[Robert Bresson] would have us be concerned not with the psychology but with the physiology of existence.

– André Bazin, “Le journal d’ un curé de campagne and the Stylistics of Robert Bresson”

I wanted [the donkey] to be raw material.

– Robert Bresson, Bresson on Bresson: Interviews 1943-1983

In a long life that spanned the twentieth century and in the four decades of a remarkable career, the French filmmaker Robert Bresson made only 13 films, a body of work characterized by aesthetic purity, a predilection for ethical subjects, and a commitment to a deeply spiritual, if not religious, worldview.1 Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), perhaps his most unconventional film, is the story of the donkey Balthazar, charting his life from birth to death and choiceless transitions from master to master — a schoolteacher, a baker, a grain merchant, a violent youth, a circus owner, an alcoholic tramp — at whose hands the animal is abused, exploited, beaten, kicked, overworked, starved, and whipped. In its rhythmic accumulation of incident, characters, and social detail, its implicative use of sound, offscreen space, and editing, the film might very well merit Godard’s memorable claim that it is “the world in an hour and a half.” Critics of this “world” have mostly seen Balthazar as an allegorical, sociopolitical, religious, or transcendental signifier (Paul Schrader, Lindlay Hanlon, Tony Pipolo, Julian Murphet, Raymond Bellour), the embodiment of the spiritual style (Susan Sontag), an anthropomorphic stand-in (Michael Haneke), and even a camera-proxy or narrator (Nick Browne) recording the world around him with stoic indifference.2 The semantic overload of these symbolic associations tends to instrumentalize or weaken the image of the donkey at the heart of the film by making it stand for something else, whether human or nonhuman.3 

Instead of making Balthazar the placeholder for symbolic abstractions or seeing him as the animal instantiation of Bresson’s expressionless actors/“models,” as the animal extension of Marie, her proximity to the animal in line with Agamben’s “animalization of man,” or as the foil of his callous human owners — all readings that either anthropomorphize Balthazar or see his animality as, to borrow from Jacques Derrida, a state of “privation” — this essay raises him to the level of two interrelated questions: can the donkey serve as an aesthetic and ethical agent while retaining his nonhuman animality?4 If so, what are some key cinematic tropes by means of which Bresson endows Balthazar with the aesthetic and ethical agency of a nonhuman animal? In answering these questions, the essay adopts the materialist prism, although not necessarily the views, of critics such as Jonathan Rosenbaum, Sharon Cameron, Steven Shaviro, and Rochelle Rives who prize Balthazar’s richly sensual text over its metaphysical subtext.5 It is also informed by Anat Pick’s creaturely poetics, an aesthetic-cum-ethical study of animals’ agential power in literature and film.6 

In Notes on the Cinematograph, Bresson defines cinematography as “A WRITING WITH IMAGES IN MOVEMENT AND WITH SOUNDS” (N 7). Cinematic expression is achieved by fastening images to sounds in ways that preserve the integrity of each element and make possible their mutually reinforcing synthesis. Bresson tends to foreground diegetic sounds, such as footsteps or opening and closing doors, and describes their use in musical terms, emphasizing their rhythmical qualities, formal functions, and contributions to motivic unity.7 Although at the end of his career he rejected non-diegetic music, in transitional films, such as A Man Escaped (1956), Pickpocket (1959), and Au Hasard Balthazar, he avails himself of non-diegetic music. In all his films, however, music works synergistically with a vision of life full of blind spots, spectrally present in visual cut-outs, legs, feet, arms, and torsos, fragments of things, ellipses, offscreen sounds — all ways of referring to a teeming world beyond the edges of the image.

Formal syncopation and elliptical plot are governed by an extreme attention to rhythm, structural organization, and pace, which Bresson views as the true sites of meaning: “I attach enormous importance to form. Enormous. And I believe that the form leads to the rhythms. Now the rhythms are all powerful. That is the first thing … I believe that access to the audience is before everything else a matter of rhythm. I am persuaded of that.”8 This essay takes its cue from Steven Shaviro’s remark that “Bresson orchestrates new relationships between sounds and images in order to force us to perceive persons and things apart from the meanings we customarily project upon them.”9 Attention to Bresson’s use of sound and gaze reveals new dimensions of Balthazar’s nonhuman agency.10 By prizing hearing and sight in select moments of the film, the essay prizes the senses most relevant to the film’s donkey and hence most revelatory of his animal creatureliness.11 Balthazar sees and hears other animals, humans, and his inanimate surroundings, is seen and heard by other animals and humans, and Bresson creates meaning by structuring and pacing those sights and hearings in an aesthetic work of profound ethical implications. Instead of looking at Balthazar as a heuristic device whose “passive nature precludes the very notion of narrative drive” or as a strange character, the essay puts Bresson’s stylistics at Balthazar’s service.12  By investigating the film’s animal acoustics and optics, we may be able to give Balthazar, as well as the other unnamed nonhuman beasts of his story, their properly animal due.  

