Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.
This is not going to be an easy film for me to write up. Au Hasard Balthazar (sometimes called simply Balthazar) is a film better experienced than explained. I’m not entirely sure that I understand it completely. It’s a film of singular beauty, but it is also emotionally dense. It’s not a help in this case that the film concerns the life and fate of a donkey, the Balthazar of the title. No matter how competent an animal actor Balthazar the donkey is, he’ll never outright tell us what he is feeling or experiencing.
A large portion of Au Hasard Balthazar deals with the comparison between the life and trials of Balthazar and those of his sometime-owner and friend Marie (Anne Wiazemsky). Both Balthazar and Marie experience a life of abuse and cruelty, one that Balthazar endures with a terrible stoicism, a patient suffering that could, in a person, produce a level of enlightenment. Does it in the animal? The film would have us think so.
The biggest issue with the film is also the very thing that makes the film work: the cruelty Balthazar is forced to endure. I think I’m made of pretty stern stuff. Yesterday, I watched The Hills Have Eyes and saw a man lit on fire and then cannibalized and it affected me almost not at all. Today, I see a guy tie a piece of paper to Balthazar’s tail and light it on fire, and I admit, I flinched. That’s the thing that gives me the most pause in this film—the character of Gerard (Francois Lafarge), who interacts with Balthazar while delivering bread for a baker. Gerard has no specific reason for his cruelty to the donkey, and not much of a reason for what he does to Marie. The suffering here feels pointless, except to serve as a way to further the spiritual growth of our characters.
As much as this is a film about the comparison between Marie and Balthazar, it is also a contrast of how the two of them deal with the situations of abuse they find themselves in. Gerard is the main (but not sole) abuser in both cases. Balthazar endures this while Marie, despite her love for the donkey, allows the donkey to be worked nearly to death and repeatedly abused. She is also repeatedly abused by Gerard and also never complains. Rather than enduring, though, she accepts life with him as preferred over a possible life with a young lover named Jacques (Walter Green).
Is it Balthazar’s ability to deal with the monumental abuse that sanctifies him? Is it his stoicism? I don’t know, but there is no doubt that Robert Bresson’s intent is to canonize the donkey in some real way, to make him an animal saint by virtue of a harsh life lived without complaint and through terrible trial.
Is he equating the abused life of Marie with that of the donkey? I think he is. He’s also probably equating our short and brutal lives with that of Balthazar as well. After all, we often suffer at the hands of an uncaring world, battered by the ebb and flow of a fate that seems not to care if we succeed or even survive. Unlike the donkey, we can figure this out and can actively fight back against it. This makes us either ennobled or far more pathetically tragic. Take your pick. On the one hand, there is a sense of nobility, or at least of stubborn pride, in the notion of striking back against the uncaring forces of the universe. On the other hand, the fact that we are so powerless and flail against it nonetheless is ultimately pretty sad. This uncaring universe is represented by Gerard and his gang of thugs who appear to exist only to cause harm to everyone and everything around them.
And so, Au Hasard Balthazar is a film of tragic beauty, but not a film I plan on watching again in the near future. I don’t like to see cruelty to animals, even in cases where I know that cruelty is simulated or otherwise mollified. I wanted nothing more than to give the poor donkey a scratch behind his ears and to feed him a carrot. But sadly, poor Balthazar lives in a world where he controls nothing, and that’s the point, too. Balthazar endures. The others in the film endure less well because they don’t accept their fate. Balthazar does, and that acceptance defines him, and defines the film as well.
Why to watch Au Hasard Balthazar: It might be the best film about an animal ever made.
Why not to watch: Animal cruelty.