Au Hasard Balthazar
With a rigorous style that is often off-putting to newcomers, Bresson eschews the usual emotional cues we’ve become conditioned to expect at the movies. His editing is, above all, efficient—refusing to emphasize one moment over another. We’re forced to pay fierce attention and draw our own conclusions about which words and gestures were important. But his framing is very deliberate. He wants us to appreciate the extraordinary implications of seemingly ordinary details and exchanges.
In Au Hasard Balthazar (Or, “By Chance, Balthazar”), he wants us to notice the donkey...an animal who quite naturally just blends into the background. When Balthazar raises his voice, braying obnoxiously during the opening music, he clashes with it so harshly that audiences have been known to burst out laughing. Balthazar’s a “holy fool” who cannot speak (thank goodness) to give us particular insight into his plight. Silent for most of the film, he quietly does what is asked of him from various masters and strangers, receiving affection, suffering abuse, performing hard labor, and living out his life with very little appreciation or reward. But everywhere he goes—from his gentle companionship with young Marie in the Edenic garden, to the torments inflicted by a cruel master, to the humiliation of a traveling circus—his humble, dutiful demeanor shines like a light that illuminates the natures of all who come near him.
Bresson knew what he was doing in choose this animal to catch the conscience of the audience. For we all know what humble servant carried the suffering redeemer to Bethlehem, and then again into Jerusalem.
-- Jeffrey Overstreet