In 1976, producer Dino de Laurentiis was asked why he had the audacity to remake King Kong. He replied, “Everybody love the big monkey.”
Dino had a point. There are few kinds of stories with more universal appeal than stories that feature animal protagonists. That may be why actress Tilda Swinton chose Robert Bresson’s 1966 film, Au hasard Balthazar, as one of the classic movies to be screened during her current mobile movie theater tour to bring the “experience of cinema” to Scottish villages and towns.
Au hasard Balthazar was shot in French, but very little of the film’s meaning is communicated through dialogue. The central character of the film is Balthazar the donkey who, of course, never speaks. However, almost all the events of the film are seen through his eyes, i.e., Bresson intercuts what is happening with reaction shots of the soulful donkey, and the audience feels what the donkey is feeling (or, more accurately, what it thinks the donkey ought to be feeling in the context of the story). The film is thus a textbook demonstration of the Hitchcockian Kuleshov effect, and surprisingly, profoundly moving.
In an interview published in the indispensable Action!, Bresson explains the film’s plotline:
“[I]n a donkey’s life, we see the same stages as in a man’s, a childhood of tender caresses; adult years spent in work, for both man and donkey; a little later during this work period, the blossoming of talent and even genius; and finally, the stage of mysticism that precedes death.”
While Balthazar’s story may suggest in some ways the passion of the Christ – the donkey is a kind of saint taking on the sins of a fallen world – it is also in many ways everybody’s story. Human and animal. On the one hand, what happens to Balthazar is paralleled by what happens to his young mistress, Marie, played by the beautiful Anne Wiazemsky. (Shots of Wiazemsky with her arms around Balthazar’s neck look like something out of a Renaissance religious painting.) On the other, we see Balthazar’s bond with the rest of the animal world in a remarkable sequence taking place in a traveling circus to which he is temporarily sold. Shots of Balthazar are intercut with shots of the other animals in their circus cages, growling, roaring, trumpeting – an animal symposium whose topic is the cruelty of earthly existence.
Bresson hated acting in the theatrical sense of the word, preferring to cast his films with non-actors whom he referred to as “models.” Balthazar the donkey was, paradoxically, the most expressive of Bresson’s models. Perfect and gentle. Like the film itself.