tenderness and cruelty, order and chaos, joy and sorrow. The episodic tale is told with fragmentation of framing that suits the material.

The donkey’s life interfaces with the lives of many of its owners, from small children in rural France to a girl who’s later raped and dies to her sadistic lover who tortures the animal.  A brutal farmer owns and beats the donkey, but his own life ends in dark irony.  After a chapter as a circus star, the donkey ends its life with a decent old man who considers the animal a saint.

The “actors” contribute the blank faces of one-shot non-professionals with no background in theatrical expression. Yet despite the bleak and austere elements, “Au Hasard Balthazar” is an extraordinarily touching and sensual film.

The music includes Franz Schubert’s “Piano Sonata No. 20.”

Running time: 95 Minutes

About Bresson

Born September 25, 1907, Robert Bresson is considered to be one of the reclusive geniuses of the French cinema.  Bresson prefers to dissociate himself from his early film work and to regard his career as really beginning with the feature, “Les Anges du Peche” (1943)

Occupying a unique place in French cinema, Bresson cannot be classified with either the Old Guard or the New Wave, but is highly respected by both camps for pursuing a highly individual style unperturbed by the trendier cinema around him.

Never a fashionable or popular filmmaker in his own country, Bresson favored a pristine, minimalist aesthetic approach, marked by the suppression emotionalism and melodramatic on the one hand and purity of style through austere compositions on the other.

Jean Cocteau once said that, “Bresson expresses himself cinematographically as a poet would with his pen.”  Truffaut: “His cinema is closer to painting than photography.”  Others see him as a philosopher with a camera, an uncompromising Jansenist rigorously preoccupied with ideas of predestination and spiritual age.

Bresson was a complete cinema stylist whose universe remains unchanged from film to film, and whose personal signature is imprinted on each and every one.  Thus, of all French directors, Bresson probably comes closest to the definition of an auteur.  His films are tightly constructed to the exclusion of all but the bare essence of the texts he explores.  What he does choose to show is presented with rigorous, almost fanatic, attention to detail.

Bresson has made only 13 features in 40 years, yet he is one of the most discussed and revered figures in cinema–creative, original, unique.  He shared the Grand Prix de Creation at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival for “L’Argent.”