The animal-sound

The noises must become music.
The voice, soul made flesh.

– Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematograph

Bresson prizes sound over vision. “I listen to my films as I make them,” he tells Michel Ciment in 1983, “the way a pianist listens to the sonata he is performing, and I make the picture conform to sound rather than the other way around.”13 Sound has an autonomy that drives the narrative and moves the spectators beyond the realm of visual representation. We are attuned to the unique properties of sounds in his films — all sourced in everyday life, whether ambient noise or living creatures — because they have the capacity to stimulate our imagination in ways that an image with synchronized audio and visual components cannot. Bresson liberates the use of sound from its traditional function as a demonstrative device, emphasizing its symbolic power, its capacity to evoke an emotion, an idea, or an entire field of action offscreen. Detached from a visual referent, sound becomes both material and immaterial, an ontological doubleness that Bresson puts to great use in Balthazar where animal sounds are either registered onscreen or inferred offscreen.

The donkey’s physical pain and sense of confinement are conveyed by the clomping of his feet, his braying, the rattle of his chain, the squeak of the gate of his stall, the thuds of his beatings—all diegetic sounds that animate Balthazar’s existence.14 Here, I focus on three aural sequences which occur at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the film and thematize the animal voice in mutually illuminating ways: the title and final sequence marry classical music with animal sounds, while a midpoint sequence pairs the bray with a pop song.15 The selection is aesthetically motivated: the frame unifies the articulation of its sounds by structuring them like a sonata, whereas the midpoint sequence juxtaposes Balthazar’s bray with popular music. This formal contrast has narrative and ethical implications. Narratively, the sonata form of the frame underscores the scriptedness of animal life, the inexorable passage from birth to death that traverses the film and fleshes out Balthazar as its main character. The midpoint incongruity, by contrast, illustrates the accident of appearance, the au hasard of Balthazar, evident also in the film’s overall fragmentary style of narration. Ethically, all three sequences couple animal sounds with music and thereby enable the animal voice to be heard in different sonic configurations and for different ethical motivations. 

The title sequence (0:40-2:14) consists of five aural segments, occupied by fragments of the andantino movement from Schubert’s piano sonata (A major, op. 959), a bray, and the tolling of sheep bells.16 These five segments are heard against the black-and-white image of a rocky wall, framed by a fade-in and a fade-out.17 

Au Hasard Balthazar

Three of the five segments correspond to the basic three segments of a sonata — exposition (A), development (B), recapitulation (A) — and the remaining two segments serve as introduction and coda. The slow tempo of the introduction of a sonata is mirrored in the crawling tempo of the andantino in the fade-in; the exposition, which presents the primary thematic material of the sonata, sustains and quickens the andantino of the fade-in; the development, which explores harmonic and textural possibilities of the exposition, features a hee-hawing moan whose tone and chromatic range modulate the andantino;18 torrential scales, pulse-threatening rhythms, trills, shock harmonies, writhing chromaticism, … stabbed chords.” Brian Newbould, Schubert: The Music and the Man (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997): p. 333. This is the only movement in all of Schubert’s sonatas labeled andantino, and it indicates a pace very different from the allegro of the three preceding movements.] the recapitulation, which reinstates the theme of the exposition, is reflected in the resumption of the andantino; finally, the coda is formally bifurcated: the first part stitches together the andantino and the tolling of sheep bells, and in the second part we hear the bells by themselves until we transition to the opening scene.

