Robert Bresson’s Balthazar is the best piece of art I have viewed in some time and it is art in the sense that it may have various interpretations, it causes us to think, and it elicits an emotional response. In truth, it is a story that I do not fully understand and I can never hope to know, but there is nevertheless an austere beauty to this parable. Furthermore, there is a kind of magic in this air of ambiguity. I want to watch it, again and again, to see if I can understand, to see what revelations come my way. It was one of those experiences that left me wondering what I had just watched, however, I know enough by now not to fight it, but enjoy that feeling of not comprehending in full.
Essentially this is a tale about a donkey cherished by a young girl and over the years they lose contact, reunite, and go away again, as is the rhythm of life day to day. The plot points started becoming less important in comparison to the images and emotions that begin to well up inside of us. At the same time that the donkey is often being mistreated or carrying the burdens of his various masters, his girl Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) is growing up trying to figure out what love is. She is close to a boy named Jacques only to have him drift in and out of her life several times. She cannot decide how she feels exactly about him. There’s the boy Gerard who is good at raising hell and Marie spends some time with him. But it remains to be seen what the real agenda of her parents or Gerard and his friends are. What of these matters of honor and murder? Do all the particulars even matter that much?
Balthazar’s own path includes whippings, long hard toil as a beast of burden, a stint in the circus with all the other captive animals, and happy times driving Marie’s cart. But is that wrong to personify him? Is he even capable of emotion? I’m not sure if he is, but the audience certainly is. We can be joyful when we see that cute young donkey being enveloped in hay with young children playing. We can become somber as Balthazar is slowly being worked to death as the years drag ever onward and his master considers putting him down in lieu of getting a new harness. Somehow a donkey can be a victim of his circumstances, bravely taking the abuse of others, and living without a shred of retaliation. In some strangely entrancing way, it works.
Then, Balthazar takes a stray bullet and weakened he comes upon a green pasture where he kneels down peacefully to die. Around him comes a flock of sheep led by a shepherd. It’s a deeply heart-wrenching and visually arresting moment evoking Biblical imagery from Psalm 23. The full life having been lived and now it’s over in tranquility. It’s really a summation of the spiritual journey that each one of us traverses in our lifetime and yet Bresson brings us this allegory through simple, clean strokes. Images and sounds balanced exquisitely together in a completely naturalistic mode of expression. Wiazemsky on her part is a natural beauty who positively captivates with every move she makes (reminding me of Anna Karina) Furthermore, Bresson somehow causes us to build a deep connection with a donkey which is hard to believe.
It’s the trademark of Bresson to have a stripped-down, straightforward approach to film-making, so much so that his style almost feels like no style at all. It’s so clean and unobtrusive. He shows us the world simply, succinctly, and without pomp. Even with the casting of non-actors, and in this case a donkey, as his main players. But he’s undoubtedly the master of inducing a response based on even the most basic of subjects. There are times it’s almost easy to forget you’re watching a film entirely because you get so wrapped up in what he is showing us.