Au hasard Balthazar

(Robert Bresson, France/Sweden, 1966)


One of the greatest films I have ever seen is Robert Bresson’s tale of a donkey from the moment of its birth to the moment of its death.

For one of the purest and most spiritually elevated of all art movies, it begins with a gesture that disconcerts some audiences to the point of laughter: over the austere credits, phrases from a Schumann piano concerto matter-of-factly alternate with the loud, atonal braying of Balthazar.

The absolute alienness of this hero in relation to our conventional, human frames of understanding is maintained implacably throughout the film. There are no Milo and Otis-style voice overs, not the slightest use of dramatic clichés to surreptitiously humanise this animal.

Balthazar’s face tells us nothing, even in long-held close-up. In the film’s most moving and disturbing scene, Balthazar enters a circus tent and, one by one, exchanges a look with each species of animal that is locked in the cages. What is passed, or not passed, in these looks is simply something we will never know, never comprehend – and it is precisely that limit which Bresson brings us to humbly recognise.

MORE Bresson: L’Argent, A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, The Trial of Joan of Arc

© Adrian Martin June 1993

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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