Godard’s famous claim that Au hasard Balthazar is “the world in an hour and a half” suggests how dense, how immense Bresson’s brief, elliptical tale about the life and death of a donkey is. The film’s steady accumulation of incident, characters, mystery, and social detail, its implicative use of sound, offscreen space, and editing, have the miraculous effect of turning the director’s vaunted austerity into endless plenitude, which is perhaps the central paradox of Bresson’s cinema. So concentrated and oblique is Balthazar, it achieves the density, to extend Godard’s metaphor just a little, of an imploded nova.
Bresson’s twin masterpieces of the mid-sixties, Au hasard Balthazar and Mouchette—his last films in black and white—are rural dramas in which the eponymous innocents, a donkey and a girl, suffer a series of assaults and mortifications and then die. With their exquisite renderings of pain and abasement, the films are compendiums of cruelty, whose endings have commonly been interpreted as moments of transfiguration, indicating absolution for a humanity that has been emphatically shown to be not merely fallen but vile. Both “protagonists” expire in nature, one on a hillside, the other in a pond, their deaths accompanied by music of great sublimity: a fragment of Schubert’s Piano Sonata no. 20 and a passage from Monteverdi’s Vespers, respectively. (That these contravene Bresson’s own edict against the use of music as “accompaniment, support, or reinforcement” is significant; he later regretted the rather sentimental employment of the Schubert in Balthazar, and the film without it would be significantly bleaker in effect.) The representation of both deaths is ambiguous. The sacred music in Mouchette (Monteverdi’s “Magnificat,” with its intimations of the Annunciation), Mouchette’s three attempts to “fall” before succeeding, and the held image of the bubbles on the water that has received her body imply to many a divine, even ecstatic deliverance (and a perhaps heretical consecration of suicide). Similarly, Balthazar’s death, accompanied by the secular, albeit exalted, Schubert, as he is surrounded by sheep, suggests to several critics a glorious return to the eternal, a revelation of the divine.
A common reading of Balthazar, relying on an orthodox sense of Bresson’s Catholicism, on the Palm Sunday imagery of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on “the foal of a donkey,” and on the film’s many references to Dostoyevsky—especially The Idiot—ascribes to the animal a Christlike status. In this schema, Balthazar, after enjoying a brief, paradisial childhood, apparent in the image of his nuzzling his mother’s milk that opens the film and in his playful baptism by three children, lives a calvary. Passed from cruel master to cruel master, Balthazar traverses the stations of the cross, beaten, whipped, slapped, burned, mocked, and, in the concluding crucifixion, shot and abandoned to bleed to death, the hillside on which he slowly perishes a modern-day Golgotha. That he dies literally burdened (with contraband) suggests, in this reading, a sacrifice for humanity. This meaning is intensified by Balthazar’s sole, stigmata-like wound and by the sheep that flow around him, a tide of white that surrounds his dark, prostrate form. With their tolling bells, they evoke the Agnus Dei and thereby the liturgy, “Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.” Balthazar has died for the sins of those who have transgressed against him—the alcoholic Arnold, the vicious Gérard, the mean, miserly merchant—and of the few who have not, particularly the martyred Marie, whose fate parallels his.
The interpretation is tempting in its simplicity. That Balthazar passes through the hands of seven masters suggests to some a numerical trace of the seven words from the cross, the seven sacraments of the church formed by Christ’s Passion, or the seven deadly sins. The mock baptism performed by the children and the auditory equation of church bells with Balthazar’s bell indicate the animal’s divinity; Marie’s name suggests the mother of God, and the garland of flowers she makes for Balthazar is reminiscent of Christ’s crown of thorns; the strange bestiary in the circus implies the ark; the smugglers’ gold and perfume are the equivalent of the offerings of the magi; Gérard’s band of blousons noirs represent Christ’s tormentors (or, as Gilles Jacob has suggested, the thieves of Ecclesiastes); the wine that Arnold drinks and the bread that Gérard delivers both suggest transubstantiation; Arnold is in many ways a Judas figure; and so on.
But Bresson’s art never proceeded by strict or simple analogy—he is no C. S. Lewis, no Christian allegorist—and he always resisted such a reductive reading of Balthazar. While the name “Balthazar” alludes to that of the third magus and thereby to the birth of Christ, for instance, one wonders if Bresson, who began as a painter and was inspired by Chardin, among other artists, also had in mind the art historical references conjured by the name: Balthazar appears in several Adoration of the Magi paintings, by Dürer, Mantegna, Leonardo, et al., often portrayed as the African or Ethiopian king, following medieval custom. And just as the pale, sculpted face of Marie’s father reminds one of a Bellini doge, her garland of flowers, which returns as an ornamental spray on Balthazar’s harness in the circus sequence, certainly also suggests the feathered or jeweled turban of the third magus that was a common index of his “exotic” origins in these paintings.
