Other Robert Bresson films on the 2012 list:
Pickpocket – critics – in the 60s – higher than Mouchette but figures not published
Mouchette – critics/directors: 117th/107th 14/6
A Man Escaped - in top 100
As usual, I watched the film not having read anything about it. I didn’t even know Balthazar was the name of the donkey and is the film’s protagonist. Although, protagonist, isn’t really the best description, because – although he is the main character – he doesn’t propel the story in the normal sense of film narrative. Balthazar has things happen to him. He doesn’t do things to others. Sometimes he gets scared and runs away, but that’s the extent of his control of the world.
And in writing the above paragraph I have just answered my own question of the last 24-hours: why is this one of the most highly regarded films of all times by critics. Balthazar is an observer of the things that people do. Through his journey we see many different journeys. Not only is it a framing device, and a narrative device – linking different walks and ways of life – it stands in as a human experience as well. And within that experience, at the mercy of other beings, the writer-director Robert Bresson links Marie, a beautiful peasant girl, who receives similar treatment, also with minimal control over her world.
It’s quite a crazy idea. I suppose, I should say offbeat instead of crazy, but crazy is the word I want to use: A donkey as observer and judge. Sometimes the donkey is just a donkey, but often I felt, psychological and emotional understanding and feeling, that Balthazar was not just a straw drifting on the tide, or an observer of events, but that those deliberate editorial cuts to his face, particularly his eyes, while something awful was happening to the humans around him, was Balthazar judging the behaviour of the humans around him.
Film directors have only started to consider it a great film in recent years. Maybe that’s because the critics-academics-historians regarded it so highly in 2002, or maybe it’s because it’s part of some of the film schools’ syllabus now.
It’s a very strange experience to keep seeing films – every week – which I don’t understand, and to have an ongoing feeling of being stupid, because I just don’t get what makes these films significant having just seen the film.
And then I think about it, and think about it, and try to break it down into smaller pieces, and – Bam! – almost every time, what was out of focus and unreachable, suddenly comes into focus.
What’s in a name?
In the Christian bible, Balthasar was one of the three Magi – also known as the three wise men, or three kings – who visited baby Jesus, and gave expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. If I’m thinking like a writer, and I haven’t just opened the telephone directory and picked my main character’s name at random, then I wonder if there’s symbolism in the choice of names.
A related name to Bathazar (in the bible) is Belshazzar, a king or prince, in the Old Testament, named in the book of Daniel. Either way, the name is one of a ruler, in its historical context, and has been attributed to one of the Magi who visited the king of kings, lord of lords – baby Jesus, who came not to judge the world, but to deliver them from damnation.
Depending on Bresson’s accuracy of knowledge about the Christian bible or guessing at his intention in naming the donkey Balthazar, how much significance anyone should give the name of the protagonist is debatable.
Two things that are not debatable are the fact that in Au Hasard Balthazar, the donkey is:
1) anointed, baptized, and
2) is adorned with a wreath or garland, or – possibly – a crown of thorns
Not only does that suggest the donkey is a Christian figure, it also opens up an argument that the donkey is a king, who has been mistreated, unfairly, by those he encounters – like Jesus Christ. In the final moments of the film, when Balthazar lies down in a meadow and dies, his dead body is surrounded by sheep, a flock, in fact, which is standard language for the group of people who follow Jesus, who are known as Christians.
At this stage, I’m not attributing meaning to what Bresson may or may not have intended, I’m just stating facts:
1) the donkey is anointed
2) he wears a wreath or garland or crown
3) he is mistreated by all except one - Marie
4) he dies, surrounded by sheep
A cute baby donkey is adopted by a few children and he spends some happy weeks as a being who is loved and respected. As he grows older he becomes a slave or a worker. He transitions from a pet to a functioning member of society. He pulls a plow. He is a beast of burden. He works to justify his keep. The donkey goes from one bad experience to another bad experience. At one point, he is actually regarded as a miraculous being, in the circus, when – without any hint of trickery – he performs extraordinary mathematical computations. But that is soured when one of his previous owners appears in the audience, and frightens him.
