Starring: Anne Wiazemsky, François Lafarge, Jean-Claude Guilbert
Director: Robert Bresson
Running Time: 95 mins
Au Hasard Balthazar is a French film that follows a donkey as he is handed from owner to owner in a small rural village, being mistreated and exploited by most of them.
Although you may not think it from the outset, this is a film that packs a really impressive punch, with a powerfully affecting atmosphere and story that make for a far more engrossing and emotionally powerful watch than you could ever expect. It is admittedly a slow and abstract piece, making it appear rather inaccessible, but it does have the depth to really impress from beginning to end, bringing incredible meaning to a very simple and seemingly ordinary story.
Let’s talk about director Robert Bresson, who is without a doubt the main reason that Au Hasard Balthazar works so well. On the one hand, he directs a very simplistic plot in such a manner that it’s still full of intrigue, tension and unpredictability, constantly creating an atmosphere of deep unease over everything, and leaving you on the edge as to what’s really going on in the film.
On the other hand, Bresson’s stroke of genius is how he imparts such deep meaning and significance in scenes and shots that you normally wouldn’t think twice about. The film’s abstract atmosphere is a key element in making this work, but the way in which Bresson uses almost identical imagery to emphasise certain themes and emotions throughout makes for a truly impressive and amazingly affecting watch, bringing me far deeper into a film that I would not have expected to pack the punch it does.
In truth, I still feel like I need to watch this film a good few more times to really get to grips with all of its deeper meanings, but from first viewing, I was still amazed by how much Bresson manages to bring to the table, particularly surrounding the story of an innocent donkey being pushed around and treated appallingly wherever he ends up.
It may not seem like the premise for a truly riveting watch, but the film brings a powerfully spiritual depth to that story, as we watch the donkey withstand trauma and injustice by acting in an almost saintly manner, thereby creating a stunning aura around him akin to that of a saint or a religious figure, and as such making his ordeals all the more striking to watch.
That same implication is mirrored in the story of the young girl who used to own Balthazar the donkey, and that also makes for an intriguing watch, but for me, the way in which Bresson manages to bring so much to a story about a donkey, and direct the animal in such a way that that depth is clear and apparent to the viewer, is particularly impressive, and unlike anything else you’ve seen.
Now, I will say that those who are particularly averse to animal cruelty may find this film a very difficult watch, but the fact remains that the brutality and cruelty that the animal suffers is often implied out of shot, as the film generally refrains from showing anything too aggressive, something that I both admire, and am even more impressed by given the fact that it’s still so powerful.
Balthazar is an incredible central presence throughout the film, and there are some amazingly memorable moments and individual shots throughout that pack a stunning emotional punch, and will stay with me for a long time, all of which is down to Bresson’s fantastic directing, and brilliant ability to impart so much depth onto something that you wouldn’t fathom to be so.
So, it’s clear that this film is in general a very impressive watch, and one with incredible depth and uniqueness. However, that doesn’t mean it’s the easiest watch, and looking from the perspective of a more casual viewer, this may be a rather inaccessible piece of work, where its abstract and slow nature proves a barrier to really getting to grips with everything going on.
That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film, and I feel that with more viewings, it will become an even more impressive and sumptuous film in my eyes, but I did feel at times that the abstract nature meant the film became a little bogged down, and leaving me unable to fully grasp and be engrossed with the story, which was a shame.
Overall, however, Au Hasard Balthazar is a really special film. It’s not an easy-going watch by any means, but its combination of a stark depiction of cruelty and a striking portrayal of the idea of saintliness makes it a truly riveting and deeply affecting watch, with fantastic directing from Robert Bresson that brings so much to a film that doesn’t look like that much from the outside, which is why I’m giving it a 7.7.