January 5, 2011

Gaze and Gesture: Bresson's Au Hazard Balthazar

Sound, image, touch: in a world without words we are introduced to the foal Balthazar, gently caressed, brought into the world surrounded by sheep and the sound of their bells, as he will also leave it, after a lifetime of pain and pleasure, patience and suffering. Robert Bresson is a poet of the cinema, whose art is one of distillation, essences, allusion. Watching Au Hazard Balthazar (according to Wikipedia au hazard means "chosen by lot" which I also take to mean "by chance") is a deeply emotional experience, as Bresson's technique––using non professional actors, who he called "models", reciting their lines over and over until they are no longer performing them, but feeling them––creates a strangely powerful, though minimal, cinema; it's a cinema far removed from traditional story telling which Bresson calls "theater", a cinema of slow images and few words. When I first saw this film a year or two ago, it stunned me and I was afraid to re-watch it because Bresson's work had become familiar. I was no longer startled by it, but still found myself swept up in its emotions. Then, in order to take screen shots for this post, I watched it again on my computer, and seeing it small, close to me, made me more aware of the intense intimacy of its images and ideas.

Each gesture, each gaze––and in this film, we mostly see those of Balthazar the donkey who is the main character––takes on weight and meaning. Marie, a young woman who grew up with Balthazar and loves him with a pure love, as he does her, the only pure love shown in this film, has adorned him with flowers and offered him the gentlest of kisses.

But even Marie will betray Balthazar. In this incredible scene, almost excruciatingly painful, a male hand, that of the evil (yes, there is unalloyed evil here) Gérard, steals up on the hand of Marie; open to the possibility of carnal love, we see her future changed, her innocence destroyed, her love for Balthazar compromised.

Balthazar is a witness to the seduction of Marie. She softly touches him, his intelligent eye tells us: what? we can but guess, but Bresson makes him a moral center of this tale.

From the unfathomable gaze of Balthazar, we go to that of Marie focused on Gérard, pain and doubt, and maybe frightened longing, on her face. We then see a hand of Gérard, open on the auto's seat, a gesture of temptation. There are several sins explored in Au Hazard Balthazar––pride, avarice, cruelty, greed––and Marie's of passivity may be most tragic.

The images that stayed with me after my first viewing of the film were those of animals at the circus. In another chance occurrence in his life, Balthazar spends some time at a circus. In this scene the camera moves from his face to that of the tiger, then back to the donkey, to a monkey and back, then to, most uncanny of all, the elephant. Throughout we sense a communication between animals, a world that we cannot enter. This reminds me of John Berger's essay "Why Look at Animals?" in which he describes the "abyss of non-comprehension" between humans and other animals. Marie's mother, after great grief, describes Balthazar as "a saint": he endures, with occasional rebellion at cruel treatment, but mostly with acceptance. As I write this, tears well up, as they did watching the end of Au Hazard Balthazar, a complex (I've only touched on some of its themes), deeply moving exploration, through a four legged creature, of the human condition.


  1. beautiful post, Altoon. I admire your effort and willingness to put experience into words... even if I haven't seen the movie.

  2. Thanks so much, rappel. I was moved to spend a lot of time composing this post, and I'm so glad it's appreciated.

  3. Thanks Altoon for this post.
    I found Balthazar to be an incredible piece of work and so painful to watch an animal suffer.
    still I recall the beautiful flowers for Balthazar you show above.
    I know that John Berger essay.
    You know, it reminds me of the pain of watching La Strada too. There it is human against human suffering.

  4. I'm so glad you liked this post, A., and the film. I agree that it is incredible. And your reference to La Strada is so apt; it's another film of such depth and beauty, with a searching exploration of suffering. Fellini was a genius.