© 2012 by James Clark
A film like Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) carries forward, at a remarkably sophisticated level, the writer/director’s preoccupation (demonstrated in earlier films like Diary of a Country Priest ) with an ordeal of resoluteness at the heart of human nature, and nature in a wider sense. His next film, Balthazar at Risk (1966) draws away from such delicate, abstruse and thus easily overlooked disclosure; and it daringly brings to us instead one of the most visceral, directly tangible explorations of steadfastness ever produced, by way of the toil of a donkey in a context of appalling human rootlessness.
There is an episode, near the beginning of the film, which provides that atmospheric counterpoint with a comprehensive format by means of which to cast some light upon the amazing historical range of the phenomenon of resolve. A gang of delinquents, led by a bona fide psychopath, Gerard, invades a farm property one night and beholds an attractive, sloe-eyed adolescent girl, Marie, adorning with flowers the head of a donkey she has known by name for some time, but only recently has re-established contact with. She places the blossoms in such a way as to follow through the gesture with caresses of his neck, and she strokes the sides of his mouth and plants a tender kiss upon his snout, a moment in which the sloe-eyed beast becomes very still and happily basks in an affection he appears so suited to dwell in. Gerard, in a lubricious mood, whispers to his accomplices, “She could love him…” And, after squirming in face of more such affection for Balthazar, he adds, darkly, “He may love her…”/ “A donkey!? One of the would-be wild guys reels. “In mythology…” the sensationalist intones, reaching back to antiquity, while the movie nods toward recent developments. Marie continues to shower her pet with floral tributes and he is calm and, with a body language we have already seen in duress, he evokes the very beginning of his life, when all was well. That beginning was largely graced by another girl, an older playmate of Marie, who, in fact, was the one he had sought out at that property, only to find that she and her family had abandoned the farm and that therefore he would have to count on peripheral figure, Marie, for protection from a vicious mob scapegoating him for a mishap in pulling an overloaded and unattended hay wagon. That Balthazar’s corporeal headway operates between a rock and a hard place becomes vaguely apparent on Marie’s first rather hopefully suspecting, from sounds in the dark garden and then the touch upon her hand (which she had, on leaving Balthazar, coquettishly, positioned on the bench to which she had rushed), the presence of that person of top priority, Gerard, also known to her by name and by such deeds as (from his black-leather-jacketed, moped-propelled perspective) ridiculing her father for relying on donkey-power. After that little intimacy at the bench, she races indoors, whereupon the prowlers punch and kick her (sort of) beloved beast, suffering stoically not the first, or the last, time. Marie watches from a window this instalment of Gerard’s self-expression, neither visibly pleased nor displeased. But the point not to overlook here is that a Beauty and a Beast, proceeding with difficulty into the realm of love set in strong relief as most mysterious, have been introduced into a narrative of squalid, common violence. (The camerawork, by Ghislain Cloquet [as assigned, by Bresson, a very tight range of optical options], masterfully contributes to transforming the moments of affection into a rare, palpable and volatile abundance.) In its markedly differing from the misadventure of Jean Cocteau’s Belle and Bête, that motif signals Bresson’s requirement that extreme and sustained cruelty play out toward revealing a dimension of love underappreciated by the main thrust of avant-garde, Surrealist reflection.