Introduction Exposition (A) Development (B) Recapitulation (A) Coda
Andantino Andantino Bray Andantino Andantino+Bells/Bells
(Fade-in) (Rocky wall) (Rocky wall) (Rocky wall) (Rocky wall/Fade-out)

The sonata form of the title sequence

 Bresson has a particular audiovisual aesthetic. “What is for the eye,” he says, “must not duplicate what is for the ear,” urging that “if a sound is the obligatory complement of an image, give preponderance either to the sound, or to the image. If equal, they damage or kill each other, as we say of colors” (N 36-7). By organizing the sonic materials in a five-part sonata and pairing them with minimalist visuals Bresson privileges the ear, inviting viewers to imagine ways in which the bray and the sheep bells may be interwoven with the andantino to fit the rigid form of a sonata. This structure invites questions: does the bray develop the andantino of the exposition contrapuntally, by amplifying one of its features, altering its hues of coloration, or by appearing to introduce new material while revisiting a motive already heard in the exposition?19 Since the ABA form of the sonata emphasizes conflict, rather than continuity, the placement of the bray in the development signals conflict by sounding different from the expositional material while also echoing it; Balthazar’s voice is meant to be rhythmically sympathetic to the andantino, sounding both jarring and strangely of a piece with it.20 The coda, by contrast, achieves resolution with the bells building on and extending the lyrical tonalities of the andantino, first in conjunction with the andantino and then all by themselves at the tail end of the title sequence.

In the final sequence (1:32:58-1:35:50), a burdened and wounded Balthazar dies on a hillside populated by birds (on the audio), a flock of sheep, dogs, and a shepherd.

Au Hasard Balthazar

The sonata form governs the articulation of this sequence, too, but now the andantino is no longer prevalent. The introduction consists of a silent fade-in, followed by the exposition, which pairs animal sounds—Balthazar’s hoofing, the chirping of birds, the barking of dogs, and, especially, the tolling of sheep bells—with shots of the hillside and the human and nonhuman animals in it. The hillside continues to serve as the visual backdrop of both the development and the recapitulation, but whereas the development couples the ringing of bells with a fragment of the andantino, the recapitulation resumes the exposition’s tolling of bells. Finally, the silent coda juxtaposes a fade-out with a black screen with the word FIN printed on it. 

Introduction Exposition (A) Development (B) Recapitulation (A) Coda
Silence Animal Sounds Andantino+Bells Bells Silence
(Fade-in) (Hillside) (Hillside) (Hillside) (Fade-out/FIN)

The sonata form of the final sequence

In both the title and the final sequence, the ABA segment of the sonata is heard over a rocky wall and a hillside, respectively, but whereas the former is static, the latter is animated: we see sheep approaching and surrounding Balthazar, dogs running and barking wildly. Even the wounded donkey moves a little before collapsing in the middle of the exposition and dying at the end of the development. The animal sounds are also differently distributed in the two ABAs. In the title sequence, the bray is placed by itself in B, and the bells are heard in the coda, but in the final sequence, animals are heard throughout the ABA. 

The audiovisual asymmetry of Balthazar’s frame reflects its content. The title sequence, appearing as it does before Balthazar has been introduced or “born,” essentializes Donkiness by treating its telltale sound like a sonic abstraction on a par with Schubert’s andantino, and the wall, with its rocky solidity, reinforces this abstraction.21 The bells in the coda, however, have a realist referent, for they turn out to be those of the sheep in the opening sequence. Sheep also populate the final sequence, where a group of pack animals and their shepherd overwhelms the shot and diminishes Balthazar’s death in their midst.22 The donkey is no longer a sonic abstraction, either, but a silent figure of unredeemed materiality, restored to his natural habitat. His silence becomes a sort of negative bray that allows him to be “heard” in the silences of the introduction and the coda. The bucolic mise-en-scène turns the final sequence into a miniature story of animals gathering round to pay their last respects to a fellow animal in the throes of death, a sharp contrast to Balthazar’s earlier human abusers. The only manmade aural element here is the andantino in the development. Yet instead of driving the narrative, as it did in the title sequence, the andantino now cohabits with the bells and soon becomes eclipsed by them until it, too, is silenced. In both title and final sequence, Bresson vindicates the bray and the other animal sounds by letting them punctuate a strict musical form in narratively important positions—the animals are serving the story by being heard.   

The frame’s organic interrelation of animal sounds and music may be usefully compared to their dissociative use in two scenes (A and B), which occur at almost the midpoint of the film (43:23-43:45). Both scenes arrange their objects in deep-space, make diegetic use of sound, and their sources of sound are shown in closeup. In scene A (43:23-43:36), we see Gerard’s leather jacket hanging over a fence post, his transistor radio, half-buried in the jacket’s front pocket, blaring a pop song. Behind the post, there is another post, to which Balthazar (offscreen) is chained. His head casts a shadow on Gerard’s jacket and his chains rattle quietly onscreen. Behind the second post we see the lowest part of a tree trunk, and behind the trunk a segment of a motorbike’s front tire outside a house. At the end of the previous scene, Marie and Gerard strolled off together with Gerard’s motorbike, and scene A is taken to allude to their lovemaking inside the house. 