The girl, Marie, who adopted him, goes through a terrible experience, quite different from the happy years as a child when she and a boy her age are so fond of each other that it is possible that they are in love, even though at that age, the dimensions of love wouldn’t be something they’d really comprehend.
During the opening titles, the music stops, and a braying is heard. It is one of anxiety, or pain. It sounded like crying. Then we see the young donkey suckling his mother. It’s reasonable to assume that the crying or braying or screaming was Balthazar’s birth.
Balthazar is anointed and is given salt by the children, the “salt of wisdom”. Then he is trained, through cruelty – whipped – to be useful. He’s also shod. After that a number of years pass. He’s with different people and then he runs away again. He is with Marie’s family again, but he’s been replaced by a tractor and isn’t required to work. A teenage Marie is still very fond of Balthazar.
After an introduction to Gerard, a hooligan, who seems only to want to destroy the people in the world around him – mostly for fun – Gerard sees Marie, and looks longingly at her. He realizes that she loves the donkey. Marie puts a crown on the donkey’s head. Gerard, unknown to her, touches her hand. She runs away and Gerard beats the donkey, and Marie sees it happening and does nothing. She is like Jesus’s disciples who are frightened to defend what they love and do nothing, out of fear for themselves. Gerard and his friend are cruel and mean – nasty.
Jacques and Marie, as young adults, meet again, and their lives could have gone differently if not for Marie’s understanding that although Jacques loves her, she doesn’t love him – in a romantic way. Her father’s pride, escalates a situation where he is accused of corruption. Balthazar is antiquated, and essentially put out to pasture by Marie’s father when Marie shuts herself away from the world and doesn’t feed the animal anymore. Gerard’s mother, who loves and protects him, despite knowing what he’s really like, inherits – or buys – him. Gerard uses his knowledge of Marie’s feelings about Balthazar to manipulate her. He, slyly, without violence, forces her to give herself to him – sexually - in what should be loving and meaningful. Instead, she cries and he dominates her.
A car goes by. Gerard is worried about being seen to do something bad. He’s wondering if anyone is watching. He’s a choir boy – literally – and has one face for the world and another which reveals his heart. She tries to escape his sexual advances, and – literally – he chases her around and around the thing that represents decency. She gives in. They get into her car together. Then a savage edit shows her car driving away leaving him by the road. He has a horn in his hand. He triumphantly blows it. It’s a non-too-subtle reference to the fact that he has violated Marie and that she has submitted to him. The horn is a phallic symbol, and the blowing of the horn, is the sound of the jubilant conqueror.
The radio that his mother gave him represents Marie and Gerard’s sexual relationship. When it is turned on, Gerard is turned on, and Marie is degraded, sexually, we infer.
Balthazar literally wastes away through grief over the state of his world. His current owner, an awful person, is mistreating his previous owner, who was never an owner in any act we ever see. She was Balthazar’s lover, if anything. It’s hinted at in the scene where Gerard and his friend watch Marie crown Balthazar with flowers. They say that there’s something unnatural about the love between Marie and Balthazar. Gerard then exploits that love between Marie and Balthazar. Marie is like Mary who anointed Jesus with expensive perfume in recognition of his real position in the hierarchy of the spiritual and physical world. She was reprimanded for this, because the perfume was expensive and if sold, the money could have been given to the poor. Marie in fact anoints Balthazar twice. Firstly as a baby donkey, a baptism, and then with a crown. After the second crowning, Balthazar is beaten by the character who most represents the essence of evil in the world of this film.
Marie and Mary are similarly named. Coincidence? It’s not – rationally – conceivable that this could be anything less than a planned suggestion by Bresson in view of everything else related to the Christian bible.
The next person who comes to own, or control, or look after, Balthazar, is Arnold, a man who is possibly a murderer. He’s also an alcoholic who swears he will change. His intention and reality are at odds. He’s the representation of the conflict in all people, between being selfish or selfless, good or evil. He fails to be sober and when he brings an empty bottle to a bar, for a refill, Balthazar takes the opportunity to escape, and that’s how Arnold loses Balthazar.
