The greatness of Robert Bresson’s 1966 black and white film, Au Hasard Balthazar (which, translated, means something like Randomly Balthazar or By Chance Balthazar), comes not from only one aspect of it, nor even just a few. Virtually every aspect of the film reeks and resonates greatness, although, despite this being the near full consensus opinion of film lovers and critics alike, a reading of the criticism suggests it is one of the most poorly understood films.
This is because so many aspects of the film are based upon its most superficial qualities, rather than those deeper and more essential, even as the film achieves this depth in only 95 minutes. This economy occurs because the film focuses not on the superfluities of living, but only those things with resonance and meaning, the important and poetic moments that distill all else. And, oftentimes, those things with meaning are not the expected architectures of the human face, but those of other parts of the human body, like hands, backs, and human postures; all of which evoke connections and depths that would likely be unthinkable to cogitate on in films by other directors.
But before I get into this film’s essence, let me synopsize the narrative. The film is a picaresque ‘animal film,’ and I am an animal lover, so I am emotionally inclined to be favorable to any such film. Yet, when I write this fact of the film’s nature, I do not mean it in the way a film like My Dog Skip (a great ‘animal’ film aimed at children) is an ‘animal film.’ Au Hasard Balthazar goes above and beyond even that high level of art, for many reasons; yet one of the most manifest is that it is shorn of all sentimentalism, even that sort which is meant in a positive sense.
The film follows the life and death of a male donkey in the French countryside. Named and christened Balthazar by his first owner, a young girl named Marie, the donkey grows up, changes owners several times, and eventually ages. He bleeds nearly to death, seemingly dying on a hilltop, surrounded by a flock of sheep, after being accidentally shot at night, when he is stolen by the film’s villain, to transport illegal good across the French border. But, before that denouement, we get to see many slices of life: that of the donkey, its owners, and the people that are around it in the small village; even those things that are beyond the purview of the beast’s impassive eye.
After the film’s opening, which shows a young Marie with Jacques, the boy who will always love her – son of a local rich man – and a baby Balthazar that is the favorite plaything of the children, years pass, and Marie is now a girl in her teens, played by Anne Wiazemsky. There is clearly something ‘off’ about Marie, though. She is aloof, unresponsive to others’ touches and solicitations. Yet, she still connects to Balthazar deeply.
In many ways, the film chronicles her descent from normal child to disturbed young woman, and in doing so, chronicles her eventual disaffection from even her once beloved donkey. In a sense, Au Hasard Balthazar is an anti-love story, showing the slow breaking of bonds between two souls, human and animal. With each scene in the film, Marie gets more and more detached from reality, until, at film’s end, she’s a near total fruitcake. One of the central queries of the film is why is Marie so disturbed? The film never specifies why, as it does not specify much, leaving it up to the individual viewer; but I have more than an educated guess as to why, as I will explain later.
Suffice to say, the only things that seems to occupy her thoughts are her beloved donkey and the idea of running away from her natal environment. Her father (Philippe Asselin), the local teacher, is going through a rough financial time, accused of some sort of misdeed that is, naturally, never specified, and Marie is also very distant from her rather unformed mother (Nathalie Joyaut). Soon we meet the villain if the film, who is the antithesis to the noble Jacques (played by Walter Green, as a young man), who tries to help Marie’s father out of his fiscal strife with Jacques’ family. The villain’s name is Gerard (François Lafarge) — a budding psychopath, who, along with his nameless band of thugs (rural, French precursors to those depicted in A Clockwork Orange), commits crime after crime, sexually uses – then sexually abuses – Marie, violently abuses the donkey, routinely steals, berates, batters, and commits a host of other assorted lesser crimes. Perhaps the two cruelest acts he commits in the film are committed against Marie and the donkey — beating and possibly raping Marie with his gang, causing her to possibly finally lose touch with all reality, and earlier tying a newspaper around Balthazar’s tail, then lighting it aflame to get the animal to move.