Right from the credits, we are enveloped by a striking rendition of love leavened with pain. The soundtrack (pouring over a photo of a forbidding rock face) jumps from shards of fortissimo classical piano composition to the cries of labor pain from Balthazar’s mother at his birth, repeated spikes of anguished raspy screaming culminating in excited relief at the instant of delivery. Almost continuous with the first image of his drinking his mother’s milk, with his remarkably shaggy hair blowing in a strong breeze, is the presence of a pre-teen-aged girl hugging that irresistible bundle, with his eyes and snout comically blurred, and his bouncy little back ready for fun. “Let us have him,” she begs her father, who protests to no avail. Soon she and her brother Jacques, and a very much younger Marie, are tumbling with him in a hay loft, and it is apparent the little donkey enjoys this raucous play. Then Jacques and Marie share a swing and some puppy love, while the older girl caresses Balthazar. From the perspective of the rather spindly children, Balthazar’s heft becomes extra-apparent, and it stands out as somewhat incongruous in face of their sombre ritual of baptizing him amidst likewise spindly candles. Marie is called in from an outbuilding on the periphery of the other children’s residence, to participate in a ceremony where his name, which is derived from one of the Three Wise Men, is given a baptismal patina by Jacques. While he proclaims, “Receive the salt of wisdom!” Marie feeds him a dollop of salt, which he happily gobbles down. Also present is the invalid younger sister (bedridden and very frail) of the owner of the farm, and again, in taking a bit of apple from her, the donkey’s robust form is more apparent than ever.
Jacques is a name the auteur would be especially inclined to salute here, since it happens to be the name of the friend of Bresson who was largely responsible for the story of Balthazar ever coming to the screen. (Jacques Demy, a great admirer of Bresson’s films, and a filmmaker of some note, successfully urged, at about the time he was riding high with Umbrellas of Cherbourg, producer Mag Bodard to finance his friend’s next work.) That the Jacques in the film is an ardent and tolerant admirer of the dicey leading lady here (reminding us a bit of Demy’s fickle leading lady in Umbrellas), and destined to be obviated, could involve another moment of Bresson’s putting distance between his own (very largely unsuspected earthy) vision and that of ethereal artists allowing playable, to some extent, comedy (however dark) to brighten a horrific tailspin.
There are, then, a first few moments when the strange (surreal) protagonist shares with us, through his big eyes and expressive ears and the simple chipper bearing of his stocky and funny small body, his quiet happiness in being loved and cared for as a valuable player in the lives around him. In this way the narrative has made privy to us that a baseline of consciousness obtains, wherein a foal like Balthazar and a person like Marie can grow with regard to qualities of sensibility which each brings to the moment. All the more painful to us, then, is the cut from there to a somewhat older Balthazar, his head heavily trussed by leather harness and his shoulders clamped by thick appurtenances for attaching a wagon, being savagely whipped and clubbed by workmen, his head lurched by someone grabbing the strap across his snout, for not yet being efficient (machine-like) enough in pulling a cartload of produce. There follows in quick (machine-like) succession: his haunches straining to move along hot cinders from a blacksmith’s; to drag a heavy log; and to propel a plough’s blade through a farmer’s field. The kinetic character of these actions is devoid of spontaneity; but there are, about the muscular force, traces of a reservoir of self-possession amidst the violence of coercion. Capping this rude awakening to the world of survival and advantage, he is, now full-grown, hammered into work shoes, still steaming as they are attached. We’re told, “Years go by…” but we know that, from the subsequent scenes of his toiling with crushing burdens, wearing a bell to mark time with his pounding forward and to coincide with being regarded as a kind of machine and nothing more. There are now few traces of the playful friskiness he was beaten for as a novice. But one moment steadies our focus on what is becoming of his verve. We are doubly alarmed on seeing hooves plodding feebly; then we see another set of hooves, those of Balthazar, far more bouncy, and we realize as the camera draws back that his negation has included being a main gear in a system that includes an elderly draught horse at the ready should a steep hill or poor traction compromise the pace. The ensuing phrase, “Years go by,” further contributes to the donkey’s being overtaken and minimized by the flood of history. It accompanies our settling in with him as an adult, more stiffly bending to the work, the softness of his features now encrusted by endless days of sensuousness ratcheted up to the motion of delivering a run of crushing burdens. The accident that sprays him off to Marie is depicted with special emphasis upon the visceral grip that especially characterizes his actions. While the driver naps atop the ridiculously loaded