- “The Voice of an Animal”:Robert Bresson and Narrative Form
“I’m glad to hear you have faith in humanity, Mr. Brown. For me, I’d rather put my faith in a horse.”—National Velvet (2000)
As with its beginning, the ending of Robert Bresson’s 1966 film, Au Hasard Balthazar, where Balthazar draws his dying breath among a chorus of bleating sheep, establishes the primacy of animal voice over human voice. The opening credits of the film showcase the donkey’s wild braying as it disrupts the second movement of Schubert’s 20th Piano Sonata, Opus 959 (which appears 11 times in the film), considered the wildest and most frenetic the composer ever wrote. If the cries represent a perspective, that, as Tony Pipolo has remarked, “eschew[s] the human altogether,” then they do so by rupturing whatever narrative the film is apparently beginning.1 At the same time, we are likely to understand the donkey’s bawling as profoundly narrative; as viewers, we imagine that this is the sound of the young Balthazar being born, for immediately after the opening credits, we witness his baptism at the hands of his first owners, the young girl Marie and her father. As narrative act, the baptism locates the birth of Balthazar, so that the viewer already understands the film as it narrates the life and chronological development of the donkey. Much in keeping with the conventions of established narrative forms such as the Bildungsroman, Balthazar begins his youth as a family pet, but his life quickly changes as he enters adulthood and becomes a mere cog in the wheel, literally, passing from owner to owner, most of whom exploit his capacity to labor. As suggested by the film’s bleak ending, the bodily presence of the animal signifies the failure of narrative itself to actualize justice and redemption, illustrating what it might mean to move beyond human-mindedness in our readings of stories.
This anti-romantic narrative mode avoids taking the human as the focal point of content, or interpretation. As Bernard Williams has observed, “humanism” is present even in perspectives, like Luther’s, “that assign [End Page 345] human beings a wretched and imperfect condition;” the fallenness of man, for example, depends on the belief that the “fact itself is of absolute importance.”2 In contrast, Au Hasard Balthazar explores the question of human lack and anxiety, but from a perspective in which the physicality of the animal challenges anthropocentric values of “expression” or “voice.” The film can thus be located within a much larger tradition that examines the problems animals and non-human pose for human narrative practice. As well-known texts such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis make clear, this is an anxiety about human voice and its diminishment as well as the security of human dominion over the world of non-human creatures. Unlike Frankenstein’s creature, who seeks human listeners, Kafka’s Gregor is no longer heard once his family gathers that he is talking in “the voice of an animal.” Consigning himself to the fact that the family “no longer understood his words,” Gregor stops talking back, and this silence itself becomes the occasion for his decline into animal mindedness and further, the family’s violence.3
Gregor’s silence, then, his “animal voice,” is indeed the prototype for a protagonist, “whose passive nature,” Pipolo suggests, “precludes the very notion of narrative drive” (2010, 182). Yet this question of “how” the animal “precludes…narrative drive” has yet to be theorized, as Pipolo’s account, among others, focuses more heavily on Bresson’s formal and stylistic innovations along with his aesthetic, philosophical and religious influences.4 Critics such as Brian Price have emphasized the limitations of such critical approaches, in which topics of spirituality, grace, and divinity (all of which are relevant considering Bresson’s Catholic background and the religious themes prevalent in most of his work, including The Diary of a Country Priest ), come to subsume the complexity and ambiguity of Bresson’s film-making. As an alternative, Price examines more broadly the historical and political contexts of Bresson’s radical politics in...