It’s been interesting to witness the new vogue for black-and-white films. Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast (2021) is a notably successful example. Branagh opts for monochrome because he believes that it has an authenticity that colour lacks. He is aiming to give the everyday experience of the Irish ‘troubles’ – not only political violence but also personal and domestic conflict – a new intensity.
Branagh’s initiative chimes with the current revival of interest in classic European cinema. The French director Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) is an ‘undisputed classic of classics’ in that field. Filmed, of course, in austere black-and-white, nothing could be further removed from Hollywood. Moreover, its plot might not seem very promising to those seeking pure entertainment: it tells the story of a humble donkey from birth to death. Moreover, it features unprofessional actors, both human and non-human – the donkey is also untrained. Yet Au Hasard Balthazar has frequently been included in the top 20 films of all time in journals such as Sight and Sound.
I call Au Hasard Balthazar a ‘fable’ simply because, as with Aesop’s tales, it features an animal as its protagonist and carries a moral message. It compels us to reconsider not only how we view and treat animals but also how we make sense of the material world around us.
The title may be roughly translated as ‘Balthazar by Chance’, or ‘Balthazar at Random’. The donkey is a victim of circumstance. Of course, it is a simple fact that we humans have no choice about being born, and we have to make what we can of what has followed. However, we have the advantage of language, and our consequent ability to articulate our experience – allowing us some limited control over the circumstances of our lives, whether painful or pleasant. Working animals have no capacity for such articulation, and they have no control over where they go or what kind of life they must endure. You can gain some sense of Balthazar’s experience of the world from the official French trailer to the film.
What Difference, Human and Animal?
The first few minutes of Au Hasard Balthazar introduce us to our protagonist and some of the people whose lives will be associated with him. In an idyllic pastoral setting, we see the baby donkey, born on a farm, being adopted by Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), the schoolteacher’s daughter. She and Jacques (Walter Green), the son of the neighbouring farmer, decide to baptise him ‘Balthazar’. Apart from the fact that that name has Biblical connotations (he was one of the three wise men who visited the infant Jesus), there is the suggestion that the donkey has now been given a proper identity for the children at least.
Whatever we infer from this opening use of religious symbolism, there is no trace of anthropomorphism in the film. Bresson’s cinematic method makes it clear that the audience is not meant to identify with Balthazar. The donkey’s task is to endure whatever human beings inflict on him, not to charm us or become the focus of our sentimental musings. No character in the film – human or non-human – is meant to become a ‘personality’. As in all his films, Bresson’s aim here is to depict the very basic essence of humanity and life itself.
To return to the opening exposition, we see the children becoming more devoted to Balthazar. They take him to Jacques’ sister, who is seriously ill, so that she may be cheered by his presence: it is as if the children believe that he can cure her. This does not work, of course, and she dies shortly after. The farmer, shattered by the death of his daughter, decides to move his remaining family away. Marie’s father takes over the running of the farm. As for Balthazar, it is clear that he cannot remain a much-beloved companion to the children. He is sold into a life of toil, neglect, and cruelty: he works intermittently for a baker, a corn merchant, and a circus owner. At one point, he is appropriated by an alcoholic tramp, who mistreats him as badly as all the rest.
As Marie matures, she and Jacques meet occasionally, but she forgets him when she becomes besotted with Gerard (François Lafarge), a local gang leader. Under his influence, Marie grows less concerned for Balthazar’s fate. If the opening scene depicted a paradise – with children and animals in harmony – we are now wandering through the wilderness of this fallen world, with Gerard as a satanic presence. Given Marie’s devotion to him, he feels entitled to exploit and abuse her. Thus her role as a victim parallels that of Balthazar, whose task is to labour day after day and endure all the torments inflicted on him.
That said, we cannot attribute any anthropomorphic impulse to the director. Marie suffers, but she remains part of a family and a community that always seeks to enhance her; Balthazar is the mere object of human cruelty and aggression. We should add, though, that director Jean Luc Godard once commented provocatively that both Marie and Balthazar are ‘donkeys’. We have to concede that this judgement does at least remind us that both human and non-human creatures are subject to suffering, whether articulated verbally or simply endured in silence.
The Powers of Sound and Silence
Silence is always an option for human beings, including film directors. Bresson knows how to use it as skilfully as he uses sound. Provocatively, he uses the soothing music of Schubert’s Sonata No. 2 for the opening credits, but he disrupts it with the braying of the donkey, which alerts us to the fact that the whole film revolves around him. In Au Hasard Balthazar, the music is heard briefly in one or two scenes, and finally, when we witness Balthazar’s death. But otherwise, much of the film asks us to register what we are witnessing in silence: in many scenes, particularly those which dwell on Balthazar’s stillness amid his suffering and the human conflict around him, there is no need for emotional manipulation by way of music.
Of course, some sounds arise from the rural setting of the story: the bleating of sheep, the ringing of sheep bells, and the creaking of carts. But these are intermittent, and they hardly constitute noise. By contrast, the film’s antagonist, namely the gang leader Gerard, is always associated with noise – whether that of the scooters that he and his followers ride or that of the portable radio he always has with him.
