Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

Indescribably a unique, moving experience in this simple yet unconventional tale from one of cinema’s masters of masters.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Review #1,081

Dir. Robert Bresson
1966 | France | Drama | 95 mins | 1.66:1 | French

PG (passed clean) for some mild sexual references

Cast: Anne Wiazemsky, Walter Green, Francois Lafarge
Plot: The film parallels the mistreatment and downfall of two innocents: a young farmer’s daughter who is seduced by the leader of a group of black-jacketed delinquents; and the Christ-like Balthazar, a donkey that is passed from master to master, endures a seemingly endless cycle of cruelty.
Awards: Won New Cinema Award, OCIC Award & Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice).
Source: Tamasa Distribution

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Cruelty & Endurance; Mortality & Existence
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse

Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
First Published: 23 Sep 2014
Spoilers: No

I have been circling this title for years, and finally got to see it.  It is my first Robert Bresson film, and yes, after this I want to see more of his works.  Often regarded as one of cinema’s masters of masters, Godard once said that Bresson was to French cinema, what Mozart was to German music and Dostoyevsky was to Russian literature. 

Bresson’s (some say) greatest film, Au Hasard Balthazar, is a definitive work on the purity of existence and the mortality of life.  It still rings true as one of the masterpieces of world cinema. 

Centering on a donkey who toils away as a workhorse, often bullied by its different owners, but sometimes showered with love by others, the film calls to attention Man’s arrogant and compulsive nature as he is forced by personal or societal circumstances to behave in certain ways.

The errant youths, the lonely old men, the miserable rich, the misjudged, the tainted and the sufferable, are observed and ultimately pardoned by the dainty (and saintly) donkey. 

“He’s worked enough.  He’s old.  He’s all I have.”

Balthazar, as it is called by a young girl named Marie, played by Anne Wiazemsky in her acting debut, is a beast of patience.  As Criterion puts it, the donkey “accepts its fate nobly”.  It is resigned to being a slave of Man.  It grunts, if only to communicate to itself, to remind of its modest standing. 

Bresson also draws parallels between the saintly Balthazar and the innocent Marie.  They adore each other but are separated by their ease of corruptibility. 

Marie, curious and quiet, is drawn to being emotionally manipulated, not knowing it may traumatise her for life; on the other hand, the donkey simply… endures.  It doesn’t care as long as it serves its purpose; it observes and ignores Man at the same time.

The playful use of sound, jump cuts and narrative ellipses give Au Hasard Balthazar a kind of unconventional style that may seem indigestible at first, but the film’s hypnotic power ultimately pulls the viewer through.  The end result is indescribably moving, and the experience is one-of-a-kind. 

Grade: A




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