Au Hasard Balthazar

Cut to scene B (43:37-43:45), where Balthazar appears in medium closeup, chained to a fence post and burdened by a basket full of loaves of bread. Between the post and Balthazar there is another post over which hangs Gerard’s leather jacket, a transistor radio, half-buried in its front pocket, playing the same pop song as that in scene A. Behind both posts, we see the midsection of a tree trunk, and behind it, on the left, the back tire of Gerard’s motorbike parked outside a house. 

Au Hasard Balthazar

Balthazar’s bray and the pop song are the only sounds of the two scenes and are set up contrastively to one another. Scene A foregrounds Gerard’s transistor radio, but Gerard is out of the frame. This is the only time in the film when the owner of the radio is not shown carrying his possession, and, moreover, his possession is playing music for none other than his animal rival, Balthazar. Did Gerard forget to turn off his radio in the heat of passion for Marie? Perhaps. A more interesting possibility is that Bresson is playing a trick on the film’s most unpleasant character: the post with Gerard’s jacket looks like a scarecrow, an object made to resemble a human figure, playing the kind of music to which only the violent Gerard listens.23 The scene thus associates the technological with the “inhuman,” the machine with Gerard. To the static radio and its mechanical “voice,” Bresson juxtaposes the sound of Balthazar’s quietly rattling chains and bray. The relationship between song and bray, the mechanical and the animal, dominates scene B where sound and image are mutually reinforcing and ethically charged. Balthazar towers over the radio, his antiquated bray competing with the modern song. Gerard remains absent, and Balthazar’s presence in the shot underscores his superiority and Gerard’s inferiority. No longer the dematerialized and implied origin of scene A’s bray, Balthazar now emerges as its creaturely source, which, unlike his machinic rival, does not issue the same, manmade tune, but emits a voice calibrated by his inscrutable animal needs. 

The dissonant dialectic in scenes A and B contrasts with the homogeneous sonata form of the frame. Nick Browne sees in the link between Balthazar and the andantino an indication of their “being old-fashioned, of another age” by comparison to the modernity of Gerard’s radio and motorbike.24 This temporal disjunction acquires ethical connotations when we consider that the pop tune and the entire diegetic music were composed specifically for the film by Jean Wiener, whereas the non-diegetic andantino was borrowed from Schubert. Bresson intended for the pop song to be texturally and tonally incompatible with Balthazar’s bray in order to increase the distance between the evil Gerard and the good donkey.25 The visual composition of scene B suggests as much: placed directly under the mouth of the dark-furred Balthazar, Gerard’s black leather jacket on the post looks like a scarecrow dwarfed by a much bigger and mobile animal. 

The animal-gaze

The ejaculatory force of the eye.

– Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematograph

The eyes of an animal when they consider a man are attentive and wary. The same animal may well look at other species in the same way. He does not reserve a special look for man. But by no other species except man will the animal’s look be recognized as familiar. Other animals are held by the look. Man becomes aware of himself returning the look.

– John Berger, “Why Look at Animals?”

Balthazar’s eyes are so important on the level of representation that they have made him appear as the film’s narrator, a witness, or a judge.26 matrices of ideas … symbols whose meaning we never stop developing.” See above, n. 5, p. 20.] Sometimes his point of view is identified with that of the spectator, at other times, he is treated like an inanimate object or a prop, as when Marie and Gerard chase each other around him and use his body to steady themselves. I want to take up the film’s treatment of the animal gaze by looking at two celebrated sequences, both organized by shots and countershots, which make the stare of animals focal: the sequence in the garden with Marie and Balthazar, and the sequence at the circus with Balthazar and various caged animals. Taken together, these sequences illuminate the aesthetics and ethics of inter- and intraspecies visual exchange in the film.  

