To Be Victimized Against Our Will as an “Existential” Law

Marie and Jacques are “in love”. But in childhood “love” is just a total feeling which usually gradually, with growing up, is transformed into our ability to have an idea of being in love (into our proclivity to recognize that we are in love through having the idea that we are). This ability, in its turn, is transformed into the next level of how we recognize that we are in love – it is the sublime determination to be in love. Marie and Jacques are very intelligent – in both all three phases happen simultaneously. In this shot we can read this noble determination (as the reaction of their intelligence on their feelings), in Jacques’ facial expression, and in Marie’s posture of dedication. They don’t know that their love is on children’s swings, that it is a fascinating game of being serious. It is pure present tense projected into future by their imagination and wish. They don’t know that their love, in a substantial degree is ignited and sustained by the presence of Balthazar, a donkey-foal whom they both love and are influenced by his aura of meek trust of the world and of his freedom like a brook in the forest.

Children enthusiastically – “romantically” baptize Balthazar but his alert, almost frightened expression tells us that baptism will not lead Balthazar into being protected by benevolent powers, but, conversely, into a life of abuse, exploitation and cruelty.

The tranquility, almost a serenity Marie as a teenager feels in Balthazar’s presence, has an aspect of a paradisiacal harmony that once existed between human beings and nature but was lost because of human irrational fears and ferocity.

With Balthazar Marie feels that the nature has a human soul, and that her soul is the soul of the nature. Is it just her unconscious anthropomorphizing a donkey or are her feelings, which are not irrational, but deeper than the superficial (positivistic) rationality?

Marie grasps that the meekness of Balthazar’s nature makes his being much more “spiritual” in comparison with the people she knows, and, certainly, with the boys of her age.

The nasty and dirty gossip that people started about her and the “donkey” was, for Marie, like a call from Hell. She cried. She felt like a vicious transgressor. She understood that it is not the sinful behavior what makes a person a sinner but that people’s belief in your monstrosity what makes a monster out of you. She learned how to make her tears invisible. She betrayed Balthazar and herself – she agreed with her father to sell the donkey (into the usual life of serfdom and servitude) to spare the reputation of the family.

Besides having a power complex (the need to dominate and to achieve “great” success in society) Gerard, one of Balthazar’s bosses, has a sharp phallic consciousness: for him phallicity is a weapon. He is irritated by Balthazar’s freedom from aggressiveness which he takes as inert stupidity of nature. In this shot Gerard catharsizes his fury at nature that is not “alert enough” to rush to obey human orders.

Vagabond Arnold is one of Balthazar’s owners. He is abusive and sometimes even as hateful toward him as Gerard was. But simultaneously he identifies with Balthazar – sees him as a meaningless and a superfluous creature as he feels about himself. He doesn’t feel conscious contempt toward the donkey, but his very comradeship with him has a flavor of the irrational, morbid and somehow a positive disgust.

In this shot we see Marie in a paradigmatic moment we all know very well – she is considering whether money is enough of a prize for losing herself (for stopping to be sincere and genuine, for starting to pretend in order to get an advantage and to “survive”).

Throughout the whole film “Devil Probably” Bresson uses footages from documentary films to demonstrate the systematic destruction of nature and life by the Western culture moved by the commercial obsession and the passion to dominate – human feelings and life, nature, oceans, the skies, and the cosmos. Since the time of the film‘s release the situation became much worse but the pictures of nature sacrificed used by Bresson are as horrifying today as they were then.

When young people are not used as soldiers or consumers and an appendix to entertainment, they are what they are in essence in modern society – abandoned, lost, not needed. They exist as we see them in this shot – in between stone ground and stone wall of modern civilization. If they are not part of somebody’s profit calculation they are wasted and superfluous.

For Charles it is unbearable to witness how the mighty old trees, this precious asset of nature, a part of human history and human spirituality, are predatorily knocked off by human irrational greed for power through profit.

Young people in the park while observing a man, who is simply fishing identify not with him but with the fish that has with the bait swallowed the hook. The bait is pop-freedoms and pop-consumption, the hook is the destruction of nature outside and its degradation inside them.

If young people are not willing to sell themselves to the commercial system – their brains, working hands or body as soldiers, the social system is not interested in them: as if they don’t exist. The most sensitive among us feel that the most valuable part of them is trashed and thrown away by society. The more existentially gifted you are the more you feel insulted by this situation and without a way out.

That’s all Charles possesses. Who today needs a young person who is satisfied with not owning property and agrees to live like “Balthazar”-the donkey (free from the necessity to fight to succeed in survival).

