Anne Wiazemsky and Balthazar (click to enlarge)
He was once part of a school of dour, austere, enlightened (and woefully extinct) mavericks that included Carl Dreyer, Yasujiro Ozu and Andrei Tarkovsky—borderline manic depressives with Bresson the harshest critic of humanity. His surface techniques (close-ups of hands and feet, nonprofessional actors pivoting without expression, the free association between seemingly disparate subplots) appear simple to avoid shrouding his disapproval of sin and gluttony. His eternal underlying theme, purity is rarely so blatant as it is in Balthazar.
Burdened with carrying the vanity and transgressions of man to his last dying breath, Balthazar is a saint encased within the body of a donkey. From the beginning, when he’s anointed with baptismal water by children yet to taste the fruit of sin (for even priests are tainted), the beast serves as a metaphor for humility and suffering in a world blinded by pride, self-gratification and vanity. The decades pass, the children become deformed by avarice, and the donkey endures hardship at the hands of the frustrated souls who’ve lost touch with their spiritual core.
While fans generally choose between Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and A Man Escaped (1956) to name as Bresson’s best film, both Balthazar and Mouchette (the story of a young girl not unlike Balthazar) may emerge as his true masterworks. Both set in rural villages weathering change and modernization, they perceive deliverance as possible only through death. These are grim and troubling portraits in which basic human values are tested without regard to narrative conventions or viewer expectations. But the end surely justifies the means: the journey of Balthazar, from barnyard pet to useful farm animal; his descent in a world increasingly dependent on machines and its own morbid obsession with loss; and those final moments surrounded by the lambs of God—there is no greater gift than his lesson of compassion and tenderness. May he rest in peace.