The sequence in the garden is set outside at night and with the sounds of insects on the soundtrack (12:25-16:34). Gerard and one of his friends are hiding in the brush, spying on Marie and Balthazar. As they are crawling in their direction, they have the following exchange:

Gerard: She may really love him. Him to.
Friend: Him too what?
Gerard: Love her too.
Friend: You don’t mean …?
Gerard: Yes.
Friend: A donkey?
Gerard: In mythology …

From Gerard’s hands the camera cuts to Marie’s bare feet as she is picking greenery and flowers to decorate Balthazar. She hears a noise behind her and looks around. Unable to see anything, she turns to Balthazar, caresses his face, and kisses his mouth. Again, she looks around, moves to a bench, and sits across from Balthazar, staring at him. The camera cuts to Balthazar’s eye looking at Marie, then back to Marie bringing her left hand to her heart while looking at Balthazar. A sound on the left breaks her gaze, and she places her hand on the bench in the direction of the sound. As soon as Gerard’s hand is about to touch hers, she gets up and leaves through a cracked door. From a cracked window upstairs, she watches Gerard and his friend beating Balthazar. She closes the window without a word. 

The interspecies gaze defines this sequence: Marie gazes at Balthazar, and Balthazar at Marie. Her gaze seems to signify her love for him, and this is reinforced both by what Gerard tells his friend and by Marie’s cupping her heart with her hand. Balthazar’s stare is blank and illegible but taken by a jealous Gerard to express love for the girl. Yet what Bresson stages here is a visual coitus interruptus. To Balthazar’s unflinching gaze Marie returns a gaze broken by inquisitive glances around her. Hers is a fitful stare that can be steadied only for a few seconds. If this is a love scene, Marie is betraying Balthazar even as she is loving him: she looks away from him when she hears a sound nearby, and her hand moves from her heart to the bench to meet another hand.27 Can Marie see Balthazar? Rather, what does Marie see when she looks at Balthazar? Not, I think, Balthazar as the brute donkey that he is, but a screen for the projection of an idea or ideal that awakens in her a desire for something absent.28 Balthazar is the impetus of a reverie, the animal signifier of an erotic vacancy that Marie seeks to fill with her incantatory gaze.29 Alternatively, he is the aesthetic object of her contemplation, à la Roman Ingarden, for whom the perceiver constitutes the aesthetic object in the aesthetic experience, and the aesthetic object exists in and through the perceiver’s constitutive act.30 Once garlanded with flowers, a prettified Balthazar receives Marie’s kiss and caress before her gaze turns him into an aesthetic object for a few seconds. This reading subtends the anthropocentric polarity of active subject and passive object which, as Randy Malamud says, posits animals as distanced props, available for the imperial human gaze, which objectifies them in ways similar to the manner in which woman is objectified.31 

Au Hasard Balthazar

In the sequence at the circus (50:47-52:01), Bresson heeds Malamud’s injunction to not look by decoupling the gaze from the human subject.32 Balthazar, led by a handler, hauls hay from cage to cage. Whenever the handler exits the frame to perform a task, Balthazar is left alone. Each view of his head, centered in medium shots and closeups and framed to emphasize one eye, is followed by a shot of a caged tiger, a polar bear, a chimpanzee, and an elephant. The donkey, the tiger, and the elephant are silent, whereas the bear and the chimp growl and shriek. Sharon Cameron calls attention to the cinematic focus on the animals’ single eye and reads this Cyclopean vision as “synecdochic of materialized being … materiality not as a constituted integrity, but as concentrated intensities.”33 However, the tiger, the bear, and the chimp are shot frontally, and we see both their eyes, despite the occasional partial obstruction of one eye by cage bars. What can we glean about animals from these sustained scopic exchanges?

Animals are capable of ocular intensities, and the extreme closeups of Balthazar’s and the elephant’s eyes make these intensities palpable.34 Bresson’s technique of fracturing and relinking the images of the animals creates rhythmical accumulations of visual perception to the point where the specific animals cease to matter, and vision becomes co-extensive with animality.35 By structuring the sequence as a series of shots/countershots, Bresson makes animals spectators of other animals and spectacles for other animals. All visual interactions are initiated by Balthazar and shot from his point of view. This gives the donkey a privileged perspective, but the camera lingers as much on his gaze as on that of the other animals. The tiger and the elephant with their immobile, fleshy bodies and unflinching stare are all but loci of vision from which even sound is banished; the foregrounding of intraspecies ocularity blurs even the corporeal boundaries between the two animals. Although, as Rochelle Rives says, the sequence’s forms of enunciation fail to locate a subject, it does make animals agents of visual, intraspecies communication.36 The polar bear and the chimp add loud vocalizations to their stares, creating an almost terrifying audiovisual spectacle that keeps viewers in suspended incomprehension. Just what are these animals saying? Are they communicating with Balthazar? Or are they registering his presence by emitting sounds? 

