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Robert Bresson's gray end-game
on 9 July 2014
Robert Bresson's 1977 meditation on the state of the contemporary world The Devil, Probably (Le diable probablement) is his twelfth and penultimate film. After his detour Camelot-way in Lancelot du Lac (1974) the film posits the same bleak and nihilistic agenda this time through the story of a group of students in Paris who are presented as products of a society which is sick to the very core. There was a time when Bresson's protagonists were predestined to receiving grace, even if they had to go to prison to attain it. That died out with his adoption of color from Une femme douce (1969) onwards, and The Devil, Probably amounts to his bleakest, his grayest, his most cynical and his most critical work. Indeed, there is a whining, hectoring edge to proceedings which shows him at his least likable and least approachable. Bresson's films exist on an extraordinarily high level of achievement and are essential viewing for the most part, but I found watching this one a wearisome experience.
Ignoring his usual lofty sources (Diderot, Tolstoy, Bernanos, Dostoyevsky), Bresson adapted The Devil, Probably from a mundane newspaper article. At the beginning we learn that a student has been found dead in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris having either committed suicide or having been murdered. The following 90 minutes detail the last 6 weeks of the student's life. Named Charles and played by Antoine Monnier, he is the intelligent son of rich parents who recoils from the society that surrounds him with his friend Michel (Henri de Maublanc) and two girls, Alberte (Tina Irissari) and Edwiga (Laetitia Carcano), the first of whom the two men share the affections of. Charles attends student anarchist meetings and university classes where he learns about what 'they' are doing to 'us'. Cue extensive footage of oil spills, nuclear tests, seal culling, deforestation, waste disposal sites, insecticides being sprayed on crops, cars dumped on waste ground, the effects of lead poisoning on kids, aircraft fumes poisoning the ozone layer, and the rest. In short we have the whole green agenda which in 1977 was still relatively new. Charles' worldview is crystalized most clearly when he takes a session with a psychiatrist. He admits he is intelligent, possibly more intelligent than most around him, but because society is fundamentally wrong with governments lying, companies profiteering and with no clearly defined prevailing sense of morality, be it Christian or otherwise, to study and succeed means contributing to the evil that surrounds him. By doing 'nothing' he is therefore doing society more good than doing 'something'. Charles' solution is therefore to commit suicide, or at least have a friend do it for him. No life is better than bad life and bad is what the human species is according to the director. We cannot solve the problem if we are part of the problem. Bresson seems to suggest that his death will be followed (should be followed?) by all our deaths in a future completely void of hope.
At the time Bresson's point of view seemed hugely impressive and when the film won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival that year Rainer Werner Fassbinder no less stood up and declared: "Robert Bresson's Le Diable Probablement...is the most shattering film I've seen this Berlin Festival. I think it's a major film [...]. In the future - and this world will probably last for another few thousand years - this film will be more important than all the rubbish which is now considered important but which never really goes deep enough. The questions Bresson asks will never be unimportant". That may well be true, but the message conveyed in the film is one that has been repeated many times over since (sometimes more skillfully) so as to make it seem a cliché. Looking back with hindsight, viewers now will recognize the importance of the message, but will be bored by its repetitious attacks on familiar targets, especially when the attitude Bresson adopts (reinforced by his usual dour mise-en-scène, use of amateur 'models' who are forced to look expressionless throughout, avoidance of humor, and disregard of any hope whatsoever) remains so resolutely misanthropic. As I have stated in my other Bresson reviews I am a huge admirer of his and find even his other bleak color films (especially Lancelot du Lac and L'Argent ) to be masterpieces. This one however just doesn't do it for me. I don't mind the director's anti-commercial stance, a stance which suited him well down the years, but in The Devil, Probably he states his grim case with implacable force in a direct even simplistic manner which smacks to me of propaganda. Unlike his other color films which force us to think deeply and interact with the texts in a meaningful way, this one leaves no room for that so that we feel goaded into supporting its dogmatic left-wing agenda. Whether we agree or not, basically speaking I do not like being told how to think and I'm sure I'm not the only one.
Bresson devotees will find plenty of the usual compensations in this film. The film's conclusion is telegraphed at the beginning as per usual telling us the fate towards which the main character is headed. Narrative tension is sacrificed so as to focus us on the reasons (the process) rather than the result. Bresson time and again points his camera into empty square spaces (usually door frames, stairways and vacant rooms) into which characters enter as if predicting a program which has already been mapped out. Grace may have disappeared from the film, but the characters still echo the Catholic predestinarian Jansenism which was always Bresson's main reference point. With cameraman Pasqualino De Santis Bresson continues pointing his camera downwards, catching characters' legs and hands rather than faces - again 'process' is more important than result. There is also the usual disregard for psychological character motivation. We don't know why Charles moves from woman to woman or why he elects to help a drug addict. We don't know why Alberte leaves Michel for Charles, much less why she returns to him. These are all narrative questions of zero importance to the director, intent as he is on showing us that it doesn't matter what the characters say or do, their destiny will be no different. Coming to this film from the very best of Bresson (which I take to be Diary of a Country Priest , A Man Escaped , Pickpocket , Au hasard Balthazar  and Mouchette ) we recognize the film language at once, but realize the sympathy amply shown for characters in those films is absent here. Finally the film constitutes an end-game not only for the characters, but for the whole of western civilization as well, a civilization which Bresson sees as fundamentally doomed. This is not a scenario that anyone can feel comfortable with. That may be the point, but the film's one-dimensional misanthropic harangue is a million miles away from the subtlety of his best work.
Artificial Eye's presentation here is good, the pictures (aspect ratio 4:3 - 1.33:1) sharp and the sound (Dolby Digital Mono) clear. As with most of their Bresson releases there are no extras, a disappointment when the film itself is short (95 minutes). Perhaps a commentary and an intelligent documentary would make the film more interesting. Frankly though, this is a film for Bresson enthusiasts only. For others its appeal is rather hard to gauge. Perhaps some people will trust Fassbinder's judgement over mine. You'll have to buy it and find out for yourself, or perhaps you could test watch it on YouTube first.