France, Sweden, 1966
Directed by Robert Bresson
With Anne Wiazemsky (Marie), Walter Green (Jacques), François Lafarge (Gérard), Philippe Asselin (Marie’s father), Nathalie Joyaut (Marie’s mother), Jean-Claude Guilbert (Arnold)
This Balthazar is not the famous Magus but a donkey. It first appears as a young animal, braying and suckling its mother. A couple of cheerful children, a boy and a girl, want to buy it even although the worried adult standing next to them claims it is impossible. The animal is then unsurprisingly led to the kids’ house, where it is baptized under the eyes of another child, a sick and quiet girl.
Kids’ stuff, it could be said. But once fully grown up the donkey would suffer so much and witness so many sorrows that it would look like a martyr and even more. Near the ending a woman declares it a saint and the next scene does show the beast carrying the statue of a saint. It later dies quietly amid a herd of sheep and lambs – a traditional symbol of the Christ.
Balthazar shares the stage with a small group of humans who live, or try to live, in an unspecified French rural district. At the crossroads of these plots stands Marie, the young girl introduced at the beginning and who has since grown up. She is the daughter of a schoolteacher turned farmer who cultivates the fields that a wealthier man, a former neighbor of his, lets to him. He is the one children compelled to buy the donkey and he has now lost the quiet and sick girl he had; but he has successfully brought up the boy who was Marie’s best friend, Jacques. Jacques comes back to the place of his childhood to reconcile his father and his landlord who are embroiled in a quarrel over the management of the property, a quarrel fueled by other farmers who are clearly jealous of the financial success of the former schoolteacher. Meanwhile, Gérard, leader of the village’s louts and a smug guy who enjoys harassing, tricking, and stealing people, tries to seduce Marie, who eventually falls for him. And around the village lurks Arnold, a tramp surviving on contraband and wine.
Balthazar shifts from one of these persons to another but sometimes ends up elsewhere, in a circus or in the farm of a skinflint selling bottled water. It is exploited as much as any beast of burden, until he gets shot during a doomed smuggling operation. It can sometimes put up some resistance, in its own animal way but it also gets older and frailer – it once barely skipped death as cold made it so sick that a man was called to slaughter it; but Arnold managed to save it. The camera often scrutinizes its head as Balthazar listens and watches the human activities, especially when they display their natural born nastiness (firecrackers thrown on the sidewalks or bullets fired randomly). A recurring image is the close-up on one of its eyes, a troubling aperture looking right into another; at one point this eye raises discomforting questions as the animal is walked through the circus and observes other, exotic, animals peering at it from their iron cages – what can it make of them and of the barrier between them and the world?
And what can Balthazar make of the cages the humans have chosen to live in? Marie’s father resents any demand to explain his business and takes shelter in an arrogant pride. Marie’s mother is unable to act beyond the rules imposed on her and she faithfully respects. Arnold is so addicted to wine and so entrenched in his outlaw instincts he cannot change tack, and even an unexpected fortune cannot save him – he is so soaked into alcohol that he dies soon after the celebration of his luck by the villagers. Through his various actions, more and more despicable and selfish, Gérard looks like an epitome of evil; unlike other characters, he never says a word or makes a gesture that would soften or change our natural hostility towards the guy the camera consciously fosters. Mark that he relishes modern-day stuff, like portable radio, and fads, from rock music to leather jackets; his style gives him the same pride that Marie’s father gets from his scientific management of the fields; the film makes plain that modernity doesn’t protect from bad instincts, quite the contrary.
The most poignant and difficult case is Marie’s. Her love for Balthazar is deep and even startling in its sensuality but her relations to the humans are harder to grasp. She despises Gérard but fails to resist to him and chooses to be her passionate lover. When she is eventually fed up with him, she takes shelter at the skinflint’s home, takes her money and has sex with him; but she still despises him. The same contempt welcomes Jacques when he makes his proposal. She is bitingly critical of her father and ignores her mother. She flees the area after being beaten and humiliated by the local louts but it is doubtful she took the decision with much regret. She first comes across as an innocent but ends up being a Biblical whore; and she always seems perfectly aware of herself; she seems to embody the bitterness life can bring to a human soul. One of the saddest moments comes when she speaks to Jacques with deeply disillusioned words.
They are told, like others in the movie, in a flat and neutral tone. Actors play their part in the dullest way, avoiding any particular emotions and effects. This has become over the years the trademark of Robert Bresson’s movies, in a radical dismissal of the conventional rules of filmmaking. Compositions are minimal and tight, the camera is always focused on key elements. This ascetic aesthetics unsettles the audience, obviously used to other narrations, and compels them to follow the plot and the characters without any guidance or suggestion on how to interpret them. They must go to the characters and not react on cues. The bold bareness of this cinema sounds daunting. But in this case, largely based on a non-human vision belonging to a being that is quietly unable to mimic them, unlike the well-known cartoon characters, it offers a concrete possibility to assess our feelings quite differently in a fresh, demanding filmmaking experience.
Balthazar has a black coat; it is worth remembering that the Magus was considered a black man to emphasize the universal nature of Christianity; it is also interesting to note that, according the local lore, the Magus traveled in the ancient region of Provence and that a local aristocrat family claimed him as an ancestor before they started to rule over this region with the motto “Au hasard Balthazar”, or “By Chance Balthazar”. The title of the film was in the past a rallying cry; maybe it is still the case for a different reason. Bresson boldly suggests to include the animal kingdom fully in the Christian community while forcing to think again about the real value and efficiency of our human morals and freedoms. This new Balthazar may be a saint or not, depending on anyone’s belief, or wish to believe, but it is certainly one of the boldest character cinema has ever shot while the film is one of the most searing explorations of our humanity that cinema has ever made.