One hundred percent of the time when you have a film named for an animal in a film, there is zero chance of walking away happy. I supposed that is not entirely true, I remembered Free Willy after writing that sentence, so maybe ninety percent. Regardless of the numbers, it would be unwise to go into any animal-themed film if actively depressed (unless it is Free Willy). Au Hasard Balthazar, by Robert Bresson, is a magical film and it would have been rude of me not to qualify vague statistics of animal-related films prior to speaking too deeply. (Note: I am actively drawing out this introduction in hopes that you consider pausing your reading to watch the film; it is on Hulu.)
Au Hasard Balthazar is a French montage film following the life of a donkey named Balthazar and a young woman named Marie, played by Anne Wiazemsky, who cares for the donkey on a crop-share farm. We meet both characters in their adolescence and follow them during scenes throughout Balthazar’s lifetime that, at times, seem fairly disjointed.
I believe that Bresson crafted the film to be abstract enough for viewers to make their own opinions of the characters involved at their own pace while only forcing emotions when he felt it was necessary. Take a few steps back and look at these seemingly random scenes and you may start to see a few different, clever allusions.
It is possible you may see the life of Jesus. When I first read about this I could not see it but, again, taking a few steps back, you can start to see the passivity and loneliness in Balthazar as he felt separate and misunderstood while interacting with the other characters. You see the peace he brings to Marie just as clearly as you see people relying on Balthazar for tricks.
It is also possible to see the seven scenes as visual representations of the seven deadly sins. Or, you may just see a film about a girl and her donkey. Each scene in Au Hasard Balthazar is presented with few clear, hard-drawn, lines, which may elevate this film higher than many independent art-house films that force you to think.
Existential cinema aside, this film can be very difficult to watch. Marie is put into several situations that should be very difficult to view and if you have any reservations about watching animals being harmed, this may be a film you should skip outright. Beyond that, Au Hasard Balthazar is a magical film if only because it forces a viewer to think, which could easily be its greatest flaw. Not many people want to sit through a ninety-minute film that makes them think and will only make them smile in the first five minutes. I am not selling this well as well I mean to, am I?