Cast & Crew
Jacques and Marie, two children who spend summers together in a French town near Switzerland, receive a newborn donkey as a pet and name him Balthazar. A short time later Jacques' father leaves with his family for Paris, entrusting the management of his farm to Marie's father, a local schoolteacher. Some years later, Balthazar, who has been returned to his original owner, only to lead a hard life carting sand, escapes and finds his way back to the farm. Marie, now 16, adores Balthazar, and her father keeps the donkey to pull their donkey cart. Balthazar is eventually sold to the village baker. Jacques returns and, despite a lawsuit that his father has brought against Marie's father over the running of the farm, declares his love for Marie. But Marie is infatuated with Gérard, the baker's delivery boy and leader of a gang of juvenile delinquents. Gérard treats Balthazar cruelly, and he seduces Marie, whose concern for Balthazar's well-being leads her into Gérard's hands. In time Balthazar is passed on to Arnold, a drunken tramp who uses Balthazar to give rides to tourists; then to a circus, where he performs a multiplication act by stamping his feet; and eventually back to Arnold. With Arnold's death, Balthazar is sold to a corn merchant who starves and overworks him until, too sick to work, he is taken back by Marie's parents. Meanwhile, Marie has left home because of her continuing relationship with Gérard, and she offers herself to the corn merchant for a place to stay the night. Gérard, in retribution, beats her, strips her naked, and leaves her in an abandoned house. Taking Balthazar, he and his friends load the donkey's back with contraband goods which they intend to smuggle across the border. They are shot at by customs officials and escape, but Balthazar, mortally wounded, dies on a hillside among a flock of sheep.
J. C. Guilbert
M. C. Frémont
Franz Peter Schubert
Au Hasard Balthazar
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)
Au Hasard Balthazar
Au Hasard Balthazar on DVD
Au hasard Balthazar covers similar territory. Its central character is a humble donkey innocent of anything that could be described as a human sin - its lifelong sufferings are interpretable as a Christian allegory. At the same time, it encourages the possibility that God has forgotten or forsaken our world, if he exists us all. Yet Bresson's approach is so direct and natural that the film doesn't play like 'meaningful cinema.' Its appeal is as basic as a silent melodrama, or a bittersweet Chaplin film, minus the overt sentimentality.
Synopsis: The donkey Balthazar has a happy childhood but when fully grown is abused by many owners. From time to time he crosses paths with Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) who knew him when she was a child. Balthazar is the silent and uncomprehending witness to a number of sordid dramas - Marie's father (Philippe Asselin) allows his farm to fall apart rather than compromise his pride; Marie is separated from a childhood sweetheart Jacques (Walter Green) and becomes the submissive moll of a local hoodlum, Gerard (Francois Lafarge). Owners take out their personal grief on Balthazar or torment him just for idle mischief. At one point the animal joins a circus and takes part in a 'mathematician donkey' act. Balthazar sees humans at their worst, spreading misery and despair. Marie alone shows him kindness - but she's heading for a sad fate as well.
There's really nothing like Au hasard Balthazar. His life story could be that of any domesticated beast of burden, and he shares a destiny with the flawed people around him. Balthazar has a faint awareness of kindnesses, and definitely retains a memory for those who torment him. Opportunities are offered to read any number of Christian parallels - Balthazar is baptized, his 'mother' is Mary (Marie), she makes him a crown of flowers, he performs circus miracles, suffers stigmata and so forth. Yet nothing is forced. The symbolic use of bread and wine is not a writer's conceit; the donkey delivers for a bakery and one of his owners is an alcoholic. Despite all the allusions to Christian suffering and grace, the film can just as easily be interpreted as a demonstration that God and faith are cruel illusions.
Bresson's filming style precludes the inclination to dismiss the tale as slick storytelling or a merely clever narrative device. The camerawork is direct, with many cuts to ordinary details like walking feet (or hooves). The audioscape is important; off-screen sound enlarges the world of the film with outside factors we don't see. No special emotionalism is attached to the suffering of either Balthazar or his unhappy owners. Balthazar is kicked, struck with sticks and burned for fun; Marie is seduced, slapped and humiliated. We watch it all from an objective middle distance. The cutting contrasts Balthazar's painful harnesses and overloaded carts with modern things he cannot possibly understand: Cars, radios, guns.
