The common theme of these films is the peculiar connection between women and animals, and their shared devaluation in a hierarchical, male-dominated structure. It is, after all, not a coincidence that both stories employ female characters as the sole repository of compassionate feeling toward their animal counterparts and mirrors of their lamentable fate.
* * *
Jean-Luc Godard famously rendered Robert Bresson’s 1966 masterpiece Au Hasard Balthazar “the world in an hour and a half.” He did not clarify what he meant, and perhaps nobody ever asked him to, but the implication is undoubtedly bleak. It may be the visceral experience of the film itself: cold detachment and fragmentation infused with moments of beauty and gentle affection. It may be that he speaks of the essential themes besetting a Bressonian existence: oppression, pilfered innocence, servility to a heavy fate, or, worse, the savage winds of chance. It may be that the story – a split bildungs narrative following the parallel lives and misfortunes of an adolescent girl and her separated donkey – somehow bears the essence of the world in which we live. Or maybe he meant all of these things. But if the film does represent the world, it’s crucial to re-view it in light of what is clearly its modern adaptation: the 2014 film White God, directed by Kornél Mundruczó. This is important because, while the two films share an essential makeup, they resolve in radically different conclusions.
Mundruczó, therefore, must be commenting on the way in which the world, or at least our existential belief system, has changed.
Up to the conclusions, however, the two films live within a fundamentally shared world of socio-political corruption. Both films deal with the systematic violence against feminine nature – represented in both woman and animal, and their particular bond – that occurs in patriarchal, power-based societies. They deal with the sadly abiding notion that certain beings hold dominion over supposed weaker beings, and that feminine values such as compassion and pacifism should be subjugated. On the surface, they are unique coming-of-age films, exploring the severed friendship between a girl and her pet. The underlying depth of this friendship is what we must first examine.
Echoing Balthazar, Mundruczó creates a narrative journey, divided on parallel tracks and going to the same destination. White God follows the story of a young girl, Lili, and her beloved mutt, Hagen, who are cruelly torn apart by a government tax on mixed-breeds and an unsympathetic father who refuses to pay. Hagen, after being dumped on the side of the road – not like the sentient, emotion-experiencing being that he is, but like an unwanted object or pile of rubble – is forced to fend for himself in a world of seemingly ubiquitous injustice. Like Balthazar, the donkey in Bresson’s film, Hagen is traded off from one abuser to the next; but unlike Bresson’s saintly mule, the mutt is not only forcibly distanced from his owner in time and space, he is irretrievably beaten out of his innate tenderness and trust, which reaches a harsh crescendo when the once innocent canine is sold to a dogfight trainer who pumps him with steroids and teaches him to kill.
While the film’s title carries a number of overtones, it is purportedly inspired by a line in Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, wherein a character claims that dogs “do us the honour of treating us like gods, and we respond by treating them like things.” And even though the camera doesn’t treat Hagen like a thing, even though Mundruczó in fact makes it a point that Hagen is a complex, responsive, experiencing, and empathy-provoking subject, the world that he inhabits – the unfortunate world of realism – is one where trust in one’s “gods” is either naïve or simply impracticable. But the title bears more specificity than this; modified by the heavily charged word “white,” it is communicating a message of race. Many have interpreted White God as a sort of allegorical fantasy representing the revolt against racial discrimination and glorification of ethnic homogeneity. This insight into the film cannot and will not be disputed, especially since the director himself has been so outspoken about it, saying:
Superiority has truly become the privilege of white, Western civilization, and it is nearly impossible for us not to take advantage of it. […] Hence, I wanted to create a film which allows a glimpse of the passions raging on the other side, criticizing our detestable self-confidence […] set on domesticating the minorities while actually wishing only to destroy them.
Maybe Mundruczó would disagree with me, but racial justice doesn’t seem to be the principal theme of this film. There is something arguably greater, more timeless, less refined, and possibly more fundamental at work in White God that makes it a beautifully determined reproduction of the original conceit behind Bresson’s Balthazar. The theme in question is the peculiar connection between women and animals, and their shared devaluation in a hierarchical, male-dominated structure. It is, after all, not a coincidence that both stories employ female characters as the sole repository of compassionate feeling toward their animal counterparts and mirrors of their lamentable fate.
