It’s the simplest yet most complex of films, a tale of human frailty, kindness, and avarice seen through the eyes of a donkey. Many feel that Robert Bresson’s singular cinema of abstract spirituality and pared-down emotion reached its apex with Au hasard Balthazar. This overwhelming contemplation of lost innocence is transcendent without a trace of bombast, austere but never detached, and shot with such directness and edited with such scalpel-sharp precision as to make the most fine-tuned thriller seem slack by comparison. It’s no surprise that other filmmakers have been as bowled over by Balthazar as critics and scholars. Even upon its first release, Bresson’s peers knew something monumental was on view, as you can see in the following clip, from a 1966 French television program titled Un metteur en ordre: Robert Bresson (available in its entirety on our DVD special edition). In it, director Louis Malle, writer Marguerite Duras, and director Jean-Luc Godard (who once called Au hasard Balthazar “the world in an hour and a half”) sing the praises of Bresson’s film, while host Roger Stéphane says that thanks to it, “something’s been transformed in the art of cinema.”
If you have never seen Au hasard Balthazar, the best place to start is the beginning. In three-and-a-half delicate minutes, Bresson beautifully and subtly renders the idyllic youth of both the donkey and the children who treat him with tenderness. As the film progresses, we realize this is a lost paradise for both Balthazar and Marie, the girl he is closest to. Like the animal, she will prove to be a martyr, quietly suffering for the sins of others. But in this sequence, there is peace, and there are even glimmers of first love.