Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

reviewed by
Robin Clifford

"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

hasard Balthazar."

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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