Au hasard Balthazar

Au hasard Balthazar is in fact a motto spoken by the nobles of Baux who claimed to be heirs of Magus Balthazar.  It means “haphazard Balthazar” and Bresson saw this as fitting perfectly with the subject of the film as it invokes the idea of chance.

Born in the French countryside in the 1960s, Balthazar is a donkey, dragged away whilst suckling his mother, torn from his peaceful and rightful life by young children who demand of their father that they must have him.  From here he is adopted into a provincial farm life and indeed literally baptized “Balthazar.”  Bresson’s idea was to present Balthazar’s life as a metaphor for man’s path in life, at the same time that Balthazar’s various owners represent vices in men.

The opening scene shows a young donkey on a hillside, suckling at his mother.  This is a striking and peaceful picture of a living creature that is fundamentally innocent.  Within seconds we hear the cry of children off-screen, pleading with their father to “keep it.”  From here the donkey is stripped from his mother and taken as the possession of a young family.  He is baptized, water and all.  After the death of their daughter, the family that adopted Balthazar move away and both he and the property are left to a local science teacher, his wife and daughter Marie, as caretakers.  This unites the two main protagonists (if I dare declare Balthazar a protagonist) as their lives and tribulations run parallel.  Balthazar falls into the hands of many owners, mostly cruel, and we see his slow deterioration, torture and quiet death.

Balthazar becomes a type of protagonist but also acts as a living and breathing spiritual test: how do people react in the face of a living creature that embodies utter humility and purity and delivers perfect servitude?  This film is woven with encounters and situations that appear to be by chance, married to decisions steered by free will – and it explores how both influence one’s ability to find peace and resolution, or one’s idea of happiness, however flawed.

Susan Sontag said of Bresson that his films are greatly influenced by Jansenism and the idea of predestination, but I think in Au hasard Balthazar, Bresson offers a degree of hope and pulls away from strict Jansenism.  He invites us to look inside ourselves at the idea of a type of compatabilism: the interaction between God’s sovereignty and the outcome or cause of our desires.

To paraphrase Bresson, Balthazar is at once representative of the life path of man starting from happy childhood, going out to work, to a sense of genius later on, and a state of mysticism before death.  At the same time he represents purity, goodness, and how society, in the guises of his various owners, react to this and make their desired choices.  But in terms of representing life’s path, I find this a little too simplistic if we are to take it literally, and I’m not entirely sure if that is the point of the exercise.  Countless members of the audience can look at that and dispute, for example, the tranquillity of childhood, but I think the bigger point and certainly what worked for me is that Bresson shows the broad stages in life and how transient and brief it can seem for all of us.

In Balthazar’s journey we see the beginning of his life in the field with the family where he is the centre of affection and love. He is then put to work by adults who see him as a commodity and a means to an end.  He is pushed and prodded beyond what he can physically bear without complaint.  He meets danger and fear, and his natural instincts for survival lead him to new surroundings and yet another owner.  At one point he even finds himself part of the circus where he is cheered and displays a level of so-called “genius.”  Towards the end of his life he is driven back into the hands of a local teenager, Gérard, who places Balthazar in even greater danger and subjects him to new levels of abuse – before finally finding his path back to the field reminiscent of the film’s beginning.  Interestingly, as is the case with Marie, the escalation of abuse drives Balthazar away from his home, estranged from a place that once felt safe.  Balthazar’s journey is driven by chance and demonstrates the fleeting nature of critical stages in our life.

In the end Bresson shows how Balthazar has surrendered to the sovereignty and predetermined will of God.  He is at peace; he can stop moving and rest, almost with a sense of being back home.  Yet even whilst it seems Balthazar has no choice, his final act of surrender feels like a choice of sorts.

Marie’s path is one of innocence and devotion to her father, a form of love for her childhood sweetheart Jacques, and a sweet devotion to Balthazar. There are shades to Marie’s character that start to open up; when Balthazar is first attacked by Gérard she does nothing, does not even react.  Gérard starts to pursue her, fascinated by her purity.  This awakens in her the feeling that she is controlled by Gérard.  The scene where Gérard appears in her car seems to be by chance.  She resists at first and then surrenders to him, tearful and confused.  Gérard merely sets out to ruin her, to shape her into a figure that does not challenge his own humanity as he seems to do with Balthazar.  This chance encounter with and deep controlling love for Gérard effectively brings Marie’s destruction; she must bear a final humiliation and degradation at the hands of Gérard which leave her incapable of returning to her once idyllic existence.  Bresson tests us, as it is hard to believe Marie does not have some degree of personal desire or will, that she cannot make any decision about Gérard’s influence over her.

And this is where the mystery lies.  At what point do free will and our moral code take over, and what is predetermined?  Why choose actions that lead down a destructive path, as opposed to saving oneself?  When comparing Balthazar’s existence, which seems to lack choice and control, it is hard to feel for these characters who wilfully seek destruction and pain.  I think Bresson deliberately poses these questions in Au hasard Balthazar.  He dares to touch on, as Sontag once described it, a person’s own “heaviness” or “gravity” that drives them.

Ordinarily we find in stories a sense of aesthetic emotion that helps us rationalise human reactions, but Bresson leaves a vacuum here for us to fill.  This results in Balthazar’s encounters with the various owners feeling somewhat disjointed.  Activity and scenes revolve around Balthazar, move from him and towards him – this means that we sometimes get only hints or glimpses of the human relationships; we see actions and reactions by Gérard, Marie, the drunk, the miser and Marie’s father, and not so much the agenda or reasoning behind it, but this serves its purpose by inviting us into their mystery.  Bresson’s desire is to show the effect of things on life, whilst the cause remains a mystery, hinting at the counterpoint ideas of free will working with predestination.

Balthazar, the embodiment of goodness and purity, is either abandoned or used and abused by these characters.  Bresson dares to ask: why are those choices made?  Why, in our life journey, would we not choose something better for ourselves?  Again, this makes the audience see the characters as they struggle against their own “heaviness” and “gravity.”

Bresson also effectively builds pressure with these characters.  The film’s rhythm gives us a sense of the spiral of their deterioration, whilst the continued human test of facing purity and goodness reveals their flaws.

Bresson was unapologetic about God’s existence in his films.  By interlocking the two symbolic meanings of Balthazar’s life, Bresson is saying our fate is all the same and the rejection of God’s sovereignty leads to a breakdown of the spirit, but that breakdown can, through choices, lead to a state of grace.  I think this is especially so of Balthazar.  One of the truly redeeming moments comes when finally a human, Marie’s mother, sees his beauty and begs for Gérard’s mercy, declaring Balthazar a “saint.”

I love the symbolic use of hands in this film.  Often we see medium shots of hands reaching out and connecting.  This beautifully conveys the interconnectedness that permeates the film, and how this possible connection might affect future decisions or shape one’s values or desires.  The isolated images of hands wandering and reaching emphasise the idea of being driven by something we cannot see.  Bresson’s famous use of models instead of actors and their style of automatic speech skilfully aids this goal.

The composition of many shots also shows the interaction between two players, again to emphasise what is passed between people in relationships and chance encounters.

I found Au hasard Balthazar incredibly moving, and my journey with this film has thrown up many questions for me as well.