Au hasard Balthazar - Robert Bresson - donkey

Au hasard Balthazar
1966, directed by Robert Bresson

During the opening credits of Au hasard Balthazar the sound of a braying donkey interrupts a Franz Schubert piano sonata. The voice of the donkey contrasts so harshly with the beautiful melody that listeners in a concert hall would surely find it a rude mockery. Robert Bresson, however, gives us two reasons to think otherwise: first, the piano stops to let the donkey speak, graciously yielding to the humble animal; and second, after the donkey has spoken the pianist resumes playing with an undiminished poise that would be unexpected in a live performance. It sounds as if the donkey, however discordant its voice may be to our prejudiced ears, is participating in the music like an instrumentalist playing a solo.

Immediately after these titles is another unconventional homage to the donkey. In three quick vignettes Balthazar is given three gifts: his mother’s milk, the holy water of baptism, and a pinch of salt which the children call the “salt of wisdom”. These gifts are tokens, respectively, of love, spirit, and understanding – and if we’re willing to shift gears as abruptly as Bresson did a few seconds earlier on the soundtrack, these are synonyms for heart, courage, and brains – the three qualities embodied by Dorothy’s companions in The Wizard of Oz. We do not need to suppose that Bresson was thinking of the popular MGM fantasy when he made Balthazar; those three qualities are basic and universal ingredients of a complete person. In other words, by bestowing these gifts on the donkey, the movie achieves symbolically what few movies are able to do – it makes an animal a genuine character.

Au hasard Balthazar - Robert Bresson - Anne Wiazemsky - donkey

Regardless of animals’ reputation for stealing scenes, they are, under most directors, at a disadvantage to human actors who can usually adjust their faces, voices, and gestures to communicate thoughts and feelings with greater precision. In a Bresson film, however, that hardly matters because he carefully drains any emotional expression from his performers. An impassive donkey, therefore, is an ideal actor (or “model” in his words) for Bresson, a more complete cipher than any human. But to say this, as many critics already have, is merely to comment on Bresson’s outward style – which is only part of a greater method. Whether stripping emotion from his actors or stripping the humanity from the world he portrays, his aim is to express positive qualities through their absence.

Like so many Bresson films, Au hasard Balthazar is preoccupied with sin. Its incidents are a litany of human shortcomings: the pride of Marie’s father, Gérard’s cruelty, Arnold’s alcoholism, the miller’s miserliness, the fraudulent circus act. We witness or hear about rape, assault, vandalism, abuse, slander, prostitution, smuggling, and attempted murder. Amid all this iniquity it’s not necessarily obvious what positive understanding we’re supposed to gain, but at least we know where to look. Balthazar is a constant foil to the sinfulness around him, and shortly before the end Marie’s mother calls him a “saint”. Still, it’s not enough to say that the donkey is “good” or “holy”; those are value judgments that we have no standing to make. If Balthazar contrasts with the meanness around him, or if we imagine virtue in his expressionless eyes, that does not give us much to hold onto. Instead we must pay close attention to the movie’s cinematic language, and luckily the opening gives us a useful clue.

Au hasard Balthazar - Robert Bresson - donkey - sheep - ending

The donkey’s duet with the piano during the opening credits hints at the movie’s trajectory. No matter how low Balthazar’s station in the human world may be, he nevertheless participates in the glory of creation. Although he is shot at the end and presumably dies, the final scene places him on a scenic hillside, surrounded by nature and embraced by a flock of sheep – clothing him in the dignity that we should have sensed in him all along. It’s a loving tribute, a reward for a difficult life, but more importantly it reminds us that Balthazar’s dignity is every creature’s birthright. The donkey personifies grace – the same word that concludes Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest.

Balthazar’s imperishable dignity is a gift – and the movie, stressing this point, is full of gifts. The donkey receives three gifts at the beginning, and the perfume and gold he carries at the end recall the gifts of the Magi (after one of whom Balthazar is named). Jacques’ father gives Marie’s father the money and means to start his own farm. Arnold receives a generous inheritance. The baker’s wife gives Gérard a radio, a motorcycle, and money. Balthazar himself passes to one new owner after another, usually as a gift or a windfall. The miller gives Marie food, dry clothing, and a place to stay. Jacques offers Marie his love, and Marie gives her heart to Gérard. Whereas the donkey retains his gifts and spends his life serving others, the human characters taint the act of giving with bad intentions and never receive gifts with appreciation. The movie defines sin as a rejection of gifts, particularly of our innate dignity.

Au hasard Balthazar - Robert Bresson - Gérard - choirloft - singing - church

When the delinquent sadist Gérard sings a Latin hymn in the choirloft, it’s surprising that someone so crude should sing with such a heavenly voice – but that’s the point. He too has natural talents; he too could fit marvelously into the world, except that outside the church, like so many humans, he debases his gifts and spoils his dignity. The context is important – though he sings solo, Gérard’s voice belongs to something greater than himself, drawing its meaning from the ceremony and its resonance from the stone walls of the church.

The challenge of Au hasard Balthazar is to reveal this idea of grace without communicating it directly. When the donkey finds himself among the caged circus animals, the movie cuts between him and a tiger, a polar bear, a chimpanzee, and an elephant, drawing special attention to their eyes as they appear to gaze at each other. Their glances are inscrutable, and all we can infer is that they recognize each other as living creatures. Though the different species may be separated in the natural world, we’re reminded that they all belong to a community of beings that humans have divided up, shutting individuals apart from each other, as the numerous doors in Bresson’s Pickpocket shut his protagonist off from society. The natural order is the first of many gifts that humans have rejected.

Au hasard Balthazar - Robert Bresson - elephant

Au hasard Balthazar is full of religious allusions, including both outward signs of Catholicism (a mass, the Bible, a priest, a funeral, and a mock baptism) and metaphorical references to the Gospels (bread and wine, donkeys and sheep, the crown Marie weaves for Balthazar). There is no need to read a pietistic message into the movie, nor would it be easy to trace a consistent religious metaphor. It might be tempting to see Balthazar as a Christ figure – he’s cared for by a young woman named Marie; he’s sinless, scourged, and dies on a hill, although not at the summit – but Arnold too is portrayed like Christ, receiving the kiss of Judas and riding to his place of death on a donkey. At any rate it would be strange for a Christ figure to be named after one of the Magi. More likely the purpose of these religious allusions is to create a context where the concept of grace – of a divine gift – is readily inferred. Whether the viewer understands this grace in a spiritual or a secular sense, the film defines it in more tangible terms than religion usually does.

For the movie to personify grace in an animal, or for it to depict Marie (whose name comes from the virgin mother of Christ) as a woman so often used for sex, seems to flirt with blasphemy. Marie’s mother, the character closest to Balthazar both in her sinlessness and in her respect for him, is unnamed, but her scriptural counterpart would be the mother of Mary, Anne, whose name is a homonym of the French “âne” (donkey). But anyone reading blasphemy into the movie misses its point. If we accept anything as sacred, it’s folly for humans to divide creation according to their beliefs, sorting out what is sacred from what isn’t. If we respect creation we have to respect all of it, beasts and sinners alike. If we can learn to see the dignity, humanity, worthiness – and even glory – in a donkey, we can begin to see it in ourselves and in each other.


The Wizard of Oz – Brains, heart, and courage translated into wisdom, love, and spirit

Diary of a Country Priest – Importance of “grace” stressed at the ending

I Knew Her Well – Subversive claim to sainthood for a character most would consider unworthy

Andrei Rublev – Character gifted at end with a kind of glory that rewards humility