wagon, Balthazar comes to the top of a hill and then, proceeding down the steep incline, we see his feet flashing along from the dead weight behind him, the noise of his hooves and the wheels increasing to a point where the vehicle is shot into a ditch, and he struggles to free himself in the mound of hay (a moment now rather grimly taking us back to his play in the hayloft). From there we have a desperate flight from dogs and pitchforks, a Beast gaining entry to an estate, its reversal of Cocteau’s story (set in Bête’s palace) showing quite another area of concern from that of a retreat by which to see if blissful marriage is in the cards (Cocteau’s Beast far more implicated in exploring regions of splendor). There is, at that first encounter of a deadened homestead he had remembered as being full of life, a little scene that might be regarded as merely transitional to the iconic moment of the kiss, but which, in showing (at a distance) the donkey coming to a halt amidst the dark and silent structure, and then scampering over to the other household and braying in despair, conveys powerfully the situation of horrific wrongness testing him at every moment. That very purchase upon something more informs Marie’s precious but (momentarily) righted floral overture. Her experiment in countering a life clogged with advantage sets in relief her father’s being the antipode of the simple poetry exuded by Balthazar. In a context of rough-hewn rustics he not only counters with his being the local schoolteacher, but his intellectualism extends into being an avatar of bringing modern technology to the atavistic farming style preferred by his neighbors. This more-dangerous-than-he-looks, gaunt entity spikes his range of ascetic obsessions with Jesuitically complex moral niceties in the service of creating for himself an image of towering, superiority-confirming virtue.
In bringing about this focus upon the ways of Balthazar as connected to the ways of Marie’s father, the film deftly insinuates that another—far more divorced—Beast and Beauty trajectory is in effect. The grown man comes to be increasingly troubling in attempting to impress the little world with his beauty of soul. Stung by Gerard’s ridicule of his donkey cart, he is determined to get rid of Balthazar and seizes the opportunity afforded by an indifferent Marie. “If [she] refuses to feed him and stays in her room, I don’t see why we should keep him.” The owner of the farm has retreated from a place where his sickly little girl has died, leaving management of farm affairs to the schoolteacher who proceeds to make a great success of that year’s harvest. He declares to his wife and Marie, “500 acres to market… I did that—a schoolteacher!” But his moment in the sun is short-lived, due to envious village gossip that he’s fixing the books, a slur that reaches the owner, who, in the most restrained and encouraging of inquiries about it, still manages to send the beauty-queen-in-the-making into a fit of perceived defamation. The routine inquiry spirals into devastating litigation—the schoolteacher refusing to provide proof of his rectitude, thinking the very gesture of proof would be an insufferable humiliation. Grimly transmitting, in this way, to the community the magnitude of his virtue, he oversees the disintegration of his and his family’s solvency, cocooned within a tissue of perversely nourishing martyrdom.
This spate of masochism dovetails with the onset of arch-sadist, Gerard; and thereby we encounter the casting of an additional Beast (as hopelessly inflexible as the Dad’s Beauty) who soon unleashes his predations upon Marie, in an affair that proves to be as sterile as the affection featuring Balthazar promises to be fertile. The scenario bends to these pairings in showing the donkey, now blazingly at risk in having been shipped off to the village baker whose wife (like him, far advanced into middle age) has, out of yet another instance of Bresson’s presenting infatuation in the deadest of contexts, installed Gerard as a delivery boy for the firm, which is to say, the new, de facto master of a creature he relished torturing. The scene after his first beating Balthazar, when Marie’s retreat leaves the donkey without a loyal, loving friend, is immediately followed by his solo performance with the church choir, putting a lively spin on the baker’s wife as an energetic (though far from selfless) ally of the priest in seeing to that black sheep’s rehabilitation. (This provocative aspect of an agent of world historical degradation retroactively underlines the children’s ritualistic play with the foal.) The bloody rampage of this piece of work is excruciating and memorable. But it is even more challenging in bringing to light the physical distress of Balthazar as not only an instance of cruelty to animals, but also about cruelty to humans who share his qualities. Its thrust particularly accomplishes this delicate operation by cinematic panache in bringing to us the quiet concomitants of the frenzy, moments like that just noted, when a desperate Balthazar comes to a halt in the courtyard and comes to bear as a fugitive in face of an inexplicably alien cast of characters. So if we bring forward that first day on the job, introduced by a rope of steel slithering across the grass, then seen to be attached