Au Hasard Balthazar

Our inability to answer these questions is exacerbated by the brevity of the encounters. If only Balthazar could spend some time with the animals, we might be able to say more about what transpires between them. Instead, we watch the same bland ritual four times: the handler takes Balthazar to a spot, leaves him there for a few seconds, then takes him to another spot. Between these transits, a silent Balthazar mingles visually and/or aurally with other animals. The ritualistic brevity of the encounters, however, underscores the common lot of all the animals in the sequence, their bodily unfreedom and use for profit. Balthazar is harnessed and burdened with hay, made to move in a certain direction and to stop moving. The other animals are caged and used as public spectacle in the circus ring, a fate that also awaits Balthazar in the following sequence. Yet although the animals live in conditions designed by humans to suit their needs, their contact is fortuitous and has unpredictable effects: their eyes twitch, they move or stay calm, roar or howl — in short, they are physically enlivened in and by the accident of facing a member of their own species. The shot/reverse shot narrates their encounters as experiences of animal kinship: Balthazar’s stillness is mirrored by the tiger’s stillness, his left eye by the polar bear’s left eye, his chain by the ape’s chain, and his left eye by the elephant’s left eye. His silence, too, is mirrored contrastively (by the bear’s and the chimp’s agitated sounds) and complementarily (by the tiger’s and the elephant’s silence). Other than the final sequence, the sequence at the circus is the only one where an exclusively animal encounter is being staged, but here, crucially, the mechanical eye of the camera captures animals looking at one another. Although the shot/countershot editing is responsible for reading the sequence as a sustained intraspecies exchange, the repetitiveness of the same perceptual event turns mutual looking between animals into a specific animal behavior: this is what animals do when brought close to one another. 

Given that the animal gaze is the structural ingredient of the sequence, it may usefully be read as the visual counterpoint to the sequence in the garden. Marie adorns Balthazar with a wreath, sits across from him, and stares at him. Even though her motives are pure, she uses the donkey as a displaced object of desire and breaks her gaze as soon as the real object is near.37 This is confirmed by the scene of her seduction by Gerard, in which the two lovers-to-be use Balthazar’s body as a mere prop to steady themselves while they look at each other. In the garden, too, Marie’s is a blank gaze devoid of the mutuality of looking: Balthazar stares at Marie, but Marie stares through and past Balthazar. For Anat Pick, it is in the animal’s blank gaze, in the absence of reciprocity and recognition (contra Emmanuel Levinas and any other ethics grounded in subjectivity and personhood) that ethics begins: attentiveness is the name of the nonhuman animal’s blank gaze, and “ethics takes place in the absence of the mutuality of looking.”38 Like Marie, the handler at the circus uses Balthazar as part of his job and drops him when he no longer needs him. The interspecies encounter in the garden is juxtaposed with the intraspecies one in the circus. Both are equally fitful but for different reasons. Marie chooses to avert her eyes from the donkey, whereas Balthazar is made by the handler to look away from the animals. The ethical implication is clear: human interactions are governed by fickle self-interest, but animals can interact with one another for no discernible reason and in a focused manner.39 Animals react to one another’s bare materiality, and their reactions are unintelligible to humans. 

An animal-ethics

If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.

– Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

– G.K. Chesterton, “The Donkey”

Balthazar turns animals into ethical (in)sights. Can humans see, listen to, conceptualize, and ethicize forms of, to borrow from Sharon Cameron, “the furthest apart,” a life so different from their own that they have no idea how to access it? If, as John Berger says, “What we know about [animals] is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them,” can we bring animals closer by seeing them as anything other than means to human ends — beasts of burden, aesthetic objects, displacements and projections of erotic desire, repositories of human emotions, or victims of cruelty?40 Almost sixty years later, Balthazar’s animal perspective challenges stale habits of human cognition and affect. To be sure, Bresson is not an animal ethicist, let alone a posthumanist, and Balthazar’s cruel treatment by his human owners seems to belie an ethical approach to animals. 

Yet Bresson’s use of animal sounds and intraspecies gaze does invest his animals with an ethical agency, the power to affect other entities, that is inextricable from his cinematic aesthetics. The vocalization of a bray can be woven into a form of classical music or hold its own against a pop song; animal sounds and sheep bells can sheathe a death scene; animals forge intraspecies ocular relations which manifest what theorists such as Rosi Braidotti redefine as zoe’s “absolute vitality” beyond bare life and whose co-constitutive agency questions the subject/object binary of anthropocentric power structures, echoing the mutuality characteristic of Merleau-Ponty’s intercorporeality of the flesh, with an application to human-nonhuman fleshy interactions;41 and animals are the inscrutable other that can absorb and refract our fears, frustrations, and deepest longings. The elemental materiality of Balthazar’s non-human body thus turns the film into a meditative project of “inhumanity,” a term used by Anat Pick to describe the decentering of the human from a creaturely ethics. 

