Quietly We Bray
Damon Smith on Au hasard Balthazar

“What we take in through our eyes and ears has come from two machines that are said to reproduce the real world perfectly. But one of these machines is only capable of representing things in a misleading fashion, via the lie that is photography; while the other produces a truthful representation of the elements that constitute sound. How can one ignore this dichotomy, the fact that the sound is true but the image false?”—Robert Bresson

When I call to mind images from the films of Robert Bresson, it is not an actor’s face or a definitive sequence that emerges from what feels like ancient memory, but rather a series of disconnected close-ups drawn at random from the filmmaker’s body of work. Hands, mostly, those vessels for depicting soulful inquiry (a heretic; a country priest) or iniquity (a pickpocket, a killer, a wicked chorister) that proliferate in his sublime vision of humanity exalted yet estranged from itself, reckoning with dual impulses, negotiating varied proportions of choice and chance. But there are other images, too: instances of sound—auditory close-ups, as it were—that have had an even greater purchase on my recollections of the Bressonian universe, all indelible and unique, but married to no particular camera shot or sequence. It is my ear that remembers Bresson best: the whinny of horses in Lancelot du Lac, the creaking of doors in L’Argent, the snapping of branches and clip-clop of clogs in Mouchette. This is all by design.

Sound has an autonomy and a moral dimension in Bresson’s films that moves us beyond the realm of visual representation. We are attuned to the unique properties of particular sounds in his oeuvre—all sourced in the everyday world, whether ambient noise or living creatures—because they have the capacity to stimulate our imagination in ways that an image containing perfectly synchronized audio and visual components cannot. Bresson liberates the use of sound from its traditional function as a demonstrative device, emphasizing its symbolic and metaphorical power, its capacity to evoke an emotion, an idea, or an entire field of action in offscreen space. Detached from an immediate visual referent, sound forces the mind to contextualize and even invent “scenes.” (Who has not lain awake at night, frightened by an unidentifiable noise or the faint squeak of a floorboard, and imagined a menacing intruder creeping about?) In his Notes on Cinematography, Bresson characterized the nature of auditory perception as “profound and inventive,” elevating sound to a hieratic status it had not previously held in the empire of signs. Quite apart from incidental music (which he found problematic and eventually dispensed with) and speech (the carefully modulated voices of his “models” are an indispensable texture in his work), sound in Bresson’s oeuvre has an affect, a presence, and a being, an idea the poet Wallace Stevens often returned to (“there are words better without an author, without a poet/…that eke out the mind on peculiar horns”).

No viewer of Au hasard Balthazar can fail to appreciate the significance of the donkey’s mournful bray (a peculiar horn, indeed) within the film’s benighted view of human avarice, pride, and folly. It is a cry of anguish, a brute vocalization that expresses the purity, humility, vulnerability, and pathos of Balthazar’s essential innocence in the face of the cruelty and suffering he witnesses and, deprived of language, silently endures. As with all elements of sound design in Bresson’s elaborately aural cinema, where a carefully selected catalog of everyday noises (the clanging of keys in A Man Escaped, for instance) are boldly amplified, we can hardly ignore Balthazar’s hee-hawing moan and the world of troubles it evokes. From film to film, Bresson emphasizes sound because it transmits a vital truth to our ear, denoting a form of interiority that images only partly reveal. Moreover, it’s through the fastidiously arranged repetition of this aural conceit that Bresson achieves his most audacious effects.

The first instance occurs during the title sequence: As the eccentric andantino from Schubert’s Piano Sonata Op. 959 builds to a discordant crescendo, the music is suddenly interrupted by a long, loud, harsh animal cry. The bray is the longest in the film, lasting 18 seconds. It’s an absurd sound, grating in volume and duration, yet undoubtedly significant in juxtaposition with Schubert’s idiosyncratic Romantic fantasy.

Through this irrational blend of artifice and realism, heard before we first glimpse Balthazar as a fuzzy-headed calf tranquilly nursing at his mother’s breast, Bresson establishes the donkey as a central character, attaching a special importance to this sacred creature’s homely voice. (Imagine the consternation of audiences at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival who, seeing Balthazar for the first time, must have been amused and puzzled at this extravagant outburst of auteurism.) Until viewers are further immersed in the film, the sound of the braying burro conjures its own curious imagery of ornery dissent or perhaps the ardors of rustic existence. For those already initiated into the world of Balthazar, it holds a richer, more totemic meaning tied to the general tone and theme of the film and the fate of its tragic characters. Before examining the specific symbolic function of this element of sound design, it’s worth considering how Bresson’s animal protagonist (untrained, like all his models) gives fullest expression to a humanistic ideal.