This incident occurs when Gerard briefly takes ownership of the donkey, due to circumstances that force it to leave Marie’s family’s farm. When the donkey takes ill, it is about to be euthanized by Gerard’s clan, until the town’s drunk, and claimed murderer, Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert), takes the beast. There is a whole digression, once Gerard takes Balthazar from Marie, that introduces the audience to Arnold, a drunk suspected of murder. As with Marie’s father, we never find out what occurred, nor who was murdered, if anyone, although the screenplay, and Gerard’s gang’s behavior, suggest that Gerard and the gang are the killers (or, perhaps hoaxers who hold the claim against Arnold to manipulate and blackmail him), who have set up the drunkard, to torture him with accusations of guilt, just for the sadistic pleasure of it. Arnold fights back, but is beaten by the young thugs. He, however, is also abusive, to the donkey — beating it and a smaller donkey with a chair (not seen onscreen, though). On a trip into town, to buy some booze, Balthazar, who is with the smaller donkey, ambles away, and is found by a circus hand. Then, at almost the midway point of the film, comes one of the most remarkable passages in film history.
The circus employee leads the donkey through the circus’s zoo, and there is a sequence of scenes between Balthazar’s eyes, as they meet the eyes of some caged animals, including a tiger, a polar bear, an ape, and an elephant. There is no sound, only the back and forth connection between beasts. As the other animals are behind bars, and the donkey is being led by its mouth, many critics have taken this near-pure cinema moment as just that (akin to a similar wordless passage in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, wherein images alone distill the lead character’s thought processes), while others have read into it an overwrought condemnation of the bondage and suffering that animals endure at human hands. But the reason the scene works is not any political content, but an essential universal content. The human element is rendered immaterial; all that matters is what the beasts commiserate with, or communicate to, each other. And, via the eyes, we can all understand this language without definition. What makes the moment even more daring is that there is not a single frame elsewhere in the film where any of the human characters experience such a deep connection with each other, much less do it via shared sight.
At a local showing, Arnold wanders into the circus, and sees Balthazar, who has been trained as a ‘mathematical’ animal. Seeing Arnold, the donkey reacts negatively (due to the seen and likely unseen beatings Arnold has inflicted), as the circus people are not able to control him. We then get an ellipsis to Arnold and the donkey walking down a road. We don’t need to see the particulars of how he recovered his animal, one of many wise moves Bresson makes with the film’s narrative. After all, how could that add to the deeper nature of the tale and its trajectory?
Arnold returns home, and is then goaded by Gerard, who warns him that the cops are after him, and gives the old drunkard a gun he hopes Arnold will shoot at the cops. Why he does so is plain: a) he is a sadist, and b) he likely knows that Arnold’s death will remove him as a potential witness against Gerard for the many crimes the older man likely knows Gerard has committed. But, Arnold does not shoot the gun.
The cops, it turns out, are not there to arrest him for the claimed murder that all but Gerard seem to have forgotten. Instead, he has inherited a fortune. Gerard and the town’s youngsters help him celebrate at a local bar, until Gerard and his thugs drunkenly vandalize the place, smashing glass. It is there where Marie swears her undying love to Gerard, forsaking her mother’s pleas to return home (we can surmise that she has been tramping about with Gerard and sullying her (and her family’s) reputation. The gang then packs a plastered Arnold on to Balthazar. A bit later, another sublime moment occurs, at night, as Arnold recovers his senses, and looks up into the night sky, speaking vaguely about and to the person he supposedly killed. He then falls off the donkey, and dies in the road. Cut to Balthazar seen pulling Arnold’s casket.
The donkey is then sold on the open market to the town’s miserly merchant (Pierre Klossowski), a loner who loves pelf and loathes humans. The man whips Balthazar relentlessly to turn a well drill. Marie then shows up at night, in a rainstorm, after she has apparently been dumped by Gerard. Now, with no real reason but her warped sexuality, she determines to seduce the old man, after taking food from him. One thinks, at first, she is there for Balthazar, but she seems now too far gone. She barely notices her old animal, much less displays any emotion for it. She seduces the old man, and leaves, after he refuses to help her learn how to ‘run away.’ When he calls her parents, she is long gone, but the miser returns Balthazar to them, stating that it will please Marie.