Charles feels that he is like nature which is in a process of being destroyed while being exploited. He doesn’t want to be part of this violent experiment with life the modern civilization, he feels, is involved in, but other ways don’t exist. He is not interested in “compensations” for “participation” (consumerism, pop-music or video-games). Commercialism digests everything like petroleum spillages do. Money destroys, digests and excretes nature. He feels like the excrement of money.

Suffering Charles makes Alberte suffer while trying in vain to console her

Charles after his suicide attempt in the bathtub of his casual mistress

Charles already cannot live in a conventional way but cannot leave this life yet.

It is fascinating to see how Charles tips the psychiatrist in the next, following this shot moment. In our time lackeys are beneficiaries (for example, global corporate CEOs – lackeys of profit, enriching themselves with taxpayers’ money).

In the center of this shot we see an abstract bust Charles is turning away from. This dehumanized creature represents the ideal patient of “positivist” psychiatry for which the ability to adapt to society, whatever it is, Soviet Union, Nazi Germany or American post-Democracy is a criterion of mental health. The mirror signifies the mental space, and the bookshelves framing the bust – soft ware equipment for creating this psychiatric Frankenstein: a new model citizen of a corporate state.

It was a time when Charles loved Valentine as his friend, as his alter ego. But today the best, it seems, friendship can do is to help you to leave, get out of the society that is not interested in your human value.


The donkey “Balthazar” in Bresson’s film symbolizes not only the living human body as a part of human being, although in this role he was noticed by Pier Paolo Pasolini and could have inspired him to make his “Teorema” (the film about the sacredness of human body). Pasolini transformed Bresson’s donkey into a mysterious human being with an angelic presence. Today, with modern weapon systems, more and more frivolous position of neo-conservative decision-makers toward war and destruction, and more intense industrial and cultural pollution, we are much farther from the idea of the sacredness of human body than we were in Bresson and Pasolini times.

But the spiritual paradox of “Au Hazard Balthazar” is that the donkey signifies not only human flesh but human soul, that the mute bodyness of the living flesh can be a metaphor of human soul. So, donkey can be a symbol of human soul! The semantic role of the donkey in “Au Hazard…”, is similar with that of the hunted rabbits in Bresson’s “Mouchette” (1967) and with the bodies of young people in “Devil Probably”.

Some characters who instinctively refuse to identify their bodies with Balthazar’s (who see the obvious, commonsensical difference between human and the animal body) are losing their souls – the refutation of donkey as a brother, the absence of identification with the body as such leads to the loss of the soul. Gerard who sings on Sundays at the church and emotionally traps Marie into a relationship refuses with contempt her veneration of Balthazar and loses his soul. He is hooked on over-worldly beauty and typically feels contempt toward life in this world that without human reverie is trained to react on power like a dog in its name. For Gerard love is consumption, control and manipulation, sex is a victory over the partner and seduction a game of domination. But the vulnerability of the body corresponds to the purity of the soul. The violators of somebody else’s body are destroyers of their own souls. Arnold, a drifter and pauper, can be cruel to Balthazar but he is hatefully cruel to himself too. He despises flesh, he abuses Balthazar, but he also suffers together with him – he identifies with the suffering flesh. It makes him a kind of sinner and martyr at the same time.

Besides predatory people (like Gerard), victims (Balthazar and Marie) and Arnold as a combination of the two, there is another curios type of human beings Bresson depicts – their soul is struck by the (unconscious) desire to be spiritually clean (impeccable). If victims are spontaneous pure souls, the spiritually “clean“are those who permanently cleaning, purifying themselves. They are ideologically clean souls. It is, first of all, Marie’s father and uncle, and also Jacques, her neat cousin who is unable to keep her love because his impeccability is more important for him than the spontaneity of love which is always on the verge of tastelessness.

Because the animals in Circus where Balthazar has achieved his highest point of “intellectual” development – elephant, tiger and a chimpanzee, are personifications of human types, their pantomimes in front of silent Balthazar is interpretable – they all have something to brag about: the elephant coils and uncoils his trunk and trumpets his horn, the chimp proudly recites a complicated monologue, and the tiger is imposingly silent (displaying his confident might) and only squints its eyes (we can easily imagine what’d happen if not the tiger’s cage).

