To cut to the chase, Robert Bresson’s heart-breaking and magnificent Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)—the story of a donkey’s life and death in rural France—is the supreme masterpiece by one of the greatest of 20th-century filmmakers. Bringing together all Bresson’s highly developed ideas about acting, sound, and editing, as well as grace, redemption, and human nature, Balthazar is understated and majestic, sensuous and ascetic, ridiculous and sublime. It would be a masterpiece for its soundtrack alone. Before the credits are over, solemn Schubert is interrupted by a prolonged hee-haw. Balthazar, Bresson once explained, was inspired by a passage in The Idiot where Prince Myshkin tells three giggling girls of the happiness he experienced upon hearing the sound of a donkey’s bray in a foreign marketplace, and the movie’s premise is suitably “idiotic.”
Three children baptize a baby donkey and thereby give him a soul. This innocence lasts about five minutes: A brief montage has Balthazar hitched, shoed, and sentenced to a lifetime of labor. Marie, the girl who names him, grows up somber and slack-jawed, regarding the world with a kindred steady gaze. (As noted by Jean-Luc Godard, who later married the actress, Anne Wiazemsky, Marie too is a donkey.) Barefoot in her shift, she makes a garland for Balthazar and nuzzles him—then hides as the town punk, Gerard, and his friends jealously beat the animal.
Marie’s schoolteacher father is a man whose pride leads him to make one mistake after another; Marie (Nastasya to Balthazar’s Myshkin) helplessly gives herself to her family’s tormentors. Meanwhile, Balthazar is sold and resold; he’s saved by a drunken vagabond named Arnold; he briefly joins the circus (a truly magical interlude) and falls into the hands of the town miser (novelist Pierre Klossowski), who emerges from the midst of a teenage bacchanal in an example of Bresson’s unfailingly brilliant method of introducing characters. In the end, Balthazar reverts to Marie’s father—who has lost everything and is about to lose even more.
For years Au Hasard Balthazar could only be seen here in a beautiful but unsubtitled print at Anthology Film Archives. With a year of high school French, I understood somewhat less of the dialogue than the donkey, but seeing alone was sufficient to convince me that Bresson was the greatest narrative filmmaker since D.W. Griffith. No one has ever made better use of close-ups, more precisely delineated off-screen space, or so flawlessly established a dramatic rhythm. Balthazar is predicated on an astonishing tension between formal rigor and, as embodied by its protagonist, the random quality of life. At the same time, it recognizes the thingness of things—as in the stunning sequence wherein mystery tramp Arnold bids farewell to a stone marker and a power line, then slips from Balthazar’s back, dead.
Oblique as it is, Bresson’s narrative hints at an immense story involving betrayal, theft, even murder. But its real concern is the state of being. Crowned with flowers, spooked by firecrackers, struck without cause, Balthazar bears patient witness to all manner of enigmatic human behavior. (Even more than Myshkin, he is a spectator.) This expressionless donkey is the most eloquent of creatures—he is pure existence, and his death, in the movie’s transfixing final sequence, conveys the sorrow that all existence shares.