Not long after, the self-loathing Marie is proposed to by Jacques, who has not been seen since he was rejected by her, early in the film, after offering to help her father with the debt he owed to his father. Marie scorns him, stating that she cares nothing of their names he carved on a bench, their childhood love of Balthazar, and that she lacks all emotion and empathy. To the astute observer, this fact of her personality was revealed by the film long before Marie’s self-realization. After scorning the better man, Jacques, she determines to ‘have it out’ with the lesser man, Gerard, once and for all. Ellipsis, and she is later found stripped and beaten, and possibly raped, shivering inside a locked room of a farmhouse.
After Jacques and her father break a window to retrieve her, there is another ellipsis. Bresson is taking out all the tricks in his cinematic bag now. Marie’s mother comes down the stairs to tell all that she is ‘gone.’ Many critics have assumed this means that she has either died from the beating, or has gone insane. But, noting the reaction of the mother, the father, and Jacques, this is clearly not so — there is no death-level grief. Jacques resignedly walks away. The mother withdraws into herself, and the father is taken ill, possibly with grief, but one also suspects guilt, from the looks on his face, to the incoherencies that he mumbles. It is here where the relationship between father and daughter is finally and manifestly bared as something twisted, in the least, and possibly deeply sick, in the extreme.
By contrast, the ‘beating’ left little scarring on Marie, whom we briefly see naked before being recovered by Jacques and her father, and there is no evidence of impending insanity. Marie is clearly not ‘normal,’ but insane? No. So, this means that her ‘running away’ is the likeliest option, and the only one consonant with the reactions of the other characters in the film. Again, she mentions this action as a desideratum throughout the film. Clearly, after several times trying to run away, Marie has now found her impetus, as even her once childish ties to Balthazar are gone from her soul. She even iterates this severance with the donkey when she chides Jacques for still pursuing her, and idealizing their connection as children. The film then ends with Marie’s father’s death; Gerard, and one of his gang, stealing Balthazar for the smuggling effort; and the aforementioned seeming death scene of the donkey, as a Franz Schubert piano piece plays. In a nice touch, the dark donkey is surrounded by the flock of white, which acts as almost a halo about its form.
Yet, the very last shot of Balthazar, it should be said, is not as cut and dried as all that. In fact, as the camera leaves the donkey we can still see Balthazar breathing (was the donkey a bad ‘actor’?). But, this is likely something Bresson intended, as a circular close to the film, for just as we did not see its birth, we do not see its death; although that impending state is strongly implied by the film. My point is that every single published review of this film (that I could find) states that it ends with the donkey’s death, when it clearly and visually does not. The fact that we are not shown the likely outcome is also a final example of Bresson’s participatory cinema style, using ellipses and other ambiguity-inducing techniques to hasten a viewer’s desire to imbue their own personal meaning into the film. But the fact that so many critics claim something that is clearly not so shows just how by the book and pedestrian most criticism (film or other) is. And it is just one of many fallacies, critical and not, that abound about this film, a point I shall shortly return to.
As for the DVD, put out by The Criterion Collection, it comes with no English dubbed soundtrack, and only white subtitles — a poor combination, as I’ve oft lamented. The positive of this, though, is that there is not much dialogue in the film that needs translation, and certainly no long speeches. Unfortunately, there is not even an audio film commentary track. This is simply inexcusable in this day and age, especially for such high priced merchandise as Criterion peddles.
However, the disk does have some good features. First, the film transfer, in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, is outstanding, and virtually free of blemishes. There is a French TV show clip, from 1966, called Un Metteur En Ordre: Robert Bresson, which features an array of talking heads on the film (many of the usual suspects of the French New Wave). There is also a 12 minute long piece with film critic Donald Richie (a regular DVD commentarian, so why not get him to do one?), who discuses the film’s impact, plus an original trailer, and an essay by film expert James Quandt on the film. Both Richie (who admits he still weeps at the film’s ending) and Quandt needlessly and cluelessly perpetuate fallacies about the film’s religious content and importance.
The cinematography by Ghislain Cloquet is good, but one suspects that Bresson so plotted out things that anyone could have filmed this and it would have been the same film. In short, this film is purely Bressonian, not Cloquetian. The musical soundtrack, featuring the Schubert piano pieces, however, is the most masterly part of this film, aside from Bresson’s divine screenplay. The claim that the piano is the loneliest instrument has never been as amply demonstrated, save, perhaps, for the use of Erik Satie’s "Gymnopedie No. 3" in Woody Allen’s Another Woman.
