Balthazar is a small donkey, a dumb beast who is seldom used well by his owners, who is mostly abused and worked hard, who accepts what comes, who is born and who dies. Please note: elements of the plot are discussed below. Balthazar was born on a small French farm. We meet two children who love him and who grow up thinking they love each other. The girl's father loses the farm and everything he has because of pride. The young boy moves away, but returns as a man, Jacques (Walter Green), still loving her. And the girl, Marie (Anne Wianzemsky) grows up to be a sad-eyed young woman who is almost as accepting of her fate as Balthazar. She is attracted to Gerard, (Francois Lafarge), a bully and a young criminal. He and his gang steal, beat people and begin to smuggle things across the border. What do you see in that boy, Marie's mother asks her. "I love him. Do we know why we love someone? If he says, 'come,' I come. 'Do this,' and I do it."
Balthazar moves from owner to owner. He's often beaten and kicked. He plows the ground, hauls logs, delivers bread. In a brief moment of glory, he's trained to do number tricks in a provincial circus. His owner finds him and takes him back. Once, he finds his way to the farm where he was born and Marie embraces him. He works circling a well, drawing water up to be bottled by a miserly, cynical farm owner who doesn't feed him well. One night Marie flees her parents and comes to the man's farm. He takes her in, looks at her wet dress, finally offers her some money. Marie pauses but turns him down. She says that her father has had to give their last cent to the creditors. "That's what happens when you place honor above everything," the man tells her. "He's spent his life creating obligations for himself. What for?...Do I have any obligations? I'm free, obliged only to do what serves my interests and can bring me a profit -- and a handsome profit at that. Life's nothing but a fair ground, a marketplace where even your word is unnecessary. A bank note will do." Marie spends the night.
Marie meets Jacques again. He wants to marry her. She refuses. "You see our names carved on this bench, our games with Balthazar. But I don't see a thing. I've no more tenderness, no heart, no feelings. Your words don't affect me anymore. Our vows of love, our childhood promises, move in a world of make-believe, not reality." She walks away.
Old and tired, Balthazar still is given no rest. Gerard and his gang steal him to carry contraband. They are discovered by border guards and shots are fired as they flee. At sun up Balthazar slowly moves from the forest into a meadow. He is bleeding from a gunshot wound. A herd of sheep move toward him. Balthazar rests on the meadow, with the sheep bleating around him, nuzzling him, moving past him. As the sheep move on, Balthazar has died. The movie ends.
This is a sad, poignant movie into which one can read all kinds of meanings. What stands out for me is the sense that life simply goes on whether or not a person is happy. The film is full of characters who are petty, sometimes cruel, jealous, naive or full of pride. Yet they aren't caricatures. They are simply people with many flaws. Balthazar finds himself in their lives. We see things where Balthazar is, but Balthazar doesn't see these things. He doesn't observe and he isn't used by Bresson to make a point. He is a passive, dumb beast who accepts what people do to him. We wait just as Balthazar waits. The movie is permeated, in my view, with great sadness and with the recognition that once a person is on a path, it's not all that easy to change. I'm not particularly sentimental, but the death of the little donkey in the field, surrounded by the sheep, had me wiping my eyes.
The Criterion black and white picture transfer is excellent. There are two particularly fine extras, an interview with Donald Richie and a French TV show about the movie which features Bresson, Louis Malle, Jean-Luc Goddard and members of the movie's cast and crew.