The first thing to notice about the world in which Bresson and Mundruczó have thrown their pairs of female/nonhuman protagonists is that its lacks other female characters. This is a plain indication of the corresponding dearth of feminine values. For a flicker of time in Balthazar this is not the case. The opening tracks of the film exhibit an idealized, pastoral childhood for both Marie (the central character) and Balthazar, the donkey. Here, we see them both surrounded by other children – mostly girls except Jacques, Marie’s budding sweetheart, who, in his softness and fragility, is defined more feminine than masculine – while the tone of the world itself is one of ease, enchantment, and simplicity. Though the spectator sees black and white, everything is imagined a sweet-smelling green. Childhood, though, according to Bresson’s opening scene, is vaporous and fiercely cut short.
The farmer’s daughter, Jacques’ presumed sister, is terminally sick and in a moment of beautiful implication, is declared dead. The message that Bresson seems to send early on is that this is not a world for women. Following the death, Jacques and his family, including his other sister, who supposedly would have been Marie’s sole female companion, leave the countryside for the city. Before leaving, Jacques etches a heart into a wooden bench and begins to fill it with their names, “Jacques and Marie,” but is pulled away by his father’s command and the etch is left incomplete; the message being that this is also not a world for love.
The film makes a pronounced shift when the scene then cuts to a shot of Balthazar, now full-grown, who has been uprooted and turned into a draught animal, bound to his cart by chains and, for unexplained reasons, being lashed by whips and sticks by various unidentified men. The loud, harsh strain of his brays helps jar us out of the paradisiacal world of innocence from which we began, and Bresson, immersing the spectator in a montage of Balthazar’s miserable function, reveals the world we have arrived to: the world of experience, burden, strife, and exploitation. But what is even more inherent and powerful in this scene is that it suggests that the donkey is just as much thrown into the world as any human animal – that it works, suffers, and desires relief just as we do.
Years go by until Balthazar is able to escape and reunite with a token from his lost childhood: Marie, who has grown into an attractive, but doleful, young woman. As it seems, she too has been left exposed to the whips and scorns of time, and their reconciliation revives a language of affection and silent understanding long buried in the severity of life. In perhaps the most famous scene of the film, Marie, barefoot, gracefully gathers flowers and small twigs around her house and wreathes them around Balthazar’s head as a laurel of honor. Two delinquent boys watch her from behind a bush, one of them Gerard, the callous bad-boy who later makes chattel of the girl and donkey both. The boys try to understand the scene they are observing:
Gerard: “She may really love him [Balthazar]. Him too.
Friend: […] “You don’t mean …?”
Friend: A donkey?
The friend thinks it absurd that an animal could even experience the feeling of love, perhaps because it is, for him, too abstract a concept, too complex, and therefore too human. They creep a bit closer and Gerard begins to reveal something – “In mythology …” he says – but Bresson prevents him from finishing. The viewer, wanting an explanation, is left to speculate on her own. It is easiest to assume that Gerard is alluding to the symbolic weight of the donkey in Christian literature, that is, the animal that bore Jesus on its back into Jerusalem, the animal that Mary rode into Bethlehem on the evening of Christ’s birth, the animal often cited in the Bible as a symbol of suffering, martyrdom, and humility. What was a laurel in Marie’s hands transforms quickly into the Crown of Thorns as the boys seize Balthazar and begin to gratuitously kick and punch him. Marie watches this from behind a door, paralyzed and resigned. This is one of the many scenes Bresson uses to suggest that the life and death of Balthazar bears comparison to the story of Christ; and Marie, symbolic of either Christ’s mother or, more believably, Mary Magdalene (the only two significant female presences in the New Testament). It’s hard to deny this interpretation, especially seeing how frequently Bresson incorporated religious themes in his works. The viewer identifies a grim message: the world is not any more receptive to the virtues taught by Christ – virtues such as empathy and passive resistance that are undoubtedly characterized as “feminine” – than it was 2,000 years ago.