Victimization of Balthazar – of our human flesh and soul, continues when we, following Bresson, come from rural France of “Au Hazard…” to France as an urban “holiday” in “Devil Probably”. Bresson ironically starts the film as a detective story (parodying the press and statistical analysis), but quickly turns it inside out, first, into a contemplating plot but soon abandons the plot completely to concentrate on the essential – on the unity of human intelligence and human life, both in danger. Although predatory people as a “sub-specie” are victoriously exist (for example, the owner of the bookstore with illegal entrepreneurial additions to his activity, or the psychoanalyst), now predatory initiatives, according to Bresson, are mainly “outsourced” from the concrete situations into the direction of a whole system. Victims become the very totality of young people (the next generations in general) who are not attended, who are not protected from drugs by the presence of the meaning of life and general belief in life, who are given up to entertainment obsession, exposed to police brutality and psychological correction and are poisoned industrially together with the natural environment. The souls and bodies of young boys and girls are in drastic contrast with artificial environment of polluting and calculating profit civilization. What in “Au Hazard…” was an individual violence based on greed, pride or envy, became in “Devil…” the attribute of whole life, of the very atmosphere young people are exposed to.

Bresson in “Devil…” shows young people nude or semi-nude, he shows their naked legs and thighs, them in underwear – because he is not just making a point about the sacredness of their bodies but because he compares them to the living plants, verdure, flowers (and to Balthazar) which are no less sacred than the generalized “humanity” according to the fake ideology of humanism. The Blasphemous neglect and abuse of the youth, the next generations (one of the motifs of Bertolucci’s “Before the revolution” – 1962) go hand in hand with the blasphemous destruction of nature. Like in “Balthazar” hate toward other human beings is expressed through taking towards them over-controlling position, in “Devil…” hate and industrial poisoning means using nature and human flesh and soul to dominate over them by profiting on their destruction. Balthazar was exploited directly by being forced to overwork and by being underfed, and there was no spiritual air and compassion for Marie to live. Arnold’s destiny is a precursor of Charles “positive suicide” – suicide without psychological trauma, just because it is impossible to live where physical, spiritual and mental contamination is the order of a day. Charles’ decision to depart life which is without meaning and grace (to depart because when survival and cheap prosperity occupy the place of life, the body and soul become an egoistical and predatory project) is like Arnold’s departure as a result of the fact that meaning and grace is destroyed in him.

The “Devil probably” is introduced by the parable about the psychological condition of people’s life in today’s world – people walk in one of the two disproportional ways: they press either on the external margins of their feet or on the internal one. They are either extremely extroverted, external world oriented (on survival or entertainment, over-calculation and over-relaxation), or, conversely, they retreat into themselves – into their (compensating for the emptiness of the world) fantasies or into depression and psycho-somatic symptoms. There is no balance and unity between internal and external world anymore – to be able to live you have to follow the artificial strategies of creating pseudo-unity through identification with leaders, groups, crowds, money, success and profession, and nest building. Charles is too intelligent and with too refined existential taste to do this. In this world he, it looks, has his own “defect” of walking (defect of saints?) – He is pigeon-toed. His path in life has become too narrow, as if closing: his attempt to keep harmony between himself and the world has failed.

In “Balthazar” the flesh is perceived as inseparable from the soul, and Bresson makes the point about Balthazar’s “super-intelligence” only indirectly – through the ironic demonstration of his “cognitive” genius in circus performance (metaphor of human professionalized, specialized, ripped into pieces intelligence). In “Devil” Bresson directly addresses the problem of the unity, of the one-bodily-ness of the intelligence and life, meaning and existence, intellect and the living. Of course, besides Charles there is Michel, who feels reverie toward life but for whom thinking itself is not reverential; it is protective of what he admires. For Michel scientific thinking is a guardian of life against the perverted human desire to exploit it.

While Charles is pure contemplative energy but the one which is vitally sensitive to the condition of life (for him intelligence as such is not worthy without existential container), for Michel the destruction of life triggers more thinking. While for Michel the point when thinking addresses life is a question of morality, a question of defense of life, for Charles a degraded life makes thinking superfluous and absurd. Michel is a thinker inside life, but for Charles thinking is life itself, is living, and when life is dying thinking is dying too.

Regular people are passive victims of the destruction of life (by industrial pollution, prejudices [“It is probably devil makes us behave so self-destructively”], mindless entertainment and cut-throat survival), Valentine internalizes the position of victim, makes self-victimization (through drug-abuse) his self-occupation. He is, semantically, an intermediate character between Arnold and Charles.

While “Au Hazard Balthazar” for Bresson is what “Teorema” is for Pasolini, “Devil Probably” for Bresson is what “Whity” is for Fassbinder, statement about the radical incompatibility between body, soul and intelligence on the one hand, and the factual condition of today’s world where high-tech industrial predatoriness and financial calculations systematically destroy life. Both Bresson’s films are about perverted human and a systemic hate toward life, nature, children and youth, and as such are very close in spirit and inspiration to Fellini’s “Satyricon”, Pasolini’s “Salo” and Godard’s “Hail Mary”.

Posted on Dec 10 2014 –   “Au Hazard Balthazar” (1966) And “Devil Probably” (1977) By Robert Bresson  by Acting-Out Politics