How Bresson creates profound emotion from small moments

Fifty years on from the release of Au hasard Balthazar, we celebrate how master director Robert Bresson’s minimalist style worked to create one of the most moving films ever made.

Leigh Singer

Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

“Everyone who sees this film will be absolutely astonished […] because this film is really the world in an hour and a half.” – Jean-Luc Godard

Robert Bresson’s 1966 film Au hasard Balthazar has been lauded as one of the great masterpieces of cinema, coming 16th in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll. As it follows a donkey, born into pastoral bliss in rural France but then rapidly passed from owner to owner, often treated with terrible cruelty or neglect, Bresson tells his story in a supremely pared-down style. Yet this dispassionate minimalism, populated with seemingly blank performances, paradoxically evokes a complex, deeply resonant grasp of human nature, as well as glimpses of an almost tactile spirituality. Here’s a brief attempt to get inside Bresson’s reinvention of filmic language.

  • Spoiler warning: This feature gives away the plot
Au hasard Balthazar is often spoken of as a religious allegory. An opening scene shows Balthazar being ‘baptised’ by the children with whom he briefly shares an innocent idyllic youth. Yet Bresson is already fragmenting and abstracting the humans involved through his framing, de-emphasising their spiritual connection.

Au hasard Balthazar is often spoken of as a religious allegory. An opening scene shows Balthazar being ‘baptised’ by the children with whom he briefly shares an innocent idyllic youth. Yet Bresson is already fragmenting and abstracting the humans involved through his framing, de-emphasising their spiritual connection.

One of Bresson’s trademark transitions is the dissolve…

One of Bresson’s trademark transitions is the dissolve…

… compressing and linking the flow of time. Here Balthazar is introduced for the first time…

… compressing and linking the flow of time. Here Balthazar is introduced for the first time…

…to the whiphand of cruelty he will from now on be subjected to on a regular basis.

…to the whiphand of cruelty he will from now on be subjected to on a regular basis.

And another series of dissolves show Balthazar’s now enslaved existence…

And another series of dissolves show Balthazar’s now enslaved existence…

 ‘The years pass’, as the caption reads, and the progressively arduous labour Balthazar is forced to endure mounts…

 ‘The years pass’, as the caption reads, and the progressively arduous labour Balthazar is forced to endure mounts…

…each time Bresson focused on the material burden he must bear and his physical exploitation.

…each time Bresson focused on the material burden he must bear and his physical exploitation.

The one person to show Balthazar compassion and love is farmer’s daughter Marie.

The one person to show Balthazar compassion and love is farmer’s daughter Marie.

Yet in Bresson’s cruel world, her fate echoes his own, forever at the mercy of the unscrupulous.

Yet in Bresson’s cruel world, her fate echoes his own, forever at the mercy of the unscrupulous.

Throughout the film Balthazar is a mute witness to human interactions…

Throughout the film Balthazar is a mute witness to human interactions…

…including the failed attempt by Marie’s childhood sweetheart Jacques to win her hand…

…including the failed attempt by Marie’s childhood sweetheart Jacques to win her hand…

…and another typical Bresson touch: the focus in on gestures that speak louder than words, here Marie refusing to respond to Jacques’ advances. Hands are essential for Bresson, instruments that convey our best intentions (even if misguided as here)…

…and another typical Bresson touch: the focus in on gestures that speak louder than words, here Marie refusing to respond to Jacques’ advances. Hands are essential for Bresson, instruments that convey our best intentions (even if misguided as here)…

…or our worst, as Gérard, the sociopathic biker who cruelly sets fire to paper attached to Balthazar’s tail.

…or our worst, as Gérard, the sociopathic biker who cruelly sets fire to paper attached to Balthazar’s tail.

Gérard’s covetous intentions for Marie are made evident…

Gérard’s covetous intentions for Marie are made evident…

…in his point-of-view shot that again, eschews any sense of her as a human being, but merely as an object of desire to be attained, as with Balthazar.

…in his point-of-view shot that again, eschews any sense of her as a human being, but merely as an object of desire to be attained, as with Balthazar.

More human frailty. Balthazar is now owned by the local drunk Arnold, whose declarations to quit drinking are undercut by Bresson showing his helplessness to avoid slipping back into alcoholism.

More human frailty. Balthazar is now owned by the local drunk Arnold, whose declarations to quit drinking are undercut by Bresson showing his helplessness to avoid slipping back into alcoholism.

One of the film’s most memorable scenes: Balthazar’s encounters with caged circus animals, including a tiger, a chimpanzee and an elephant…

One of the film’s most memorable scenes: Balthazar’s encounters with caged circus animals, including a tiger, a chimpanzee and an elephant…

Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

…and their tacit understanding of how all have been subjugated and exploited by people.

…and their tacit understanding of how all have been subjugated and exploited by people.

The death of Marie’s troubled father. Her mother folds his hands, a priest moves in for a final benediction that offers little comfort or sense of real peace.

The death of Marie’s troubled father. Her mother folds his hands, a priest moves in for a final benediction that offers little comfort or sense of real peace.

A rare wide shot. Gérard’s gang’s smuggling plans go awry and they flee a shootout, phantom figures in the night, representative of so many examples of humanity’s worst impulses…

A rare wide shot. Gérard’s gang’s smuggling plans go awry and they flee a shootout, phantom figures in the night, representative of so many examples of humanity’s worst impulses…

…while the innocent mule forced to carry their cargo suffers for their sins.

…while the innocent mule forced to carry their cargo suffers for their sins.

A weary, mortally-wounded Balthazar succumbs in a field, surrounded by fellow animals, away from those who have caused him so much suffering. The Schubert sonata fading into sheep bells on the soundtrack suggests a final moment of transcendence in one of the landmark shots in cinema.

A weary, mortally-wounded Balthazar succumbs in a field, surrounded by fellow animals, away from those who have caused him so much suffering. The Schubert sonata fading into sheep bells on the soundtrack suggests a final moment of transcendence in one of the landmark shots in cinema.

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