The only other woman in Marie’s life is her mother, who tends to Balthazar once in a while but is mostly absent from any action in the film. She’s portrayed as almost excessively female in her meekness and martyrdom, but seems to carry an omniscient, yet powerless, eye over everything happening around her – much like Balthazar, in fact. And similar to Marie, she seems slave-like to the control of men and the fate of an apparently disinterested masculine God. In one scene, for example, the mother asks God to delay the death of her husband, as it will bring her ultimate misery. Not two seconds pass before he is pronounced dead.
White God, set in modern times, would have gotten away less easily with so submissive a mother, so Mundruczó decided to remove Lili’s from the world completely. Much like Balthazar, but lasting an even shorter amount of time, the beginning of White God’s story is meant to set a contrast with the rest of the film. Lili and her dog, Hagen, are at the park; it’s a warm, bright day and the sun bathes the camera’s eye in lens flares; their lives appear happy, free, playful. This scene cuts to a close-up shot of a blood-spattered floor, then expands to reveal a group of slaughterhouse workers, a disemboweled cow, and a tired-looking meat-grader who we later learn is Lili’s father. Introduced in this way, he is, for one, immediately distinguished from his daughter in his relationship to nonhuman animals: presumably he feels no emotional connection to them, sees them from an intellectual standpoint as things of low hierarchical status and therefore adheres to the ideology that their exploitation and suffering are justified by the advantage and satisfaction these treatments afford humans. But his introduction is a little more ambiguous than all that, because after the slaughter we see him, alone in the bathroom, sadly try to clean the bloodstain – deliberately placed on his heart – and then unexpectedly take from his pocket a bottle of bubbles. He blows some, perhaps in solace, but is quickly interrupted and appears to feel caught. We are led to believe he has lost much of his heart, but that some fragment of childlike sweetness remains.
Mundruczó creates a theme of abandonment that begins with Lili’s mother sending her off to live with her father for three months, then is repeated when her father leaves Hagen deserted in the street. In both cases, the characters lose their female caretaker, a loss that triggers the beginning of the end of innocence. Thereafter, the progression follows Bresson’s grid. Like Balthazar – who is whipped, sold, used for profit and entertainment, shot and left to die in a field of sheep – Hagen is hunted, sold, drugged, made vicious, used for profit, hunted again, impounded, and nearly euthanized. Like Marie – who is manipulated, sexually used, turned homeless, gang-raped, and compelled to run away – Lili, in much less violent ways, is equally spurned and suppressed by the men around her, particularly her father and the orchestra leader who aim to collar and train her to obey orders and be a good girl. The key difference, of course, is that Lili and Hagen revolt – Lili stands up for herself and isn’t forced to flee; Hagen’s cavalry culminates in gory mass revenge, not crucifixion.
However radical and markedly feminist White God is in comparison to Balthazar, it holds on with as much tenacity to the idea that there is a distinct relationship between the abuses toward women and the abuses toward animals; that is, that there is a deep-rooted connection between sexism and speciesism, and that it has much to do with a masculine language. (To be clear, there is a distinction to be made between female qualities, which don’t exist, and feminine qualities, which are or are not present in either the female and male sex. Thus, while the films employ female characters, this subject at large is not exclusive to the female sex but rather to a realm of inward descriptors classified as “feminine.”)
Both films represent a world where the scales of masculine/feminine are completely off-balance: where relationships are structured on power, where spirituality and sentiment are deprecated (both filmmakers really play with this, even requiring that their actors remain as facially emotionless as possible), and where the objectification and commodification of living things are rampant. They represent the structure that care-ethicists and feminists overall have regarded as the dualistic paradigm of reason over emotion – reason as a masculine value and emotion as a feminine – and have long been trying to dismantle. To use Martin Buber’s famous classification, the films represent a world of I-It, rather than I-Thou. The substructure is one of division into subjects and objects, I and other.
Thus I argued against White God being concerned merely with racial division. It is, like Balthazar, about the root of all division, including interspecific; and therein does it become “the world in [well, 2 hours].” Because the world, as it appears in the human mind, is ultimately defined by otherness. That is, it consists of Its and Hes and Shes, but not I-Thous. And because they have made their worlds so distinctly male, Bresson and Mundruczó must agree with the feminist assertion that I-It is a masculine outlook, allowed to persist only through the suppression of feminine sensibility. The I-Thou – the world of intersubjectivity and reciprocity – is nevertheless still present in both films: in the relationships between the young women and their animals, and likewise in the relationship between the animals and the camera.