to his moped (soon to be a full-fledged motorcycle, courtesy of Sugar Mommy, who warns, “I’ll take it all back if I see you with Marie again” [Marie seeing Gerard as more promisingly kinetic and unorthodox than her dad]), and only then seen to be confining Balthazar, let’s be attentive to something beyond the convulsive melodrama. (That Gerard eventually does lead to Balthazar’s being killed while he skips across country like the rabid jackal he is and will remain [the logic of courage being only slightly less precise than mathematics], removes him from candidacy for pat comeuppance in the last reel.) Thinking to establish dominance over his rival, all the while careful not be spotted by fellow-parishioners, he tries to find out how the donkey would respond to being pushed (Balthazar refusing to comply so readily with someone by no means part of the work force and who has already made clear to his perhaps blunt but still operative consciousness how unremarkable he is). When beatings against the young male still in his prime (if no longer having access to special refinements of sentiment) don’t achieve the desired humility—his large and powerful muscles holding firm against a lesser weight—the inventive low-life takes some paper, ties it to Balthazar’s tail, and lights it. The Beast, now seen at mid-range to be less impervious to assault, pitches along the shoulder of the road, braying in pain and fear. The predator stalks his prey, catches up with the chain slipping and sliding and beholds his victim with that usual angry gleam in his eyes. He seals his victory by having Balthazar flinch from another wad of paper. It is that woundedness of the consequential beast in face of the pointless glee of the inconsequential Beast that lingers in our attention, leading us to attend not to matters of social justice but to the toil of maintaining just body tone. Bresson thereby brings directly to our carnal senses an imperative of uncanniness within a canny episode of delivering bread. (The bread baskets hanging from both of the donkey’s sides presage the sacks of contraband cigarettes and stockings he is made to carry on his last run with Gerard, to the frontier, where a bullet from a Customs official waywardly finds its mark in Balthazar’s body, the moment captured in a close-up of his still composed facial features being briefly overrun in an increased opening of his eyes. Such tactile presentation is, I think, the true glory of this almost incredibly ambitious and moving work.
Lying in his shed, near death from constant exposure to wet, freezing conditions and scanty meals, Balthazar is given another lease on life (Gerard had been eager to exterminate him with a pick axe) by a wino, Arnaud, who has been another of the choir boy’s targets and proves to be a beast with real though uneven affinities to Balthazar. (On tipping off the inept local police about Gerard’s smuggling habit, he receives a swarming from the latter’s gang, closely resembling that meted out to the donkey in the courtyard.) Having been doing something right, to have played a part in Balthazar’s return to mobility and useful endurance, he covers the experience, perhaps intuitively, with, “Being on the road cured him.” But Arnaud proves to be not merely a nasty drunk but homicidally nasty (a sticking point between him and Gerard being that he has probably murdered someone in a drunken rage and now Gerard, being well known to the police, is a prime suspect), and he evinces a pattern of violent attacks that Balthazar eventually escapes from, much to our edification. The process of the donkey’s coping with virtually hopeless but not entirely indifferent Arnaud has been inserted into a narrative weave keeping salient Balthazar’s having become a nonentity amidst the capitulation of Marie (absorbing her father’s resentment and finding in Gerard a distemper to match her own take upon existence). While the apparent main thrust of the action seems to spotlight Marie’s attachment to and prompt abandonment by the topic of interest to the village’s exponents of social engineering, the thematic heart of the experience has to do with her lacking the kind of resilience Balthazar demonstrates, playing into reneging, right in his presence, upon the traces of love so important to that gentle creature not so much occupying the world as cherishing it in steady, minute, heart-stopping observances of the (often lacerating) places granted to him. On a wet, cold night, the faux lovers walk by the delivery system tethered to a post. “Look how he’s shivering,” Marie remarks, as if he were a suffering beast she’s seeing for the first time. They quickly move on. The presence of Balthazar, seen in very brief snippets, at this stage of her withdrawal and along with the myriad brutalities of Gerard, a presence often stalk-still, numb with disappointment and yet providing a measure of gratitude to the gift of his life, however situated, eclipses whatever goings-on may transpire from those self-serving scavengers. In a slight but equally cutting variant of that dismissal, Marie is pursued by Gerard, she using Balthazar with his load of bread as interference; they hook up at last, he jacking up the sound on the portable radio his patroness has bought for him. As they rut in the grass, Balthazar watches and cries out.