Bresson's people are non-professionals. He calls them 'models' and claims to prefer their natural behaviors to those of trained actors. He often made his subjects repeat simple actions dozens of times until their movements were free of any conscious attempt to 'perform.' Their muted actions have a strange lack of individualism. It isn't realistic, but it's also not acting as we've seen in other movies. We stop reading faces and look beyond in search of the film's meaning.
Marie's every motion carries a deep sadness. Like Balthazar, she is never free. She is first the prisoner of her father's will and then the involuntary puppet of Gerard, who more or less rapes her before claiming her as his property. Gerard beats and torments Balthazar in the same way he abuses Marie, using casual brutality to maintain an illusion of power.
The middle section of the film concerns an alcoholic vagrant named Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert). Bresson cuts directly from Arnold's prayers to stop drinking, right to his next drink being poured in a bar. The lonely Arnold also uses Balthazar as a scapegoat for his rage, calling him Satan when he's sober and his dear friend when he's drunk.
Balthazar is traded, sold, lost and found. He returns to earlier owners and is continually 'borrowed' by Gerard. His short life in the circus begins with a truly weird encounter with several exotic animals. In their chains, they are captive alien souls as isolated from each other as Balthazar is from his human masters.
The donkey's travails are matched by Marie's sad downfall; this movie about spirituality is constructed entirely from mundane despair. A cruel miser gives her shelter from the rain, only to selfishly take advantage of her. Marie has little will of her own and her abasement at the hands of Gerard ruins her for the idealized affection of the grown-up Jacques. Marie cannot reconcile with her parents and is brutally humiliated by Gerard when she tries to break off with him. Eventually she just disappears. The logic of her corruption mortifies us, yet seems more honest than the melodramatic histrionics of Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves. Bresson isn't interested in a sensational spectacle and knows we can connect the dots of Marie's degradation on our own.
**(Spoiler) The pathetic end of Balthazar is strangely peaceful, and plays out over soothing classical piano music. Marie's grieving mother has just called the tired old donkey a saint and as he bleeds to death, white sheep surround him in a pastoral setting. There is no hint of spiritual intercession, just the utter solitude of an ignorant beast breathing his last. Bresson has a spiritual conscience but creates a world of isolation, ignorance and cruel injustice. One positive value is revealed - we're moved to cry for the pure Balthazar more than any of his human companions. By Christian standards, he dies in a state of Grace.
Criterion's DVD of Au hasard Balthazar presents a flawless enhanced transfer of this stunning B&W film. The clear recording brings out details in Bresson's interesting soundtrack, as when the braying of a donkey interrupts the piano piece heard under the main titles.
The disc extras show filmmakers and experts doing their best to interpret Au hasard Balthazar. Frequent Criterion commentator Donald Richie appears on camera to express his personal relationship with the film. A 1966 French television special contains the now-famous quote in which Jean-Luc Godard says the film is "all of life in 90 minutes." Bresson answers questions about his quiet masterpiece but steers away from the religious interpretation the movie invariably elicits from viewers. He asserts that it is not an average photoplay, but 'cinema': An experience that can only be communicated through a camera and cutting. Bresson reserves his most reverent words for the miracle of the movie camera.
For more information about Au hasard Balthazar, visit the Criterion Collection. To order Au hasard Balthazar, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
Au Hasard Balthazar on DVD
Opened in Paris in May 1966; running time: 90 min. Opened in Stockholm in November 1967 as Min vän Balthazar; running time: 94 min.
Released in United States September 15, 1966
Released in United States June 17, 1990
Shown at 1966 Venice Film Festival.
Shown at New York Film Festival September 15, 1966.
Shown at Pacific Film Archive (A Producer's Vision: Anatole Dauman) in Berkeley, California June 17, 1990.
Released in United States Winter February 19, 1970
Re-released in United States October 17, 2003 (Film Forum; New York City)
Re-released in United States December 12, 2003 (Nuart; Los Angeles)
Limited re-release in United States October 13, 2017 (New York)
Released in United States 1966 (Shown at 1966 Venice Film Festival.)
Released in United States September 15, 1966 (Shown at New York Film Festival September 15, 1966.)
Winner of a Special Jury Prize at the 1966 Venice Film Festival.
Released in United States Winter February 19, 1970
Re-released in United States October 17, 2003
Re-released in United States December 12, 2003
Limited re-release in United States October 13, 2017
Released in United States 1966
Released in United States June 17, 1990 (Shown at Pacific Film Archive (A Producer's Vision: Anatole Dauman) in Berkeley, California June 17, 1990.)