Balthazar is a being who does not want to be in trouble and runs away when trouble threatens. I thought that being in trouble was a 20th century thing. What do I know of children and their parents or slaves and their owners? Nothing!
I thought, being constantly in trouble whilst trying to be good – was a 20th century characteristic. A French film has opened my eyes to see that expectation – and not living up to those expectations – dates backwards beyond 1963. God/people – parents/children – masters/slaves – employer/employees – it’s been around for a long time.
Balthazar ends up in a circus, where he is recognized for the genius – king – supreme being – he actually is. Then the supposed murderer’s appearance at the circus causes Balthazar to bray again. The braying occurs every time there is significant pain – like birth, change or death. Every time there is the screaming from the donkey, there is terrible pain. The next scene shows that Balthazar is back with Arnold, who is now respected – not suspected – and wealthy.
Marie, at a party attended by Arnold and Gerard and Marie’s mother, is sold for sex. “If you want her, pay!” Marie, now, like Mary Magdalene, is a prostitute.
Arnold dies and Balthazar is sold off. He is bought by a whip-cracking man who looks like the uncle who caused all the problems between Marie and her father and the rest of the world.
He offers Balthazar water but Balthazar won’t drink. He takes away Balthazar’s food rather than waste it on a creature who will die soon. He makes Balthazar walk around in circles, happy to let him die when the rains come.
Marie arrives. She wants a place to stay, having been rejected by, or having rejected, Gerard.
She submits to him sexually. He also wants to know if what they’re doing is a secret. He asks, “No one saw you come here?” She tells him that no one will know, and as she is desperate, she accepts the money, because, like her father, and the uncle, she believes money is important, and she will sell herself to get it.
There is so much meaning in the film that relates to traditional Christian beliefs that I can’t believe it’s to any great degree, accidental. Whatever Bresson’s intention, and he chose not to explain his films, he’s deliberately created a main character who represents many aspects of Biblical characters.
Balthazar represents the Christian ideal. Balthazar is many things during the film. Sometimes he’s a King. He’s anointed as one at the beginning by Jacques and Marie, and then later crowned by Marie.
Sometimes he’s a symbol and represents Christ. Sometimes he’s represents a person who experiences bad times and very few good times and suffers at the hands of those around him; and sometimes he’s just a mistreated donkey.
Marie represents essentially decent people. Flawed, like the disciples. She follows Balthazar, but she also, inexplicably follows Gerard.
Gerard represents those who are essentially evil. Gerard’s mother is protective of her son through love. The love of parent to child. It’s a decent love. It doesn’t know the limitations of revoltion. She loves Gerard despite who he is at heart.
It’s a complex film of desire and attraction and rejection and acceptance. Balthazar is an observer of what over the years has become known as the human condition, the way we are and how we act. He’s a donkey, and no one takes any notice of him. No one modifies their behaviour around the donkey, because he’s just a donkey. He’s not a king or a judge or the Son of God. People essentially feel comfortable around him so that they will act in a way that is the most natural representation of who they are.
My Understanding on a Third Viewing
The donkey sees everything. People reveal the essence of themselves when they are around the donkey because he’s a dumb animal. He’s not a threat to anyone. Everyone can be themselves around him. He could be a king and he has a king’s name. He could even be Jesus Christ, come to judge the world and send bad people to hell and good people to heaven (or, depending on your understanding of what God and the Son of God require of mankind, non-Christians and Christians). He could even be just a donkey.
But, out of everything that he could possibly be, the one thing he isn’t, is a donkey. And Bresson tells us this in a couple of different ways.
One example is when he sees Arnold coming out of bar with a full bottle of wine. Arnold has sworn off alcohol but he can’t maintain it. When Balthazar sees a full bottle of wine in Arnold’s hand, he takes off down the street. He’s intelligent enough to know that a drunk Arnold is a bad Arnold, and someone he doesn’t want to be around. He runs away.