And, while Bresson was known for his desire to use non-actors in his roles, that’s of no consequence in this film, since dialogue is at a minimum, and it could truly have been a silent film. We know and understand what is going on just from the great mis-en-scene. And by using that term I mean it in the most specific sense — not lighting nor background, but the very specific setups to a scene that leave no doubt as to what can occur and why. Bresson so skillfully constructs his characterizations of all, including the donkey, yet does so in such a minimal Matissean style, using what I would call ‘strokes of moments.’ The individual scenes and snippets form an almost — no, I won’t say impressionistic, but imbuerive (from the Latinate root word imbuere, for imbue) — fugue that, like the use of ellipses, compels the viewer to participate in the personalized co-creation of the art witnessed.
But, before one can claim that it is invalid, then, to critique the success of such a highly personal art form, note that my criticism is not of the personalized end product in the viewer’s mind, but the skill and success of the art form that is used as the inducer and artificer of that end product. A few words, a raised eyebrow, a nod of the head, and what would be mere caricatures or stereotypes in a lesser director’s hands, become high art in Bresson’s. Yet, Bresson crafts his mis-en-scene so strictly that the use of a trained actor would detract, for actors always seem to desire motivation, rather than just appearing in a moment that defines a character. Actors always desire to be the defining agent. Bresson alleviates that burden of responsibility from their shoulders in this film. Perhaps the only works of art, sanctioned in the public arena by publication and distribution, that I can think of, that equals this film’s tight picaresque structure, are Evan S. Connell’s great paired novels, Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge.
Many critics have compared Bresson’s filmic style to that of the Japanese film master, Yasujiro Ozu, must famously, Paul Schrader in his turgid book, Transcendental Style In Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer; however, the differences between the two filmmakers are significant. Ozu’s camera is steady, while Bresson’s roams — not so much in sweeping dollies nor a hand-held cinéma vérité style, but in its placement, making odd angles and unexpected juxtapositions a regular feature of the frame, whereas Ozu perfected the low held and static ‘tatami mat’ shot. Ozu is also strictly secular, whereas Bresson litters his films with overtly Christian paraphernalia, almost as an intentional decoy to reveal things much deeper.
In fact, Bresson is famed for having stated that his deepest ideas are the most covert; yet, none too amazingly, bad critics have always seemingly latched onto the most manifest of his symbolisms, unawares that they are also the most shallow. Naturally, this red herring technique, and masquing of deeper ideas behind the banal religious symbolism of the West has let all sorts of bad critics imbue far too much into his films that is not there, and this is another point I’ll return to. But, the two artists also use ellipses in the narrative in vastly differing ways. Bresson will lead the viewer up to the moment an event will occur, and then jumps over it. His ellipses have specificity, and occur because there would be a certain amount of redundancy in seeing what ‘has’ to occur, due to the intensely strong direction of his narrative and mis-en-scene. Ozu, on the other hand, uses far larger ellipses. He does not lead the viewer right up to a moment where the outcome is a near inevitability. He will elide over a scene or moment for which there are multiple outcomes or interpretations, well before the looseness of his comfortably paced narrative gains firmness and tightens; therefore drawing the viewer back into the film, in a participatory manner, by asking the viewer to figure out what must have occurred, due to the circumstances that follow. This is not an insignificant tactical difference. And either tactic is something subtle that a lesser filmmaker, like Luis Buñuel, to whom Bresson is so unfortunately and often compared, is constitutionally incapable of. No wonder other critics have never commented on this aspect of Bresson’s technique, save in a cursory or shallow manner.
Yet, this sort of misreading is only one of many that critics have made regarding this film and its creator. Perhaps the only thing more frustrating for a good critic and reader than reading when a critic botches an assessment of something good in the negative, is when a critic botches a positive assessment by citing wrong reasons for why the thing is actually good.
Among the many false claims for this almost universally praised film are that the film is a religious film; specifically a Christian one (and despite claims, what the creator of this art, Bresson, may or may not have claimed for the work of art, once done, he has no more valid claim about its meaning than anyone else; the art alone defines itself). This is because, while there are some accoutrements and obvious (and shallow) symbols that specify Christianity as the religion of the human characters, there is nothing specifically religious in it. Is it spiritual? Certainly. But this is reality, in and of itself, not equivalent to being religious, and the spirituality of the film seeps far deeper into orifices of the human consciousness than mere surface religiosity ever touches, Christian or any other. As proof of this claim is the fact that, even if one does not listen to the film (nor read the subtitles) any viewer of any religious or philosophic bent will easily get the tale and its spirituality (in a very secular sense). No specific knowledge of Christianity’s aims nor its history are required.
