"Au hasard Balthazar"
As the opening credits run we hear the braying of a
donkey in distress. The first image we see is a baby
donkey hungrily feeding from his new mother. It is an
idyllic episode in the young creature's life as two
children, Jacques and Marie, play with their pet on a
small farm in rural France. But summer soon ends,
Jacques must return to the city, leaving Marie behind,
and the little donkey's tranquil life will soon change
for the worse in Robert Bresson's 1966 classic "Au
Little Balthazar, now years older, is seen hauling a
very heavy wagon under the whip hand of his cruel
owner. As the donkey's life continues he comes under a
variety of new masters, users and abusers as he is
forced to perform incredibly hard labor, beaten,
starved and mistreated. Occasionally, when he finds
Marie again, he is treated with kindness but this is
always all too fleeting. In the last act, poor
Balthazar is a part of an illegal smuggling operation
by young thugs but, finally, finds peace. Balthazar,
like Blanch Dubois, relied "on the kindness of
strangers" but saw little enough of it in his brief
This description, though, does not even scratch the
surface of Bresson's film. The lives of the human
characters that come into Balthazar's life are each
given full shrift. Grown up Marie (Anne Wiazemsky)
suffers along with the little donkey as she is denied
being with Jacques (Walter Green) by her stubborn,
schoolteacher turned tenant farm father (Philippe
Asselin). She comes to the attention of Gerard
(Francois Lafarge), a young tough who delivers bread
and leads a gang of thugs on motorbikes. Marie rebels
against her father and takes up with Gerard but this
will lead to pain and tragedy. Marie's plight
parallels Balthazar's as we watch both lives spiral
There is retribution, at times, for those responsible
for the suffering inflicted on both the title
character and Marie. One, Arnold (Jean-Claude
Guilbert), a drunken owner of Balthazar who, in his
alcohol induced haze, has no compunction against
beating the poor creature with a chair. Arnold comes
into a great fortune but this does not stop fate from
taking a hand as he rides, passed out, on Balthazar
one rainy, treacherous night. But, other wrong doers,
like Gerard, do not always get their just desserts.
While "Au hazard Balthazar" tells a harsh story about
the little beast of burden and a broken young woman,
helmer Bresson uses off-camera violence to push the
tale along. Of course, this is a film made in a
different time when imagination, not graphic on-screen
brutality, was needed to convey the director's intent.
Nonetheless, the suffering experienced by the
protagonists is poignant and gut-felt, leaving the
viewer with a sad, empty feeling in the end, but one
mixed with relief for our little donkey.
The cast is made up with all newcomers to film, at the
time, and the amateur acting shows. But Bresson's
strong narrative works to take advantage of the
unspoiled thesps. Anne Wiazemsky shines best as
Balthazar's only soul mate. There is a sadness and
hopelessness to Marie that keeps you sympathetic to
her tragic end. Francois Lafarge carries a weight of
violence and menace to the role of Gerard, the bad boy
who attracts Marie after she is denied Jacques because
of her father's selfish stubbornness. The rest of the
cast is wooden, yes, but the religious symbolism of
their characters is palpable.
This is the first Robert Bresson I have seen and it is
a disturbing work that does not even try to make a
happily-ever-after ending. The suffering is tempered,
though, with the sense of small relief for the quiet
little donkey that captured my heart. I give "Au
hazard Balthezar" an A.
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