Over the centuries, the donkey has had a curious foothold in the world’s cultural imagination: maligned as stupid and stubborn, senseless and ridiculous (the word “asinine” derives from this prejudice), the ass is ordinarily regarded as a lowly beast of burden in comparison to its nobler cousin, the horse. Yet the donkey was also revered in early Christian liturgy for its association with Jesus, who rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday on the back of an ass. Many writers (see Tony Pipolo’s magnificent new tome, Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film) have noted that the inspiration for Bresson’s script seems to have come from a variety of ancient and modern literary sources as well, including Apuleius’s The Golden Ass (the picaresque tale of Lucius, transformed into an ass and set adrift) and Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot (in which the sound of a donkey braying in the marketplace dispels Prince Myshkin’s melancholy). Bresson himself often noted that “Balthazar” was the name of one of the Three Wise Men, and cited the Biblical story of Balaam (echoed more recently in the title of Nick Cave’s novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel) for its additional resonance with the film. (Both are mythical figures ennobled by divine contact.) He exploits these religious affinities throughout Au hasard Balthazar, privileging Balthazar’s point of view in a series of reaction shots, the most famous being a mystifying exchange of glances with circus animals, installing him as a model being who’s baptized and beatified by children. The donkey’s unvarying simplicity and lack of pronounced psychological motivation stands in stark contrast to the vices and foibles of those whose lives he drifts through. His body may be beaten and starved and humiliated, but his spirit (or the sagelike aura we are encouraged to attribute to his mode of being) remains untainted.

The second occurrence of Balthazar’s braying comes after a sharp cut dividing the idyllic world of the donkey’s youth from his cruel mistreatment, some indefinite time later, at the hands of a new owner. As smitten youth Jacques prepares to leave his family’s summer farmhouse, he bids goodbye (presumably to his sweetheart Marie, the schoolteacher’s daughter, whose name he’s just carved into a bench) with a gentle expression of hope and bonhomie (“See you next year…”), extending his hand from the car window in a gesture of affection. The reaction shot, however, is of the young donkey, standing quietly and flanked by Marie’s family as the girl peeks at him from behind her father’s pant leg. After this irrational cut, yet another technique designed to accentuate Balthazar’s stature as the film’s central protagonist, Bresson briskly cross-fades into a POV of a mustachioed fellow cracking a whip. Balthazar, now a mature animal, is seen struggling with two men, his hind legs kicking at the cart they’ve affixed to his carriage. The hee-haw we hear over these images is an anguished protest, a natural response to the farmer’s vigorous thrashing that functions as a shocking counterpoint to the rustic serenity of Balthazar’s earlier life. The series of shots that follow of Balthazar’s legs as he trundles hay and ploughs fields—accented by the sound of clanking chains, shoed hooves, squeaking cart wheels—attest to his reconditioning as a beast of burden. An elliptical intertitle (“Years go by…”) underscores time’s passage and the indignity and pathos of the animal’s situation.

With the next two instances of the braying motif, Bresson gently shifts the use of sound design away from a realist mode. Balthazar’s sensitivity is no longer merely instinctive, corresponding to some physical discomfort, but quasi-psychological: the cry embodies a structure of feeling that’s attributable to human consciousness and metonymically aligned with the film’s moral perspective on human wickedness. When Balthazar is temporarily freed from drudgery after a wagon overturns, he returns to the cradle of his youth, the farmhouse where Marie, now a teenager, still lives with her family. He trots through the courtyard, past the bench where Jacques and Marie’s names are still etched, and enters the stable. Facing the corner, he begins wailing. Whether or not Bresson sought to imbue Balthazar with emotional life in this scene, it retains an uncharacteristically strong psychic dimension. He doesn’t anthropomorphize Balthazar so much as invite us to register the sadness of lost innocence, as well as a nostalgic yearning for home, youth, and simple pleasures that will never return. It is also a rare instance (the first of three) in which Bresson matches sound and image. The bray is first heard over an exterior shot of the stable door, which then cuts to a medium shot of the donkey bellowing in real time.

Though they come to represent different aspects of human nature, Marie and Balthazar are intimately connected throughout Au hasard Balthazar. The donkey is a figure of essential simplicity, a pack animal whose essential “goodness” must contend with the venal, hostile world in which he is shuttled from owner to owner. Marie is initially a child of great sensitivity, charity, and purity herself (think of the famous scene where she places a garland of flowers and a kiss on the animal’s head), but her roadside encounter with malicious punk Gérard and subsequent initiation into sexual maturity leads her to a fallen state in Bresson’s universe. Yet Balthazar and Marie remain spiritual siblings; their bond is never severed except by the accident of dislocation. Balthazar even seems to carry some vague memory of the idyllic past they once shared: the bench, the stable, his doleful cry. Each represents two incompatible states: nature/animal and society/human. Bresson’s boldest conceit is to suggest that our most invidious habits arise from what we consider to be essential traits of our species: self-awareness and directed conduct, the transgressive spirit of altruism and regard for others that we aspire to and rarely attain.