The durational quality of the film’s animal sequences offers up the possibility, from within spaces of captivity, such as stalls, yards, and cages, of worlds of animal existence and significance that coexist with and extend beyond the human. In Bresson’s aesthetic universe, animals are ethical foils to humans simply by being animals — nonhuman creatures that look at their surroundings with a steady intensity, utter sounds, and cause bells to make music by moving in space — and the director is both attuned to these animal ways of being and films their effects on himself and for the viewers. By putting a donkey at the center of the film, Bresson invites us to view him as a cinematographic fact, a corporeal being that senses and responds to the world in ways that thwart our understanding and thus fuel our imagination, sense of wonder, and the realization that we can never own the irreducible alterity that is the nonhuman animal.


  1. Warm thanks to Stacy Alaimo, Laura McMahon, Tim Morton, Robert Stroup, and Jesse Weiner for comments, support, and encouragement throughout the writing process.
  2. Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018); Lindlay Hanlon, Fragments: Bresson’s Film Style (London: Associated University Presses, 1986); Tony Pipolo, Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Julian Murphet, “Pitiable or Political Animals?” SubStance, Issue 117, 37.3 (2008): 97-116; Raymond Bellour, Le Corps du cinéma: hypnoses, émotions, animalités (Paris: P.O.L., 2009); Susan Sontag, “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson,” Against Interpretation (London: Picador, 2001), 177-195; Michael Haneke, “Terror and Utopia of Form—Addicted to Truth: A Film Story about Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar,” in Robert Bresson, J. Quandt, ed. (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2012), 385-393; Nick Browne, “Narrative Point of View: The Rhetoric of “Au Hasard Balthazar,” Film Quarterly Issue 31.1 (1977): 19-31.
  3. It also tames the donkey, an idea that did not appeal to Bresson who used an untrained donkey and shot the circus sequence, where the donkey poses as an arithmetic genius, at the end, after his Balthazar had been properly trained for two months.
  4. Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal, K. Attel, trans. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004): p. 36; Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, David Wills, trans. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008): p. 155.
  5. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “The Last Filmmaker” (https://jonathanrosenbaum.net/2022/01/the-last-filmmaker/); Sharon Cameron, The Bond of the Furthest Apart: Essays on Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bresson, and Kafka (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017); Steven Shaviro, The Cinematic Body (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993); and Rochelle Rives, ‘“The Voice of an Animal”: Robert Bresson and Narrative Form,” Symploke Issue 24.1-2 (2016): 345-370.
  6. Anat Pick, Creaturely Poetics: Animality and Vulnerability in Literature and Film (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).
  7. Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematograph, Jonathan Griffin, trans. (New York: Urizen Books, 1977): pp. 10, 21, 23, 49, and 51.
  8. Robert Bresson, “The Freest Film I’ve Made, The One to Which I’ve Given the Most of Myself,” in Bresson on Bresson: Interviews 1943-1983, Mylene Bresson, ed. (New York: New York Review of Books, 2016): p. 148. This interview, given to Jean-Luc Godard and Michel Delahaye, was occasioned by the release of Balthazar, and was originally published in Cahiers du cinéma; see Cahiers du cinéma in English 8 (London: British Film Institute Publishing, 1967): p. 5-27.
  9. See above, n. 5, p. 260.
  10. See above, n. 5, p. 260.
  11. For a study of tactility in Balthazar see Laura McMahon, Cinema and Contact: The Withdrawal of Touch in Nancy, Bresson, Duras and Denis (Oxford: Legenda, 2020): p. 47-59.
  12. See above, n. 2, p: 182.
  13. For a transcript of the interview see https://scrapsfromtheloft.com/movies/robert-bresson-the-poetry-of-precision/.
  14. Balthazar’s braying is heard seven times in the film: three times in the first ten minutes, three more midway, and once in the penultimate sequence, minutes before the donkey’s death.
  15. In Mouchette, of the following year, non-diegetic music (Monteverdi’s Magnificat) was used only at the beginning and at the end, so the soundscape of the frame is important to Bresson.
  16. All time stamps are taken from the Blu-ray edition of the film by the Criterion Collection.
  17. Other than passing references to Schubert’s andantino in all major studies of Balthazar, only Matthew McDonald has offered a detailed analysis of its use in the film from a music theory point of view. Matthew McDonald, “Death and the Donkey: Schubert at Random in Au Hasard Balthazar,” The Musical Quarterly Issue 90 (2007): p. 446-468.