Balthazar and White God are unique in their art because, without being overt, they stand as effective pleas for animal liberation. They accomplish this through the language of the camera, which doesn’t merely capture the animal but becomes an eye that looks back and listens, taking on the moral responsibility of confronting animals as subjects of life in their own right. The individuality of the animals isn’t undermined by turning them into mere metaphors of human experience in the world. The story belongs to the animal, the experience is his, and at no point does the viewer forget it. This is partly why we can feel so much toward Balthazar and Hagen, because the filmmakers, unlike the men in their fictionalized worlds, don’t commit the dishonor of reducing them to objects to be experienced by subjects (i.e., the viewer), but rather force the viewer to really look at and respond to the animal as a seat of consciousness. Our response is visceral, bodily; we are outraged by the abuses inflicted by the human race. We recognize that not much separates the violence done toward human and nonhuman bodies and spirits. As such, the films beg us to respond as I to Thou – as one spirited life to another.
This message is just as relevant today as it was in the year of Balthazar’s release, 1966, and Mundruczó has masterfully brought it back with fury. It is bigger than sexism and bigger than racism because it encompasses both of these things. It’s about an evolved form of human perception that falsely identifies a disconnection between one’s self and anything outside one’s self, tragically forcing us to turn a blind eye to the more beautiful phenomenon of interrelated existence. Mundruczó and Bresson thus suggest that there are two modes of inhabiting the world: one, based on a dualistic conception of an abstracted universe, which idolizes hierarchy, disaffection, and coercion; the other, based on the dialogical self in a shared universe, which nurtures interdependence, relationships of reciprocity and care for all creatures, and an empathic ability to regard all living things as respected entities-in-themselves. The first mode, the purely masculine way, tends to ignore the cries of the natural world, therefore shirking the coinciding personal responsibility and blame.
While both films have essentially the same social moral, Bresson never bothers to reconcile the masculine-feminine forces, abandoning the women and nonhuman animals to the world that looks upon them with perpetual disdain. But, as mentioned, the films drastically diverge in their conclusions, and Mundruczó does succeed in merging the two psychological elements in his nearly apocalyptic end – showing that the only way to prevent interhuman warfare and the destruction of the natural world is to dignify feminine values more, or at least to an equal extent, than the masculine values that currently and historically have dominated society. After all, Lili, the ultimate hero of her crumbling world, is really an exemplification of the ideal balance between feminine and masculine qualities. Unlike Marie, she is willful, strong, defiant, and gritty, but also affectionate, receptive, and intuitive. And unlike Bresson’s film, Mundruczó also subtly shows the discontent that men have to face when these feminine qualities are beaten out of them; remember, for example, the scene with Lili’s father and the bubbles. When the dogfight trainer looks at Hagen and says “you’ve still got a heart,” we realize that the systematic destruction of the heart is parallel in this world to the making of a man, and we could – if Mundruczó didn’t so clearly ask us not to anthropomorphize – take Hagen’s painful journey to be symbolic of a boy’s compelled loss of feminine nature. Mundruczó’s ethic is much more clear than Bresson’s: it is a society not challenged to destroy the heart, but to nourish and give it voice, that will save us.
If Godard is right that Au Hasard Balthazar represents the world, White God takes it a step further by declaring what needs to be done about it. Mundruczó won’t allow Lili or Hagen to be the victim, the Christ-like martyr who must inevitably suffer under a remorseless fate. There is no spirituality in Mundruczó’s world outside of the love made possible by compassion, and that’s the only kind – according to him – that matters anymore. His film does far more than represent something, it incites outrage and social response and in a way calls the viewer to action. If the world is going to change, if sexism, speciesism, racism, or any other form of superficial division will come to an end, it will be because the oppressed and the exploited have risen from the muck they were pushed in, grabbed the reins of their own free will, and fought back. It will be because the world will either learn its lesson – and the feminine side of nature will finally have its day – or the products of our abuse will destroy us.