Magic in Movies: Notes on Au Hasard Balthazar


Magic in movies is a beautiful thing. I’ve inundated myself with film for years, since the age of nineteen, but only recently experienced the pleasure of being put under a spell by two directors I had known of, but whose images I was not ready for.

First Andrei Tarkovsky, whose brand of magic is mysteriously and eerily displayed by a sequence in his quasi-autobiographical Mirror (1974):

The mother here is seen through her young son’s consciousness, but the young son (the boy will grow to become Tarkovsky the filmmaker) sees wet locks of golden hair and much more. It’s a childhood vision — half lovely, half terrible. All the boy has at that age is his mother (as his father is often away at war) and she is paramount but precarious. She could be safely nestled next to him and then she is gone, the world crashes. Someone could hurt her…

Tarkovsky adored Robert Bresson and put two of his films (Diary of a Country Priest and Mouchette) on his top ten list. Au Hasard Balthazar was released in 1966. It was probably conceived and shot in 1965 or early 1966 at the latest.

What a two-year period for cinema! All over the world, the greatest directors were writing, shooting and editing some of their best work. Antonioni working hard in England on Blow-Up. Bergman directing Liv and Bibi in Persona. Kubrick researching 2001: A Space Odyssey. Tarkovsky himself putting together Andrei Rublev in Russia. Cassavetes jumping around in Southern California, trying to get Faces shot. And then Bresson premieres this simple little parable of a film, about a donkey seen from birth to death. The film is no Lassie — many people own Balthazar in the French countryside, including some of the vilest people in film history, including a young thief, a drunkard, and a miser. And yet Balthazar is Balthazar throughout. An innocent, a donkey who does his work, who doesn’t ask for anything.

Here is the opening:

This sequence, until the crack of the whip, is so easygoing and childlike, it’s hard to imagine an old man created it. This is Bresson’s magic. A simple showing. There is no ostentatious editing (dissolves dominate the entire film), the camera movements are slow with mostly medium and close-up shots of the characters, though the long shot of the school and people walking toward the camera is a motif Bresson returns to throughout, a cleansing of the visual palette if you will. Bresson blends in some of the main characters in cast during the opening, including Jacques, Marie and her father. He also throws in a sick child who won’t appear again in the film. Her covering her face in agony of not being able to fit in takes about five seconds of real time but everything one needs to know about the situation is shown — Bresson creating multiple worlds.

It seems the purpose of this sequence is not only to show the innocence of Balthazar, but also that of human beings. Children play and happily push each other in swings — life is sweet. The rest of the film is not.

Money plays a huge role in the film, and it affects Balthazar always as people weigh the benefit of feeding him for the work he will produce. As he gets older, his worth is questioned more and more.

Midway through, after being passed on to a few people, Balthazar ends up in a circus. In the following magical sequence, he is pulled around and shown the other animals in their cages. A tiger, a polar bear, a money and the elephants. (The video is bad for the first few seconds, but watch on.)

When I first saw this, I couldn’t believe what I was watching. It’s a moment in cinema like no other I know. Here are animals just looking at one another — a filmmaker had somehow entered their consciousness.  No music underscores these dazzling encounters; the eyes meet as if to say, “What are you doing here?” Like them, Balthazar is about to be exploited, and they must keep to their cages and endure. This sequence reminds me of the photographs of human and owl eyes (and prose)  in the first pages of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz and of course, Rilke’s ‘The Panther.’ We can never fully know what is going on for an animal, but these artists have dared to evoke them.

As Marie grows up and her father gives up his school teaching to become a farmer, enduring many losses along the way, she falls for the thug Gerard, an attractive but evil young man who steals money from old couples, traffics goods over the border and beats on Balthazar because he sees Marie is too affectionate with him. They have an affair over time but she is eventually spit out and finds her way to a miser’s house in the rain.

The key dialogue (emphasis mine):

Marie: This is a place to die in. With no regrets.
Miser: Who mentioned dying?
Marie: Me. Don’t you believe in anything?
Miser: I believe in what I own. I love money. I hate death.

Dialogue is at a minimum in this film, but when it hits, it hits. The miser gives her money and she immediately accepts it, but after the miser’s speech about how money is king, she gives it back, saying she needs a friend. According to an interview with Bresson, “This is her moment of greatness,” and her fundamental honesty wins out. The miser will comfort her and perhaps sleep with her — the film is not explicit on this point. All the while Balthazar is in the background during these exchanges, remaining silent. Though there are many characters and many subplots (it’s amazing how much Bresson packs into ninety-five minutes), Balthazar remains stable. He doesn’t ask for anything, he doesn’t try to put himself in a superior position. He continues to give for his entire life. Marie’s mother calls him a saint toward the end, but he’s more than a saint, he’s divine. He dies because of Gerard’s indiscretions but, fittingly, he dies among other animals: sheep.

Watch again how at :59 Balthazar stops, perfectly foregrounded against a mountain, and looks to his left. Like Tarkovsky’s fascination with animals, one wonders, How could they do that? But these movements seem more organic than special effects. It is a transcendental image. And soon it is revealed he is looking at a herd of sheep in the distance. Is this Balthazar’s plan? To not be alone at the end? The viewer is then introduced to the herd and the sheep dogs, but through crafty editing, as the camera pulls back it is revealed Balthazar is already with them, already surrounded. The bells are no accident and though Schubert’s piano sonata rises once again, Bresson wisely lets it fall off so we have only bells sounding as cinema’s only divine being dies.

There is much more that goes on in the film, including a drunkard’s time with Balthazar, his inheriting a load of money and eventual death, but a summary of the plot would be feeble. Motion pictures are dubbed such, because the images are supposed to communicate all to the spectator. Bresson is more interested in how things happen rather than what happens, and Au Hasard Balthazar is about facial expressions: Marie’s darting eyes in front of Gerard, her father’s stony ignominy at the failure of his life and Balthazar’s quiet, humbling face. Here is Bresson’s simple formula from Notes on the Cinematographer:

“My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected on to a screen, come to life again like flowers in water.”

Greg Gerke’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, The Kenyon Review Online, Denver Quarterly, Quarterly West, Mississippi Review, LIT, Film Comment, and others. He lives in Brooklyn. More from this author →