  18. The andantino has been described as “the wildest burst of fantasy Schubert ever committed to paper … [with its
  19. Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge: Polity, 2013). For Keith Reader, Balthazar’s bray restores to the tumultuous middle sequence the lyricism of the rest of the sonata, but the tonal range of the bray makes possible other possible readings of its inclusion in the development Keith Reader, Robert Bresson (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2000): p. 81.
  20. Balthazar’s voice thus complements his narrative use as both jarringly antiquated in a world of motorbikes, jukeboxes, and transistor radios, and of a piece with their being technological means of locomotion and sound emission.
  21. We may also look at the insertion of the bray between the two segments of the andantino as a form of musical ellipsis whereby Bresson punctuates Schubert’s lofty music with the earthly sound of a donkey. In this way, Bresson would “abstract the abstract to virtual absurdity, and abstract the concrete, the immediate to its essential power.” See Ken Kelman, “The Structure of Fate,” in The Essential Cinema: Essays on the films in the collection of Anthology Film Archives, P. Adams Sitney, ed. (New York: New York University Press, 1975): p. 210.
  22. The hillside of the final sequence looks like the hillside of Balthazar’s birth in the opening sequence, and so by the end the film has come full circle.
  23. When Gerard messes with classical music, he corrupts it: at the party, he forces Marie to dance with him to a jazz rendition of Bach’s C-minor fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier.
  24. Nick Browne, “Narrative Point of View: The Rhetoric of Au Hasard Balthazar,” Film Quarterly Issue 31 (1977): p. 28.
  25. Marie’s mother calls Balthazar a saint.
  26. For Sharon Cameron his gaze evokes Merleau-Ponty’s notion of “tacit expression,” according to which muteness “dwells and makes us dwell in a world we do not have the key to … [within
  27. The scene also anticipates Marie’s abandoning Balthazar later in the film.
  28. My reading of this episode complicates the standard view that sees Balthazar and Marie as running parallel lives and as figurations of each other.
  29. Marie’s attention to Balthazar exemplifies the opposite of Cameron’s understanding of attention as “regard without motive,” an attention free from the need to determine or identify the nature of another being. Sharon Cameron, Impersonality: Seven Essays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 115.
  30. Roman Ingarden, The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973) and Ontology of the Work of Art: The Musical Work, the Picture, the Architectural Work, the Film (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1989).
  31. Randy Malamud, An introduction to animals in visual culture (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). Bresson has said that to him “the head of a donkey seems worth admiring.” See above, n. 8, p. 153.
  32. See above, n. 29, p. 88.
  33. Cameron 20017: 25. In her discussion of the sequence, Lindlay Hanlon refers to the Kuleshov effect in montage. By placing the same shot of a face in a variety of contexts, Kuleshov showed that the expression perceived on an actor’s face is determined by the shots which precede and follow it. According to Hanlon, the Kuleshov effect allows Bresson to suggest “moral reactions on the part of Balthazar.” See above, n. 1, p. 82.
  34. As Bresson said, “Dismantle and put together till one gets intensity.” See above, n. 7, p. 55.
  35. The only other all-animal encounter occurs is the final sequence on the hillside, but in this case, hearing is the prevalent sense.
  36. See above, n. 5, p. 353.
  37. Godard has famously called Marie “another donkey,” but for Marie in the garden it may be just as good to call the donkey “another Gerard,” albeit a peaceful one.
  38. See above, n. 6, p. 172.
  39. All of Marie’s romantic relationships are short-lived. The film’s fragmented storyline, partly occasioned by the need to tell a picaresque tale about a donkey, makes all character interactions seem choppy and fleeting.
  40. John Berger, About Looking (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), p. 14.
  41. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, Alphonso Lingis, trans. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968).

About The Author

Zina Giannopoulou is Professor of Classics at the University of California, Irvine. She specializes in comparative classicisms in the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries, critical theory, and film aesthetics. She has received numerous teaching and research awards and held visiting professorships at the Sorbonne and at Uppsala University.

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