Another example is that he’s actually a genius. His time in the circus shows us this as he does impossible mathematical calculations that only a human genius could do, let alone a donkey. There’s no trick to it. And when he looks around the other animals at the circus he sees them as animals. He observes everything. The tiger, elephant, chimpanzee are just animals. There’s no evidence of their super-intelligence. However, they are observers of behaviour even if they have only normal animal intelligence.
Bresson has created a very intricate film, despite what appears to be a meandering narrative, where people come in and out of Balthazar’s life, for better or worse.
Balthazar is part of the life of Marie, who adopted him, a couple of times. When he is mistreated after an accident while pulling a load, Balthazar returns to Marie where he feels safe. He is taken in again by her family. When a tractor has taken over his role, and Marie becomes depressed because of the problems between her father and the owner of the land he works, and the situation with Jacques, who loves her. Balthazar is sold to Gerard’s family.
Now Balthazar is part of this nasty boy’s life, Gerard, when he is sold to his parents. Gerard has seen Marie with the donkey previously, and seen the affection she feels for the donkey. He uses that knowledge later to manipulate her. There’s a veiled threat against the donkey’s safety or well-being if she doesn’t give in to him. What he wants, is to have sex with her. He gets what he wants and he trumpets his horn, which he does when he’s excited.
Gerard is a boy who doesn’t want to get caught being bad. To anyone who observes him, they see a choir boy. When he rides his motor bike next to Marie and her father, with Balthazar pulling them along, he acts like a nice young man. Behind him two cars crash by skidding on the oil slick he has poured on the road. He’s far away, acting the nice-young-man part. No one other than his friends saw him set this trap. As he is about to light the donkey’s tail on fire he stops because a car passes by. Once passed, he lights another match and sets the newspaper around the donkey’s tail alight. When his mother finds the till is empty, she accuses him. He says, blankly, “Me?” Through his personal perception of himself is an understanding that as no one saw him take it, he didn’t take it, and he thinks he’s safe from being found out, but his mother knows it was him. When Gerard and Marie have sex while the donkey is outside, he brays in pain, knowing that she has given herself to this monster. The hee-hawing image and the braying sound is disconcerting through the volume it is given against the rest of the soundtrack. It’s an expression of pain and agony.
An anonymous person writes to Marie’s uncle, accusing her father of pocketing the profits for toiling his land. No one sees who is bad. Someone jealous of his success has made these claims. Whoever it was is safe if they haven’t been observed. Not even the donkey sees who made the claims.
Marie’s father’s sin is pride. He’s proud of his accomplishments, doing what a farmer would do even though he’s only a schoolteacher. One word to Marie’s cousin Jacques could have made everything right between the families. But he was too proud. He would rather face them in court than be humble. Even in court, Marie’s father feels insulted, and walks away, offended. He reacts to everything that is said about him, no matter how untrue. Because it has been said as fact, people believe it as fact, so he can’t bear what people believe, without evidence.
When an almost dead Balthazar is seen in the next scene walking again, the new owner, the murderer, says, “Being on the road cured him.”
Water floods everywhere. Two philosophers ask if a man can be guilty of a crime he doesn’t remember committing? The donkey steps over very hard ground, full of rocks. Then we see the hobo, again, walking. Later, the alcoholic, drunk, chases after and beats Balthazar, and we hear the braying as he is beaten. Next time, Balthazar escapes.
At the circus, the alcoholic, drunk, chases and beats Balthazar, and we hear the braying as he is beaten. Next time, Balthazar escapes. He brays and is scared seeing Arnold, and tries to get away, and five people try to restrain Balthazar due to his anxiety. Arnold reclaims Balthazar and takes him away again. What Balthazar sees is an alcoholic not a murderer. Gerard and his friends think Arnold set him up and they try to set him up for the police and give him a gun. Arnold is now wealthy and Balthazar observers the partying.
Marie’s mother spies on her and asks, “What do you see in that boy?”
“I’d follow him anywhere. I’d kill myself for him.”
