Finishing Blindspot 2016 #2: Au Hasard Balthazar
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966, Robert Bresson)
I’ve never liked assigning human emotions to animals. Animals have worlds and a perspective that is all their own. One of the joys of growing up with both dogs and cats is appreciating what they both bring to the table. Cats are unpredictable and delightfully odd. Dogs are abjectly sincere. Either way, there’s a purity to how animals express themselves, one that movies often muddle. The beauty of Au Hasard Balthazar, its point of focus that sets its tone and makes it so compelling, is that it views the world through the eyes of an animal, and never once tries to humanize it. Balthazar the donkey goes through his life with the simple nobility of an animal that has no real control over its destiny.
Au Hasard Balthazar opens with the music of Franz Schubert over the opening credits, cheekily interrupted by the braying of a donkey. In the opening scene, two children plead with their father to let them adopt a baby donkey. In the following scene, they baptize him, mimicking, with total earnestness, the baptism rites of the Church. Already I think I was under Bresson’s spell; the film’s spareness and simplicity invite speculation over symbolism. Is a scene of a donkey being baptized a gentle jab at the Church? Is it a statement about the innate innocence of animals? I think I prefer to take it at face value: it’s the sort of thing children would do with a new pet with total conviction.
Conviction pulses through this film. Balthazar grows up and his ownership changes hands repeatedly. The children who adopt him give him to friend, a girl named Marie. Her father is a farmer, a decent man with monumental pride that threatens to undo him when neighbors accuse him of cheating them out of their money. A young man named Gerard, who is infatuated with Marie in the worst sense, stops by her homes sometimes and beats Balthazar sadistically. Needing money, Marie’s father sells the donkey to Gerard’s mother. Eventually, Gerard’s mistreatment of Balthazar causes the animal to go catatonic. On the verge of being put down, a local drunkard named Arnold seems to take pity on Balthazar and takes him off their hands, nursing him back to health.
These story beats don’t follow a plot. They follow the path of Balthazar. The story consists of little revelations of these characters, in how they treat an innocent animal, and in how they treat one another. Everyone in the film is flawed. Gerard is diabolical; he is the one character who treats the donkey with total contempt. He also sexually assaults Marie and savagely beats Arnold. When police visit his mother asking about a murder they think he might have witnessed, she assumes he committed it and tells him to flee the country.
The question, then: why is Balthazar the film’s eyes and ears? I think it gives every scene a clarity of vision. We aren’t being asked to pick apart human actions for meaning. Balthazar can only observe without imposing motives. With him as the lens through which we watch the film, we are forced to see the people around Balthazar through their acts and nothing more. Is Gerard pure evil? We don’t know, but he certainly acts evilly. Likewise, Arnold is not a saint, but we understand how thoroughly alcoholism has derailed his life and how he still has a capability for goodness in taking in Balthazar.
Watching Au Hasard Balthazar I began to experience a sort of reverse Kuleshov effect. That refers to the Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, who demonstrated how you could change the meaning of a shot through simple editing. He would show a shot of a man looking intensely into the camera, followed by a shot of a bowl of soup. Audiences perceived the man as being hungry. When Kuleshov replaced the second shot with an image of a young girl in a coffin, but kept the first shot of the man, they now thought he was grieving.
In Au Hasard Balthazar, there are not shots or edits that suggest what Balthazar thinks about his surroundings. Bresson never infers anything about Balthazar’s state of mind that a donkey can’t express perfectly well on its own. And I think we respond with greater empathy for the animal, as well as for the characters on screen. Balthazar provides the lens through which we observe all the actions of the film, how various people treat him as well as one another.
No character is as close to Balthazar as Marie, and it’s her story that’s the most heartbreaking, her scenes with him that are the most moving. When she dresses his head in a crown of flowers and holds him close, it looks like a sacred tableau. And in those moments, Balthazar finds quiet contentment. In his simple, animal happiness, we can sense something holy.