After Marie chastises Gérard with a slap for allowing his gang to beat up Arnold, the town drunk under suspicion of murder, he retaliates by striking her twice in the face. They stroll off together, arm in arm. In the next shot, Gérard’s leather jacket hangs over a fence post, his transistor radio blaring French rock, another of the film’s sound motifs that’s a trope for their lovemaking. Balthazar, glimpsed in medium close-up tethered to a tree (another matching shot), brays loudly, and the moral implications are clear. In another scene, Arnold storms out of a bar, enraged, and chases Balthazar and another of his burros with a chair hoisted menacingly over his head. Out of frame, we hear him beat the animals, and the braying denotes their suffering as well as the alcoholic’s unwarranted meanness. Later, at the circus where he’s found a new home performing math tricks, Balthazar spots Arnold in the audience and brays in protest, struggling with his trainers. The final “appearance” of this auditory image comes near the end of the film, when Gérard and one of his lackeys steal Balthazar under cover of nightfall to smuggle contraband across the border.

There is good reason to assume that Bresson’s use of sound design has quantitative as well as qualitative objectives: a precision artist keenly attuned to the power of repetition and rhythmic modulation, Bresson sought to create a sense of freedom for spectators (“An old thing becomes new if you detach it from what usually surrounds it”), liberating his work from the rational, associative schemes of classical cinema. “I listen to my films as I make them,” he told Michel Ciment, “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.” He must have been aware that Balthazar’s voice, a sound effect that nonlinguistically translates a whole field of affective feelings, is heard only seven times in the film. The vocalizations, though unique, discrete, autonomous, and differentiable in isolation, are carefully calibrated and densely arranged: three brays are heard in the first ten minutes of Balthazar. Three more arrive midway through the film, also within a ten-minute period. The final bray happens in the penultimate sequence, minutes before Balthazar’s death from a gunshot wound. As with so many aspects of Bresson’s filmmaking, this organization mirrors the structure of movements in musical composition. The delays give force to this sound; we notice the braying because of its volume and duration, because of the out-of-field space it conjures or the action it comments on, and because, given how seldom we hear it, it is pointedly “framed.”

If we recall the donkey’s religious affinities, which Bresson incorporates and emphasizes visually (Balthazar’s early baptism scene, for instance) or otherwise (“He’s old, he’s worked enough,” Marie’s anguished mother tells Gérard: “Besides, he’s a saint”), the question of number cannot be ignored. Seven is the symbol of divinity in many world spiritual traditions, a mystical glyph that has held significance for diviners, healers, astronomers, thinkers, imams, rabbis, gurus, and priests since ancient times. Within Christianity, the number seven indicates creation (God made the world in seven days) as well as destruction (as in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, an allusion to the Book of Revelation’s apocalyptic sevens). Balthazar, glorified in his status as a mere animal incapable of vice, embodies the seven cardinal virtues, while the characters whose lives he intersects each invoke one of the seven deadly sins. There’s wrath (Gérard’s senseless, anarchic destruction of the bar), greed (Pierre Klossowski’s corn merchant: “I love money. I hate death”), pride (Marie’s father, whose insolvable legal troubles arise from his stubborn refusal to submit accounting receipts to Jacques’s father), lust (Marie), envy (the baker’s wife, whose ambiguously intimate relationship with Gérard hinges on her insistence that he give up Marie), and gluttony (Arnold’s chronic intemperance). Sloth, from the Greek acedia, connotes not physical inactivity but apathy, or an insufficiency of feeling. Hence, Jacques’s love for Marie is compromised by his indifference to her social and sexual ruination. Marie, too, has been deadened by experience: “I’ve no more tenderness, no heart, no feelings.”

Within the world of Au hasard Balthazar, the bray is a metaphorical device, an objective correlative to thoughts and feelings we have as witnesses to, say, Gérard’s maleficent influence on Marie, and a voice (at times) of authorial dissent. Balthazar’s interior world is unknowable, perhaps nonexistent to those whose lives he traverses and marks, but his dual function as a figure of both contempt and adoration remains a trenchant feature. A humble beast like Balthazar cannot betray or be betrayed, and remains locked in a world of half-knowledge: this is the donkey’s secret insight, the negative capability of mammalian idiocy. (“Starve, scourge, deride me/I am dumb, I keep my secret still,” G. K. Chesterton, “The Donkey.”) If he is a Christ figure, as so many writers have declared, then he is a grotesque, the repository of virtues we can never access. Though conscious and alive, susceptible to pain and misery, an apperceptive being driven by primal instincts, Balthazar is yet a kind of automaton, deprived of choice and thought. His death has the opposite meaning of Christ’s crucifixion: Balthazar’s broken body is a finality, a material witness not to human mortality, but the impossibility of doing no harm, of fulfilling the responsibilities accorded by our most fundamental humanistic ethics.

Yet the ear foregrounds what the eye alone cannot. Balthazar’s alien utterances are an echo of our failures and follies, a depth charge in the mystical language of Bresson’s film, a distress cry of the world’s collective conscience. But we can hear the voice of that ass, listen to its rueful reverberations, and somehow find a way to overcome despair. This is the magic of Au hasard Balthazar, where the brute sound of an animal unlocks within us an attitude of mind, a realization we cannot—and hopefully do not wish to—abjure. It is holy, that voice of ache, and wholly our own.