Well…this one disappointed me. The initial description made me think that it was going to be similar to last year’s Eo (which was inspired by this film, actually) – the claim was that it followed the life of a donkey as it got passed along to various caretakers. But while Eo was indeed the life of its leading donkey, Balthazar-the-donkey is sidelined into being more of a framing device for an unsatisfying story.
This film is more about Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), the daughter of a schoolteacher in a small French town. Her parents are good friends with a local farmer who adopts baby Balthazar; the farmer’s kids, Jacques (Walter Green) and his two sisters, often play with him, enlisting Marie into the fun. She and Jacques also become childhood sweethearts. But when one of Jacques’ sisters dies, his family moves away, giving Marie’s family control of the farm with a vague verbal agreement.
Balthazar, however, is turned over to another farm where his existence is not so idyllic; and after several years, he escapes and finds his way back to his old home, re-encountering a grown-up Marie. Marie happily welcomes her old childhood playmate home, but otherwise is caught up in an abusive romance with Gérard (François Lafarge), the leader of a local gang. So Marie can’t care for Balthazar; and her father is stuck in a legal tangle over the farm, trying to formalize the loose agreement he’d made with Jacques’ father. So Gérard brings Balthazar to the bakery where he works – so he can mistreat him and torture Marie by proxy. When Balthazar finally starts falling ill, a nearby drifter offers to adopt him and cure him – and then gets swept up in a police sting which also catches Gérard, so Balthazar changes hands again. And then Jacques comes home to woo Marie again and maybe resolve the legal conflict; and Balthazar changes hands again. And…
…and so most of the film is about Marie, Jacques, and Gérard, and the tussle between Jacques’ and Marie’s families, with Balthazar relegated to being scenery and plot device for the most part. Most of the shots are discussions between humans – occasionally interrupted with a shot of Balthazar dumbly standing nearby. It almost feels like director Robert Bresson just added Balthazar into the story as an afterthought, in a desperate attempt to differentiate from a more traditional drama.
And I’d have actually been okay with that if the performances were better. Bresson used several non-actors in his cast – and, and this is as charitably as I can state this, you can tell who are the non-actors. Nearly everyone looks bored and speaks in a monotone for most of the film. Wiazemsky gives Marie a bit of spunk now and then – particularly in a scene where she has run away from her own family and Gérard and comes to a neighbor for help – but just about everyone else is just sort of….there. There’s even a scene with someone throwing a party at a crowded pub, and Gérard gets mad at the bartender and starts knocking over bottles and throwing things, escalating to throwing furniture across the counter. And no one seems to notice. The other revelers keep dancing to the juke box, and people occasionally head out to the street to throw firecrackers; Balthazar occasionally jumps at the firecrackers, but no one inside the bar bats an eye when Gérard throws his tantrum.
So I wanted a story of a donkey, but I got a story of boring people who occasionally looked at a donkey.