Claimants for this view of the film will point to such (shallow) things as Marie’s calling Balthazar a saint, when Gerard asks to use it in his last smuggling scheme. But, calling anyone or thing saintly has, by now (and including a mere forty years ago) become a secular term for any good or decent thing. They will claim that Balthazar is baptized and named after one of the Three Wise Men. Okay, but if the donkey had been named Charles, after General de Gaulle, would it have made the film an allegory of exile and conquest? After all, like the French war hero, the townsfolk can’t seem to ever be rid of the beast. It keeps coming back!
They will also point to an early scene where Marie crafts a crown of thorns to put on Balthazar’s head. But a) it’s not thorns, but flowers, and b) this is a childhood ritual many young girls do to their pets and dolls. The fact is that Balthazar’s fur is short, so could not easily be entwined with flowers (in a 1968 San Francisco style); a crown of sorts is the easiest form to get the flowers to remain. Lastly, if all else fails, they will point to Marie’s name as being a derivative of Mary. Wow! Recall what I earlier wrote about the symbolism of the shallow? Is it not likely that this is one of the things used as a way to hide the deeper ideas and meaning of the film, rather than assuming that Bresson would so blatantly construct and use such unchallenging and wan symbols and techniques?
When desperate, bad critics will tell all that, manifestly, Balthazar is an animal representation of Jesus Christ. Huh? Well, of course; then they trot out the above mentioned ‘proofs.’ In fact, Amazon.com’s own internal critic and synopsist, Jeff Shannon, actually writes this on the web page for the Criterion DVD of the film: "Dig deeper into Bresson’s art, however, and you’re likely to find a very Catholic story with strong parallels to the life of Christ and his unbearable burden of the sins of mankind." Ugh! Putting aside ontological and epistemological concerns over the reality or not of Jesus’s existence, in no way are there analogues to the Christ myth, save for the manifest masques that Bresson uses to hide the film’s deeper essence.
In fact, Bresson’s film is relentlessly materialist, even as it uses such to dig more deeply into the spiritual. There is no New Age hokum nor Mysticism here. There is no pious screeding of a Fundamentalist. Its milieu is the real physical nature of existence troped toward a greater ideal, and only revealed via the intensity of the material world it celebrates.
Other, even less supportable and tangential, claims for the film and its meaning inevitably see the trotting out of words and phrases like ‘faith and the fallen world,’ ‘the sins of the world,’ ‘cruelty,’ ‘crime,’ ‘misery,’ and ‘suffering.’ The omnipresence of such repeated claims speaks far less of what the film is actually about, and far more of the critical cribbing that goes on in all forma of criticism. This is where a claim, pro or con, about a film is made by a critic of some note and influence, like a Roger Ebert or Kenneth Turan, and then slight variations of that claim crop up in the reviews of other critics, not because it is extant in the art, but because the secondary critics have not bothered to formulate any real ideas nor opinions on the art, and settle for beating a deadline merely by echoing the meme that has been floated by the more prominent critic.
Other than the mangled misinterpretations of what the film is ‘about,’ at other times, critics will simply claim things about what is within the external narrative of the film that, simply put, are not on the screen. As example, this review of the film by Los Angeles Times film critic Manohla Dargis, is typical:
Released in 1966, "Balthazar" tells the wrenching story of a donkey and the country girl who grows up with him, Marie (Anne Wiazemsky, who was then, like most of Bresson's actors, a nonprofessional). The film opens with a young donkey being taken in by a farmer as a pet for his children, including his ailing daughter. Marie, the daughter of a schoolteacher, lives with her family in a house owned by the farmer. Her closest companion is the farmer's son, Jacques, with whom she shares a child's romantic passion. After Jacques' sister dies, the farmer moves his family away, leaving behind Marie's family and the donkey, whom the children have christened Balthazar. Time passes and Balthazar is sold to a succession of owners, undergoing a crucible of suffering that parallels that of Marie.
