Au hasard Balthazar

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #297: Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar.


One would ex­pect a painter-turned-film­mak­er to have an eye for com­po­si­tion, and Bresson def­i­nite­ly ex­ceeds that ex­pec­ta­tion. Throughout Au hasard Balthazar “shots as paint­ings” abound. This is the first film I’ve seen by Bresson, and be­fore I watched it, I read up a bit on his style. I was some­what leery of the ef­fi­ca­cy of the spare­ness that was most of­ten used to char­ac­ter­ize his work. Too of­ten you can run the risk of los­ing too much mean­ing by mak­ing the au­di­ence work for it. This, of course, is a bunch of hog swal­lop. Bresson, Bresson, Bresson, knows what the fuck he’s do­ing. The spare­ness em­pha­sizes and di­rects, he us­es it as a tool, not a gim­mick. It rules.

The sto­ry, as it is, con­cerns it­self with the life of a don­key named Balthazar and with the life of a girl named Marie. They in­ter­con­nect at times and mir­ror each oth­er at times and ul­ti­mate­ly [I think] speak of one main theme by us­ing two op­pos­ing themes.

Au-hasard3_halfSize.jpgThe first theme I want to talk about is the one based on the life of Marie. Why? Because she’s hot. Because her sto­ry is more in­ter­est­ing. She grows up in a rather re­stric­tive house­hold and seems to be both shy and lone­ly. Her on­ly friend is Balthazar un­til he is sold to the bak­er help pay the bills. A young punk named Gérard, who de­liv­ers bread, wants to pork Marie and ac­costs her on a qui­et road. She wants noth­ing to do with him but even­tu­al­ly sub­mits and then be­comes his steady shag. She then be­comes emo­tion­al­ly de­pen­dent on his abu­sive com­pa­ny and looks to him to give her pro­tec­tion. The first time she ob­vi­ous­ly comes to him in need [af­ter be­ing thrown out of her home] he drops her like a dime and gets up with some oth­er girl. She leaves, in the rain, and stops at the miser’s house in search of some­one else to pro­tect her. He ends up of­fer­ing her his mon­ey for sex [im­plied] and she ends up sleep­ing with him af­ter giv­ing it back. Her child­hood love, Jacques is will­ing to for­give these in­dis­cre­tions and mar­ry her, even af­ter she is gang-raped [again im­plied] by Gérard and his min­ions, but Marie lit­er­al­ly dis­ap­pears from the rest of the film.

Balthazar has a sim­i­lar path, be­ing shut­tled around as chat­tel from one bru­tal own­er to an­oth­er. The chris­to­log­i­cal sym­bol­ism is rife. Essentially the sto­ry is an al­le­go­ry of Christ’s life, but with ad­di­tion­al tan­gents that make it in­to much more than just al­le­go­ry. Balthazar is tor­tured, burned, beat­en, ex­ploit­ed and his na­tive in­tel­li­gence is sup­pressed by the dumb brute work that he is sub­ject­ed to. In the end, he dies with the sins of hu­man­i­ty on his back [black mar­ket goods], a gun­shot wound in his chest, in a shepherd’s field, sur­round­ed by sheep.


Balthazar and Marie live sim­i­lar lives, with­out agency, at times seek­ing it, but ul­ti­mate­ly un­able to make it stick. Yet in the end, Balthazar re­tains his ba­sic gen­tle­ness and in­no­cence and Marie be­comes both hope­less and ma­nip­u­la­tive. Like Sword of the Beast we see that hu­man­i­ty is of­ten eas­i­er found in crit­ters than in Man.

Criterion Essay by James Quandt
Masters of Cinema Review
Foreign site with many stills [scroll down]
Strictly Film School Review

2 thoughts on “Au hasard Balthazar

  1. Great re­view, there is a film show­ing at BW on Friday which is Les Longues Fiancailles, you might en­joy it if you have not seen it al­ready.

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