Silence is particularly noticeable in scenes focusing on the donkey’s patient endurance. An exception is the second scene in the circus. Already employed to perform tricks in the circus ring, he is also employed to pull a cart full of hay, which one of the circus workers distributes to each caged animal. The camera alternates between Balthazar’s face as he stands silently whenever the cart stops and those of the circus animals. His silence is punctuated by their growls and shrieks of protest at their miserable imprisonment.
It is tempting to surmise that Balthazar shows respect for them in their misery. Nor do I want to dismiss that possibility as anthropomorphism. All these creatures, Balthazar included, share the common language of suffering. At some level, they understand one another as victims of human cruelty.
The Good and Evil Within
What, meanwhile, of Marie? Her suffering climaxes in the scene where she is discovered naked in an abandoned house, having been assaulted by Gerard and his gang. Reference to that disturbing incident raises the question of human evil. Here we must address that Bresson was an explicitly Christian (indeed Catholic) director. In Au Hasard Balthazar, as in others, he wishes to relate the question of morality to that of spirituality. The figure of Gerard is there to represent the challenge posed to a religious worldview by sheer evil.
We might surmise that Bresson’s decision to focus on the life of suffering led by both a donkey and a young woman amounts to glorifying pain. But that is not the case. We are asked to acknowledge that the source of suffering often lies in human choice, human error … and human cruelty. However, once that is acknowledged, we are simply invited to see bodily suffering from the perspective of spirit.
The vicious Gerard is responsible for the donkey’s death. Towards the end of Au Hasard Balthazar, Marie’s family takes Balthazar back. However, Gerard plans to smuggle contraband over the border, and he asks to ‘borrow’ the donkey. Marie’s mother refuses, telling Gerard that Balthazar is a ‘saint’. He takes him anyway. In the course of the crime, the gang is pursued by the police, and Gerard abandons the animal after it has been shot. Balthazar is the innocent victim of human evil. In the final scene, we see Balthazar the next day making his painful way into a field full of sheep, where he dies.
The Sacred and the Profane
Bresson’s exploration of human evil should not be taken to suggest that a Gnostic theology is at work here. He is not presenting the material world as unbearably dark and corrupt, nor is he assuming that the soul has to lift itself beyond the body to attain spiritual illumination. Bresson is no world-hater or sanctimonious moralizer. His spirituality is inseparable from his reverence for the material world. His cinematic technique encourages us to contemplate our world in all its variety. The camera dwells continually on details: a tree, a cart’s wheel, a door, a bench, a hand, and most of all, the patient, impassive face of the donkey. The director once stated: ‘The supernatural in film is only the real rendered more precise: real things seen close up.’
Putting this in more theoretical terms, I would invoke the work of Mircea Eliade, the celebrated historian of religion. He speaks of ‘the dialectic of the sacred and the profane’. Ultimately that very dialectic produces the discovery of a ‘coincidence of opposites’, by which the sacred and profane are understood to be one. It is the function of religious ritual to manifest the sacred in the profane. I would add that such a manifestation is possible through the visual arts. Certainly, Bresson would assume that cinema is especially powerful in this respect.
The sacred and profane dimensions come close in that final scene, where Balthazar dies. As the sheep gather around him, we might think of him as returning to the pastoral setting of the opening – with a religious dimension. After all, Jesus was known as a ‘good shepherd’ and a ‘lamb of God’. In the latter capacity, he acted as the divine scapegoat for the sins of humanity. Could it be that Balthazar dies as a secular scapegoat, his death also caused by human sin? Perhaps that is a question that should be left open. Certainly, Bresson does not want to tell us.
Once again, we must remain wary of the temptation to anthropomorphism. But in traditional Christian theology (as opposed to some later world-hating sects), we are meant to see the crucifixion and resurrection effecting a redemption of humanity and the material world itself – with all its creatures included. St. Francis of Assisi was consistent with that theology when he protested against the mistreatment of any innocent creature, donkeys included. Indeed, he often referred fondly to ‘Brother Donkey’.
Au Hasard Balthazar‘s Resonating Message
So what does our fable tell us? What wisdom does it convey?
Firstly, one clear message from Au Hasard Balthazar is that the most humble creatures deserve our respect and that to hurt them is an offence against creation. Not only that: to do so only lessens our humanity. The silent, suffering donkey exposes the aggression and arrogance we are all prone to.
Since the release of Au Hasard Balthazar in 1966, I would suggest that the question of our relationship with the non-human world has become more acute. We know much more about the brutal mistreatment of working animals globally. Add to this the trade in wild creatures, regarded as a status symbol by wealthy owners. Beyond these instances, there is the larger question of humanity’s destruction of global wildlife habitats from the Amazon to the Arctic, with disastrous consequences for its inhabitants and the human race.
Au Hasard Balthazar is a reminder of the importance – indeed, the sacredness – of the Earth. I mentioned earlier Bresson’s reverence for the material world. For him, this is central to his theology; but we do not have to espouse the Christian faith to see the importance of his imperative: to look at, listen to and learn from the world we live in – aware always of the miracle of existence.
Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Harcourt. 1959.