First, note how Dargis plays up the idea of this film’s being focused on suffering. I will debunk that point shortly, But, we never see nor hear anything about the relationship of Marie’s and Jacques’ families. There are some things one might surmise, but none of this is certain (unless the subtitles in The Criterion Collection DVD that I watched are way off the mark), and the whole subplot about Marie’s father and court proceedings is kept deliberately murky, for it’s really of no import, just a random part of living that someone in the vicinity of the donkey might pick up.
Yet, this meme about the setup of the film is repeated ad nauseam in reviews, despite no details nor specifics ever being seen, much as are the fallacies about the main characters in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup having names is, or the characters in Alain Resnais’s Last Year In Marienbad being called by initials is. It simply is a fallacy, and one that bad critics often are guilty of in their incessant cribbing of ideas from each other. But, when these fallacies are acknowledged, a good reader can discern a good, and, more cogently, an honest critic from someone just ‘phoning in’ a review.
But, just as Bresson is not a religious filmmaker, simply because he hides his deeper themes behind religious paraphernalia, neither is this film about cruelty, suffering, etc. There are acts of cruelty within (as described above), there is suffering, crime, and misery, etc. But to claim Au Hasard Balthazar is a film about such things is to claim that 2001: A Space Odyssey is a film about the dangers of technology, or that Blowup is about photography, or the swinging bachelor life of a photographer. Clearly, to an astute cineaste, these claims are absurdities. So, too, the claims for this film being about varied forms of pain and degradation. Simply put, those things occur in life, and this film does not shy away from showing them. But, more importantly, it does not dwell on them either.
Proof comes from the numerous times Bresson’s camera looks away from the acts of cruelty. We do not see Arnold’s beating of the donkey with a chair. We do not see Gerard’s gang’s attack on Marie (a la a similar scene in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs), nor his earlier psychological brutalization and seduction of her at a roadside, in a car, with the donkey nearby. Yes, we do see some other acts of violence, but these are shown to demonstrate some other aspect of the narrative — Gerard’s pure sadism in burning the donkey’s tail, the disdain Gerard and his thugs have for Arnold, the soulless pelf-hunger of the miser, etc. In short, the violence is not used in a willy-nilly, random, nor excessive way. What is shown is not even pedantic, but always contextualized in a revelatory manner. The film takes a rather ho-hum approach to violence as an everyday reality of life.
Similarly, it takes the same approach to its major themes, the larger one being the cycle of random indifference of most people to cruelty or even more banal aspects of human actions that are negative. It also tackles the utter objectification and diminution of all things to the service of the self. The film truly and deeply attacks human selfishness- a minor form of cruelty, in some acts. The donkey’s life, as example, is not an exemplar of suffering (for that is expected in the life of a ‘beast of burden’), but of routine dullness — a point the all too pious crowd misses.
Balthazar survives in life not because he is a paradigm of Christly suffering and its rising above such, but because of the fact that it is a mere object to every human in the film. It lives for the pleasure and service of the humans. It is not valued because it is an intelligent and caring animal, but because it can help do things for the humans. It is totally objectified, and its equation of existence is dependent and sustained upon this act of commerce. This objectification also allows Bresson to attack the basic human indecency and hypocrisy of the main characters. Note how the miser pretends to treat Balthazar well, when other people are in his barn to see things. The minute they leave, however, he retrieves the corn feed from the donkey’s bucket, for he has no need to use the animal to boost his public façade. Of course, there are many such little moments like this in the film, part of why Au Hasard Balthazar is a titanic work of art. Thus, Bresson wells up only disgust and revulsion as emotions to feel for all of his human characters — not a one is worth investing with care nor any positive feelings. The donkey, indeed, is the only likeable character in the whole film.
Even Marie is guilty of this form of selfishness. By midway through the film it is obvious that even she views Balthazar only as a thing, not a conscious being capable of affection and love, and deserving . Marie, in fact, is an emotionally shallow person, who soon empties out into a total cipher state. This vacancy has its root cause, though, and while the film’s larger theme is human indifference, its smaller theme is what some of the causes of this are, and Bresson uses Marie as the test case for his thesis. Her reason should be obvious to anyone who has watched modern TV talk shows of the last few decades, or, more pointedly, to any person who has known or dealt with a person who has been sexually abused at some point in their life.