Gerard calls him, “Jerk, moron, leech.” Arnold doesn’t retaliate. Gerard destroys the bar at the party and light crackers to frighten Balthazar.
Marie has given herself to Gerard and ask him to save her, rather than be taken back to her father. Gerard rejects her and dances with someone else.
Arnold pays for the damages, and is put on the donkey and sent off by Gerard and his friends. Arnold addresses objects as if they were people. He falls off the donkey and dies.
Balthazar is sold to the uncle. Balthazar walks in circles to create water. But when Balthazar refuses to drink, while he shows himself to feed the donkey, as soon as the doctor has left, the uncles takes away Balthazar’s food as well, while no one watches, other than Balthazar.
When Balthazar falters he cracks the whip and makes him go on and on. Rain falls and Balthazar drinks.
Marie is stripped naked and left to cry. Gerard and his friends run away. Jacques comes back for Marie. She has gone away, never to return. Father lies dying and turns away from God and the priest. He dies. Gerard comes to steal Balthazar again and is denied. Instead he leads the way for the funeral procession. Then he brays as Gerard comes onto the property to take him away.
Braying, is danger, danger. Balthazar is used in a robbery by Gerard. He has been stolen against his will and when caught in the act of robbery, the real robbers flee and Balthazar is shot while they escape. Balthazar isn’t caught. He lies down and dies from his wound. He’s amongst his group of believers. They are sheep. They’re as stupid as he is. They surround him. Then they leave. Balthazar dies alone.
There is no resurrection. He was beaten, abused, mistreated and blamed for things he didn’t do. He was set upon for being gentle and kind. His peaceful nature was taken advantage of by those around him.
Like Jesus, he was surrounded by a group of believers – sheep in this instance – and then they leave him, and the high shot of him on the ground, in the meadow, now shows he is alone. He dies alone, from a wound he received for someone else’s sin. As he dies he is surrounded by the like-minded, believers, a flock. But they abandon him and Belthazar, like Jesus, dies alone, forsaken by the sheep that surrounded him when he was dying. Now in the same field or meadow, but without company. Abandoned. Forsaken.
In some understandings of the real man who many historical documents tell us existed, people believe he was a good man and was real – he existed, but wasn’t actually who he said he was - God in human form. That’s who Bresson shows Balthazar to be, amongst the sheep, resting; dying of a wound he received for something he didn’t do. The real culprits have run away and Bethazar has been accidentally shot in the leg. He limps away and begins his passage from life to death. First it is amongst those who follow him, blind as they are, mere sheep. Then when an angle films him from above, a God-like shot, looking down on him, he is alone and dead.
In Bresson’s world, there is no resurrection. Balthazar is dead, forever.
Jonathan Glazer’s film list is interesting:
Age d’Or, L’ Bunuel
Au Hasard Balthazar Bresson
Berliner Alexanderplatz Fassbinder
The Gospel According to St Matthew Pasolini
Passion of Joan of Arc Dreyer
Konchalovsky’s film list is also interesting:
The 400 Blows Truffaut
La Strada Fellini
Au Hasard Balthazar Bresson
City Lights Chaplin
The Godfather Dreyer
Fanny and Alexander Bergman
Seven Samurai Kurosawa
Au Hasard Balthazar is one of the most highly regarded films by critics, coming in at position number 16 on the voting list. The BFI capsule summary is: “Robert Bresson’s distinctive pared down style elicits extraordinary pathos from this devastating tale of an abused donkey passing from owner to owner.” It sits below Vertigo, Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story, Le Reglu du jeu,, Sunrise, 2001, Passion of Joan of Arc, 8½, Battleship Potemkin, L’Atalante, Breathless and Late Spring, and just in front of Seven Samurai, Persona, Mirror, Singin’ in the Rain and L’Avventura.
Citizen Kane (1942)
Tokyo Story (1953)
Le Reglu du jeu (1939)
The Searchers (1956)
Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
Passion of Joan of Arc (1927)
Battleship Potemkin (1922)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Late Spring (1949)
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
Seven Samurai (1954)
Singin’ in the Rain (1952
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