Thus alerted, we can be transported by a magic moment spilling out of the opportunity for escape from a weakling who, after a nightmare about the guillotine awaiting him for a murder, vows to give up alcohol and immediately comes to a bar and starts drinking heavily. Calling out, “Satan!” toward Balthazar across the street, Arnaud in a drunken stupor menaces with a wine bottle his underappreciated companion, who wisely retreats through the busy streets of a town. He comes to a circus tent, having sniffed out creatures like himself. His slow, apprehensive approach to the animal cages exudes the life of a circus-goer more filled with anticipation than any of the human visitors. Promptly enlisted there to haul foodstuff for the animal performers, he takes us along on one of his rounds. There he beholds creatures the likes of which he’s never before encountered, but instantly comprehending them in the stress of their captivity. First his face is arrested by the aggrieved roar of a tiger. Majestically resting in a prone position, in cramped, Spartan quarters, he becomes silent in seeing that the comparatively free spirit shows as much physical venturesomeness and onerous confinement (by having come afoul a clever and comprehensively shallow enemy) as his own. The camera shifts to Balthazar’s face, his eyes similarly subdued and similarly holding the aura of visceral might and grace making a go of it. Both creatures cling to silence as a nourishment more precious than the food. Next there is a polar bear, and again it calls out in seeing Balthazar relatively free. Balthazar quietly observes the bored and restive beast in his wasteland, his eyes commiserating, and the bear continues to cry as the donkey is led away. A close-up of him follows this episode, his harmonic features cogently expressing anticipation. A monkey on a chain appears in the next cage, and it begins to squeal at the strange visitor, not yet recognized as a close kin. The monkey’s pain and despair override this encounter. Moving on, there is the most gripping episode of all. There is a close-up of an elephant’s face, the enormous weathered expanse of which contains one of his eyes, pinched and horror-stricken. The elephant does not make a sound, and both of them savor a moment of kinship overtaking their suffering. As if to flesh out the plight, a carnie comes along, notices the donkey and tells his chum, “Leave him to me.” Thus ensues a bizarre and brief entertainment performance career wherein the donkey has been dragooned into the role of “the greatest mind of our century,” a scam wherein he has been cued to stamp on one of his feet (so often maligned in various ways hitherto) to give correct answers to multiplication quizzes fed by audience members. In its flippant calculation, this “Mathematical Donkey” schtick would reside at a 180 degree distance from the self-possessed moments in face of the menagerie.
This little but deep and far-reaching tour into the precincts of oracular rightness (having touched, for one, filmmaker Denis Cote, whose Bestiary , set in a zoo, is an extended riff upon the scene just visited), is promptly shredded by the presence at the show of Arnaud, swilling from a bottle-cum-club, a presence that—in face of his playable windfall of lesser violence and greater confluence at the circus—sends Balthazar into despairing panic, wrecking the show and returning him to bondage with another unpromising beast. The mercurial wino goes on to clash once again with Gerard on a roller coaster consisting of the former’s inheritance of a fortune from out of extremely fickle fate, culminating in Arnaud’s death, drunkenly falling from Balthazar’s back, a scene juxtaposing those eventful hooves and shanks standing, deferentially, in darkness with the corpse slumped into the earth he failed to do significant justice to. The pause with this moment evokes Balthazar’s being momentarily held by the lost option of circus life, in light of further bewildering indifference coming from out of a Marie now become everyone’s plaything in the context of Arnaud’s spending spree at a bar. Just outside of that hangout, where the donkey is tethered (and has been peppered by firecrackers thrown by Gerard and his tedious retinue from far down the food chain), Marie dismisses her importuning mother, in distress about her now-aghast husband, with, “He loves his misery more than he loves us.”
