Au Hasard Balthazar comes at the tail end of Robert Bresson’s black and white films (his last would be Mouchette), which are slightly unfairly more revered by some than his later colour films. Bresson’s move to colour remains controversial: some couldn’t believe this auteur could even make a film in colour! Au Hasard Balthazar is one of his more overrated films, but an “overrated” Bresson film is better than most people’s best films.
Jean-Luc Godard’s future wife (and the one he dumped Anna Karina for…) Anne Wiazemsky stars as a young woman named Marie, but the main character is really her donkey Balthazar. The film is episodic, and essentially it’s about the interconnected lives of Marie and her donkey, and the way they treated by the people and world around them. They are often separated for various reasons. Much has been written about the saintly nature of Balthazar the donkey and the fact that it’s a symbol of Christian faith, etc. Sure you can see that, but it’s also basically saying “you are born, you work and are abused by the world and, finally, you die.”
Wiazemsky gives one of the great debut film performances as Marie, and Godard, who was a friend and hardcore fan of Bresson’s work, championed the film endlessly at the time. He was quoted as saying “Everyone who sees this film will be absolutely astonished […] because this film is really the world in an hour and a half.” Bresson was trying to win the young actresses’ hand in marriage simultaneously to Godard (Bresson was in his mid-60s, she was 18 years old… aww, creepy old French men) but Godard, who was at least three decades younger, won her over. That said, by the 1970s after they had made some of his better Maoist films together, like Weekend and La Chinoise, the marriage was essentially in tatters.
The initial response to Au Hasard Balthazar was mixed, especially in the states, where Pauline Kael was dismissive of the film. It also received a cold reception at the New York Film Festival. Ingmar Bergman hated the film, but I’ve always preferred Bresson to Bergman—I wonder why? However, it did have a much warmer reception in Europe, where it won some awards. Over the years its critical acclaim has only grown, and it is considered by many to be among Bresson’s crowning achievements… though it’s not A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, or his most nihilistic film, The Devil, Probably to name just three that are better. It even partly inspired Todd Solondz’ most recent black comedy, Wiener-Dog.
The disc that Criterion has put together is basically a high-definition update of their Region 1 DVD, with a 2004 interview with film scholar Donald Richie, a 1966 French TV documentary on Bresson and the theatrical trailer. The essay is by film scholar James Quandt.