A transcendental reading of the film also ignores the pessimism of Bresson’s vision—what he preferred to characterize as lucidity—which was to intensify in his subsequent films. Indeed, one is reminded more than once of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s acidulous Le Corbeau in Bresson’s insistence on the iniquity and malice of French provincial life, in particular with the anonymous letters sent to condemn Marie’s father. Resolutely turning away from the spiritual or metaphysical subjects of his previous films—the belief that “all is grace” in Diary of a Country Priest or that the hand of God guides humanity to its predestined fate in A Man Escaped—Bresson here begins the trajectory to the materialist world of his last film, L’Argent (in which Yvon Targe’s cellmate, echoing Marx, calls money “le dieu visible”). In Balthazar, little is numinous. We are placed in a hard, corporeal world of rucked, muddy fields and of things and objects, some of them signifiers of a modernity Bresson finds wanting: cars, carts, coins, benches, guns, tools, booze, jukeboxes, telegraph poles, deathbeds, transistor radios, and—especially—official documents (police summonses, audits, wills, orders of sale) and instruments of control and incarceration (harnesses, bridles, chains, muzzles). The latter manifest the film’s theme of liberty and freedom, of Balthazar’s and Marie’s parallel captivities. She, too, passes from master to master (her father; Gérard, into whose subjugation she willingly enters; and Jacques, the childhood sweetheart who sustains an ideal image rather than any real sense of her), but there is no release from her suffering. She simply disappears near the end of the film, one infers into a universe of servitude.
The elliptical, sometimes clipped rhythm of Bresson’s editing, the physicality of his sound world (the skidding cars, Balthazar’s braying, the clanking chains with which Gérard is repeatedly associated), and his fragmentation of bodies through truncated framing—the focus on torsos, legs, and hands, in particular—amplify this sense of materiality. Money and its equivalents (bread, land, contraband) are insistently shown, alluded to, and invoked, especially in the grain dealer’s speech about loving money and hating death. This avaricious miller is played by writer Pierre Klossowski, expert on de Sade and older brother of the painter Balthus, and he briefly takes the film into Buñuel territory as he surveys the shivering Marie, who swats his hand away from her neck and hungrily spoons compote from a jar. He offers her a wad of francs for sex, fulfilling the command of the young man who danced with her at Arnold’s party: “If you want her, pay!” In this monetary setting, Balthazar’s circuitous journey to death suggests less a traversal of the stations of the cross than an exchange of value, like the passing of the false note in L’Argent. His transit from hand to hand does not unleash “an avalanche of evil” as the trading does in the latter film, but just as determinedly reveals a world of moral and physical barbarity.
Using a rhetoric of reversal, in which a prayer or promise or characteristic is bluntly contradicted, sometimes within just one edit (a cut or dissolve), Bresson repeatedly depicts religion, or at least the church, as false, ineffectual. The casual criminal acts of Gérard, which Gilles Jacob says “introduce a satanic element” in the early sequences—slicking a highway with oil so that cars spin out of control and crash—are immediately followed by a sequence in which Gérard sings angelically at church, inciting Marie’s enthrallment with his beatific evil. Arnold cries to Christ, the Virgin, and all the saints that he will never drink again but within a quick edit is once more slugging back the booze. And as Marie’s father lies dying from grief at the end, a priest tells him, “There must be forgiveness for all. You’ll be forgiven because you have suffered.” The ailing man turns his body away from the priest and the latter reads from the Bible: “He may punish, yet he will have compassion. For he does not willingly afflict the children of men.” Even as we wonder what compassion we have witnessed in the film, aside from Marie’s tender ministrations toward Balthazar—the dubious kindness of the baker’s wife toward Gérard, perhaps?—Bresson all but ridicules the priest’s teachings. Outside, the dying man’s wife prays: “Lord, don’t take him from me too. Wait. You know how sad and miserable my life will be.” The priest’s hand beckons her through the window. She goes in. Her husband is dead.
The mourning wife tells Gérard, who wants to borrow the donkey for a smuggling operation, that Balthazar is “a saint,” much, one assumes, as Bresson’s gaunt, alcoholic country priest had become a saint, through his ceaseless suffering. In his famous essay on Diary of a Country Priest, André Bazin notes “the analogies with Christ that abound toward the end of the film.” A transcendental reading of Balthazar relies on a similar proliferation of signs: the donkey’s death, serene and glorious, sanctified by the Schubert andantino; the sheep and their pealing bells; his physical burden and spurting wound; and the silence that engulfs him before the screen fades to black. But Bresson’s lucidity sees the death differently, as the prolonged expiry of an old, abused animal, too wounded to bray, too exhausted to do anything but collapse to the earth, his value depleted.
James Quandt is senior programmer at Cinematheque Ontario, Toronto. He is the editor of monographs on Robert Bresson, Shohei Imamura, and Kon Ichikawa and is a regular contributor to Artforum magazine. He has recently published essays on Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Abbas Kiarostami, Manoel de Oliveira, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
This essay was adapted from one that first appeared in The Hidden God: Film and Faith, edited by Mary Lea Bandy and Antonio Monda (2003, The Museum of Modern Art, New York).