The precipice and Balthazar’s aloneness now having entered upon the time when the curtain falls, we become even less engaged by the crashing human component of the agrarian narrative, and more intensively engaged by a Bête, who, unlike Cocteau’s fragile wildcat, will not allow himself to die of a broken heart. While all around weak schemers (the grotesqueness of which becomes a telescope into Balthazar’s antithetical heart) twist in the wind, our protagonist stays the course, matching his hard and yet still palpably supple body with a silent countryside—his last and best resort. Marie tells Jacques, in from Paris and still in love with her, “I want to have it out with them” [Gerard and those other non-debaters]. They gang-rape her, she crumbles even farther, her Dad dies—assuring the priest on hand, “I may suffer less than you think,” and in fact packing it in at an nth degree of the possibility of showy outrage he had chosen to devour all through his life—and she disappears forever. Marie was, in at least one way (over and above the cardinal impulse toward capitulation to resentment and its bathos), like her father, inasmuch as she gravitated to “modern” ideas. Gerard’s insult, in intercepting Balthazar’s plugging on in pulling a cart for Marie and her father soon after the donkey is taken in by them following the hay cart riot, about how “cool” and “modern” a donkey cart must be, in addition to his hostility, has resonated with her. After Arnaud’s death and Balthazar’s being sold to a vicious, whip-wielding businessman with a grindstone (donkey-powered) machine at the center of one of his concerns, Marie comes to the latter’s house to get out of the rain and to get some food (having run away from home to be with Gerard, and then been dumped), and, in her coming to be his squeeze for the night, she trots out some rejoinders to his shallowness, his crude greed, and his being so lacking in fresh ideas. “I believe in what I have,” he fires back against her declaration, “It’s so ugly here. This is a place to die, with no regrets…” He goes on to turn the screw upon her and her now impoverished family. “I love money. I hate death.” She reminds him, locked as he seems to be in a world not alert to finitude, “You’ll die like everyone else.” He posits, “Life’s nothing but a fairground, a market place.” And she—disgustedly handing back his wad of cash—goes for depths she can applaud in the abstract but with no concrete navigation. “It’s not money I need, but a friend. [And then, with that instantaneous deterioration of loving resolve] A friend who can tell me how to run away. I’ve always wanted to…”
This latter, last campaign by Marie is graced by the tiny flashes of a creature who is not only exponentially stronger physically and intentionally than the rest of the cast; but infinitely more modern. (This point is insinuated with fulsome irony during Balthazar’s tenure with Arnaud, one day being a mount for one of two theoretically inclined [“modern”] artists touring the out-of-the-way point-of-interest. They babble like precocious children on a school outing, about how the surroundings move them—“…the waterfall sets me in motion…dialectic…action painting…” But, in the context of the donkey’s heartfelt motion from the gut, they reveal themselves to be like stamp collectors flipping through a book of little stimulants to be brushed over and never allowed to give traction. As such they can be covered by Arnaud’s deposition to the local police officer, as to the smuggling of bibelots by Gerard and his like-minded cadre of sociopaths. “They’re braggarts and sissies… I spit on them!”) Marie’s father sourly complains to his wife (who can see right through him), “That antiquated donkey makes us look ridiculous.” (His wife retorts, “Not at all.”) And he goes on to insist, “Ridicule is the one thing we must avoid at all costs.” As thus suffused with the craving to shine in the eyes of others, with bathetic payoffs that leave him even more depleted carnally than financially, he has discounted himself down to the level of an antiquated bumpkin. Only one player here is holding the wild card of true innovation and as such his sensuous beastliness activates a range of concentrated consciousness verging upon magical surprise and thus streaming out to us (beholding true film magic)—as it does to Marie’s mother—a proto-consort (a “friend”) who can put into play new heights. Now a widow, she confronts Gerard’s request (on seeing she’s right there with Balthazar, making