Back in 1966, incest was not so openly addressed, so Marie’s symptoms, revealed through the tenor of her behavior (vacant gazes that evoke the film-ending photograph of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, a work that came out a year earlier than this film, and dissects the effect of likely abuse on the mind of a fragile female) — her attraction to the demeaning, violent, and abusive Gerard, her view of all living things (like Jacques, the donkey, the miser) as playthings for her desires — are all symptoms of someone who has been abused, likely at an early age.
Even the otherwise insensitive Gerard recognizes that something is clearly 'wrong' with Marie, and her ideas about sex. He wrongly and facetiously implies it to some bestial attraction between her and the donkey (but at least he recognizes her ‘weirdness,’ if only to exploit it, as any true sociopath does a weakness), but the film is rather unambiguous that the violator is likely Marie’s father. Early in the film, Marie is called outside and comes running. Her father runs behind her, not far behind, as if jealous of her solicitation and her choosing to leave him, or trying to hide something she may unwittingly reveal.
There are a number of furtively odd looks between the two. There is Marie’s constant desire to leave her home. There is the rejection of good Jacques for bad Gerard. There is her diminution of the feelings of all others. There is the father’s repeated possessiveness. There is the mother’s distance from her daughter, as if Marie is her rival. Yet, there is also the mother attempting to smooth things out between Marie and her father (albeit likely only for her benefit, not Marie’s, as she, too, is a totally selfish creature). There is Marie’s disdain for her mother, likely for never stepping in and stopping her husband’s abuse of her daughter, and always supporting her father. There is Marie’s early revulsion of human touch and sex, then her later indulgence in it, to the point of using sex as currency with males (Jacques, Gerard, the miser, members of Gerard’s gang). There is the father’s guilt over his daughter’s departure on his deathbed when we have seen no evidence of an immediate cause for such guilt, suggesting something far deeper. There is the mother’s lack of emotion when her husband dies, and her realization that the greater loss is Marie’s finally running away, likely for good.
Simply put, if only two or three of these things were present in the film, one might be able to dismiss the case for Marie’s sexual abuse by her father; but add all these points up and anyone who’s known an abused and/or incested woman will clearly see all the signs in Marie, and it’s rather unequivocal, however well masqued it was to the viewers of four decades ago. Naturally, such a key point in such a great film is missed by unthinking critics content to crib ideas off of others, or who waste time arguing over the meanings of shallow red herring religious symbols.
My incest interpretation is also far more supportable, given the available evidence in the film, than the points over whether Marie, after her attack, dies, goes insane, or merely runs away, as well as being more important to the character’s and film’s progression. Furthermore, the incest angle fits into the context of the greater theme of indifference in the film; so much so that the actions and states of the indifferent human characters is recapitulated by the stolid indifference of bad critics to the rather manifest lesser theme of Marie’s being incested. So, while the film does deal with pain and suffering, it does not do so in the vast and sweepingly generic sense that the claimants make, rather as mere subsets of the greater ideas about indifference being a literal killer in human culture. And how Marie, the analytical human, and Balthazar, the unthinking beast, deal with the indifference they receive to their downtrodden plights is the key to understanding this film at the deep and ‘hidden’ level Bresson long claimed for the film.
Au Hasard Balthazar is nothing short of a masterpiece, a work of art of the highest order; amongst the greatest dozen or two films ever made, and on par with the same highly ranked works of art by the greatest writers, poets, playwrights, musicians, and painters. It also points out convincingly why art is better than religion or philosophy in dealing with the ‘big questions’ in life, for art has an economy neither of the other two pursuits possess; witness Balthazar’s death. How many words would be spilt in a religious text or philosophic tract to distill what the mere sight of a dying donkey amidst sheep does?
Art is models of the real that encode and decode the real while elevating the very process of that encoding and decoding. Art (and especially film and its even more abstract cousin, poetry) can penetrate far more deeply, and with far less distraction than any other human media, into the essentials of existence. Art can elucidate these matters with eloquence and profundity; and art, and only art, can do so in the hands of a great artist.
I give you Robert Bresson.