The film's narrative always revolves around Balthazar, but rather than relating the donkey's own story, Bresson tells, instead, those of the various people with whom he comes into contact. Although the director makes us aware of Balthazar's suffering, we are never really able to engage with the character. We are shown how Marie's cruel boyfriend sets fire to the creature's tail and watches him as he runs away in pain and fear. We see how he is beaten and whipped by an old miser to whom he is sold, how he is kicked and prodded by his numerous masters, and how he is left trembling in the snow as though he were an inanimate object. We are even given an occasional glimpse of his joys, as when he is being suckled by his mother and when he is briefly made an attraction in a circus doing arithmetic. Despite such depictions, Balthazar never really emerges as an individual. He suffers from men's cruelties and we sorrow for him, but we are never able to see the world from his perspective. Fortunately, at the very least, Bresson never anthropomorphizes him either.
Au Hasard Balthazar's human characters are, however, so nicely realized that the moviegoer is able to involve himself with them and experience their various emotions. Among all the individuals Bresson introduces to the viewer, Marie is, perhaps, the most fascinating. She is a vacuous, empty person, but, as stupid, foolish, and selfish as she is, the moviegoer is made to sorrow for her. In fact, her inability to distinguish between what will hurt her and what will benefit her, which results from her lack of intelligence, is such a common trait that the viewer cannot but be saddened when he sees how Marie's life is affected by such a flaw. This aspect of her personality is, fortunately, so complemented by others that Marie emerges as a truly interesting individual. At different times, the director thus reveals how the girl takes pleasure in what is currently before her and how she does not think of anything beyond what is immediately gratifying. While, for instance, she grew up with Balthazar and, as an adult, adorns his bridle with flowers, Marie does nothing to prevent two young men from beating him. Apparently, she is not concerned about the donkey for his own sake, but thinks only of the pleasure she gets from his appearance. He is merely an object to be enjoyed, not a being with whom she should empathize.
Bresson's other characters may not be quite as well crafted as is Marie, but hardly one of them fails to arouse the viewer's interest. Gerard, the young woman's foul boyfriend, for example, is crude, crass, and cruel, but his very nastiness has such a sense of veracity that the viewer will, almost inevitably, find himself affected by the character. In various scenes, the moviegoer is thus shown how the young man delights in playing adolescent pranks, such as causing automobile accidents by pouring oil on a road at a sharp turn, how he teases and berates an old vagrant, whose generosity he is more than willing to accept when the man comes into some money, and how he gleefully abuses and manipulates Marie, who remains dumbly infatuated with him despite such harsh treatment. This list of beautifully crafted characters could well go on and on. The movie is absolutely filled with captivating individuals.
The world in which the stories of these persons are set is also generally nicely bought to life. The film is visually pedestrian, but it somehow still conveys an appreciation of the world in which we live. Bresson is able to make visually manifest much that is left unsaid so that the viewer is drawn into his dolorous universe and fascinated by its various inhabitants. The director allows us to see how Marie's beautiful face conceals an emptiness within, how her vacant eyes reflect the world, which inflicts itself upon her, and how she never has the wisdom to fight against it. He reveals Balthazar's awkward beauty and his endless pain. He manifests both man's cruelty and his kindness, reminding us that the world is filled both with vicious, selfish persons like Gerard and with gentle souls like Jacques, the young man who played with Marie as a child and who loves her blindly and wholeheartedly as an adult.
Au Hasard Balthazar is a truly affecting and memorable movie. By bringing out man's pride and cruelty, as well as his kindness, Bresson has crafted a melancholy tale that allows the viewer to savor a delicious sadness.
Review by Keith Allen
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