easy rustling impossible), to use the donkey for a job, with, He’s worked enough. He’s old. He’s all I have…Besides, he’s a saint.” That last, long dip of the roller-coaster has been fitted with the quietest and briefest of moments wherein Balthazar is treated as a non-entity and perseveres in recognition that, though mutual loving recognition would make his day, he can commune with love itself. After a night with the miser (who has refused to have the sores from Balthazar’s injuries treated and who, when his assistant isn’t looking, pours the donkey’s meal of grain back into a sack, and who then offers Balthazar to Marie’s parents as a weird, oblique prostitution fee [“Take him. It’ll make Marie happy”]—Dad saying no, but his wife prevailing—sparking the payoff friend to accompany her with a jaunty, frisky spring to his step, in sensing a friend), Marie dresses in the stable, her face overwhelmed by the absence of moves that matter, and doesn’t notice for a second that Balthazar is right behind her. She rushes out and we see him in profile at mid-range, absorbing the hardness of interpersonal life, and looking to greener pastures, reassembling his cherishment notwithstanding. Similarly Jacques and Marie struggle with Jacque’s marriage proposal—“I’ve no more tenderness, no heart, no feelings,” she insists. Only in the most tepid, brusquely indirect way do they recognize their former pet who is standing nearby. “You see our names carved, our games with Balthazar…But I don’t see a thing… Our vows of love were a world of make-believe, not reality. Reality is different.” Then, as she puts out hay for her donkey, she mulls over the chance represented by Jacques. “I’ll love him,” she finally decides. She walks away from a still and unacknowledged friend as if she’d been tending to a machine. The camera stays on Balthazar for a couple of seconds, all it takes to memorialize the amazing subtlety of aloneness coming to bear. After the assault upon her, Balthazar pulls Jacques and Marie and her father in the cart. His steps are steady and his eyes are directed downward. As far as they are concerned, they might as well be riding in a train.
Kicked and clubbed uphill in the dark by the priest’s charity case, Balthazar goes to his death with the same cherishment for the gift of life he had latched onto while drinking his mother’s milk. That would disclose to us nothing particularly new about weaklings (except what defeats them), but something very new about equilibrium of sensibility. On assimilating the deadly bullet, he is shown coming to a mountain meadow in early light, savoring the quiet and freshness. Then there is are dogs barking and a flock of sheep rushing along toward him, the vividness of their movements signalling that Balthazar’s gift of vigor is leaving him. Then the sheep are all around him as he slumps to the meadow grass (like that where he was born). There is no eye contact between them, but the welcoming gesture sustains an affair of kinetic love (as seen with the circus animals), presided over by a nature that can only take vivacious flight when a finite creature responsively cleaves to its origin. (The nursing moment at the outset involves the readily activated instinctive component of such response.) At the circus, Balthazar was able to acknowledge from out of his own pain and powers the anxiety and powers of the caged animals, modestly assisting them in this way, before being turned away. In the meadow, the next shot has the sheep drawn away to a nearby ridge by the dogs and the shepherd, while Balthazar has fallen to his knees, his head nodding as he tries to stay awake, to taste life as long as possible. There is the hard sound of sheep bells. Then he is shown lying on the meadow, very alone and yet touched by the love he has bravely maintained. (The overcoat-like sacks covering most of his body demonstrate how that grace cannot be upstaged by humdrum importuning.)
Affinities here with a heavenly host present at the Crucifixion and Ascension must be weighed along with the strict carnality of the disclosures. This deceptively bucolic undertaking, as with Diary of a Country Priest, does not gainsay historical attempts to rise above crude advantage. But in its startling innovation it is in no mood to back away from gains so strange as to be compelling in the tactile sense the film floods us with.
This masterpiece is one hell of a tough act to follow. Two weeks from now, we’ll see how Quentin Tarantino does it, with his Reservoir Dogs.