Wednesday, December 06, 2006


This is probably Robert Bresson's most well-known and accessible film, but I found it rather slow going, filled with characters I couldn't care about one way or another, and that's a problem in a movie that seems to be about empathy. The movie spans the lifetime of a donkey in and around a village in France. As a "child," the donkey is a favorite of three children on a farm who give it a baptism and name it Balthazar. Over time, the donkey is bought by or traded between various people, sometimes treated with care and sometimes abused, and as he is passed back and forth, we see episodes in the lives of the various townspeople. Primary to the narrative is Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), who is present as a child at Balthazar's baptism. Years later, she falls in with a rough young lad named Gerard (Francois Lafarge) who uses the donkey to deliver bread; the boy mistreats both her and Balthazar. Worn down by years of work and abuse, the donkey lies down one day and seems ready to give up the ghost, but the town bum takes the animal and gives him a new career in a circus, tapping out the answers to math problems with his hooves. He seems happy or at least content here (to Bresson's credit, there are very few "Disney moments" in the movie where we called upon to interpret the animal's feelings), but eventually he winds up with Gerard again, being used in a smuggling ring. In the midst of one such operation, the gang is shot at by customs officers and Balthazar is wounded. In the movie's most memorable scene, the donkey wanders into a large open field and settles down to die as a flock of sheep move in to surround him in his last moments. It's a touching scene, but it does not spill over into sentimentality and it serves as a lovely ending.

My problem with the film is that I didn't care about any of the human characters. Marie is a sulky creature; granted, her options are limited (her only other romantic suitor is a friendly but rather passive childhood friend whom she rejects), but I still found it difficult to whip up much empathy for her. Gerard is a jerk who might well pass for sleazily charming in a small French village, but he's not really evil, or even very interesting, just a jerk. It's even stretching things to say that I cared much about Balthazar, and I'm someone who's too often a sucker for animals in a movie--I avoided this film for a long time because I was afraid it would be too manipulative. There are some very nice moments here, especially one in the circus where Bresson shows the various caged animals, including a tiger and a monkey, staring at Balthazar. Despite the possibility for a prime Disney moment here, it's not played for easy emotional interpretation, i.e., "Oh, how sad for these animals all penned up," or, "Oh, how happy for Balthazar to be among other animals now." I realize as I write this that I'm being contradictory: I like the lack of an easy empathetic response in this scene, but I am bothered by the lack of an easy empathetic response to the human characters. I guess I'm reacting positively to the fact the Bresson resists sloppy anthropomorphizing. It's a movie worth watching (especially the lovely print on the Criterion DVD) but I can't rate it as highly as the other Bressons I've enjoyed. [DVD]

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