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In his "Great Movies" column, the late Roger Ebert called this 1966 drama director Robert Bresson's "most heartbreaking prayer." The simple tale of a donkey's life, with no Disney-like embellishments or cute tricks, truly is heartbreaking, as Balthazar passes through a series of owners, some good, some cruel, all of them very human. Shot in Bresson's typically austere style, the film never gives Balthazar reaction shots. When he brays, it's the donkey's natural response to whatever is happening around him, not a scripted line meant to comment on the action. And yet, the film offers deeper insights into the human condition than most movies that wear their meanings on their sleeves. In the words of Bresson admirer and fellow filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard, "Every one who sees this film will be absolutely astonished...because this film is really the world in an hour and a half."
Bresson was as much a philosopher as he was a filmmaker, focusing throughout his career on the nature of grace and redemption. The passive beast in Au Hasard Balthazar is one in a long list of characters redeemed by suffering in films like Diary of a Country Priest (1951), A Man Escaped (1956) and The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962). Marie, the girl whose family first owns Balthazar, plays out her life in parallel to his. Like the donkey, she is almost unaccountably passive. Unable to stand up for herself, she hides when three local thugs beat Balthazar, and later refuses a marriage proposal from the childhood sweetheart who loves her unconditionally in order to follow one of the thugs, now an adult, because she finds his leather jacket and moped captivating. And yet, even the cruelest characters are far from irredeemable. Just as Balthazar is granted a soul by three children who innocently baptize him after his birth, so Marie's love object, Gerard, has one moment of grace, singing in the church choir as she watches in awe.
Stylistically, Bresson was an advocate of what he called "pure cinematography," a filmmaking technique divorced from any connection to the stage to focus entirely on the creation of images. He tried to drain the acting from his actors, often doing as many as 50 takes until they were too worn out to force any emotion. He also preferred amateurs to trained actors, since they did not bring any theatricality to their work. In Ebert's view, this creates a kind of purity: "The actors portray lives without informing us how to feel about them; forced to decide for ourselves how to feel, forced to empathize, we often have stronger feelings than if the actors were feeling them for us." This is coupled with a sparing use of camera tricks and background music to create a particularly sparse cinematic aesthetic. Bresson prefers to find the aesthetic qualities in everyday people and objects. Au Hasard Balthazar is filled with the textures of rural life - crops growing in the fields, piles of hay, wooden furnishings - played against a combination of natural sounds and the melancholy strains of Schubert's Piano Sonata No. 20.
After bringing his personal style to a series of films featuring prison life -- A Man Escaped, Pickpocket (1959) and The Trial of Joan of Arc -- Bresson wanted to move in a different direction with a story set in the open countryside. He found inspiration in a passage from Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, in which Prince Myshkin tries to explain how happy the sound of a donkey braying made him while he was visiting another country. He then constructed the story to bring Balthazar into contact with characters representing the seven deadly sins.
With funding from the Swedish Film Institute, he set up production in Guyancourt in North-Central France and auditioned non-professional actors, including several locals, for the key roles. He even insisted on using an untrained donkey in the title role. Novelist and translator Pierre Klossowski took the role of the town miser and a German-born girl, Anne Wiazemsky, played Marie. Bresson took special pains getting the perfect performance out of Wiazemsky, booking her into a room adjoining his at the local hotel so they could work with her in private. According to the actress, he also fell in love with her, though she rejected all his advances. Wiazemsky would continue as an actress. For her first husband, Jean-Luc Godard, she appeared in La Chinoise (1967), Weekend (1967) and Tout va bien (1972). She gave up acting in 1988 to focus on writing, starting with the short-story collection Des filles bien elevees that year. In 2007, she drew on her experiences making Au Hasard Balthazar for her novel Jeaune Fille.
Au Hasard Balthazar was met with glowing reviews, winning the French Cinema Critics Award for Best Picture and the OCIC Award at the Venice Film Festival, given by the International Catholic Organization for Cinema and Audiovisual. Although it was released in France and the United Kingdom in 1966, it did not play the U.S. until 1970. After that, it was only available here in a print without subtitles until the release of a restored print in 2003.
But even though largely unavailable here, the film, along with Bresson's other works, was an inspiration for younger filmmakers. Bresson's "pure cinematography" has helped shape the styles of later directors like Jim Jarmusch, Andrei Tarkovsky, Paul Schrader and Aki Kaurismaki, while his insistence on making films in his own way was a great inspiration for the French New Wave.
By Frank Miller
Producer: Mag Bodard
.Director-Screenplay: Robert Bresson
Cinematography: Ghislain Cloquet
Score: Jean Wiener
Cast: Anne Wiazemsky (Marie), Walter Green (Jacques), Francois Lafarge (Gerard), Jean-Claude Guilbert (Arnold), Philippe Asselin (Marie's Father), Pierre Klossowski (Merchant)