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on 15 September 2008
In The Devil Probably (1977) we follow Charles, young and alienated and probably searching for a meaning of life, or maybe he has given up on that. Like other Bresson movies like L'Argent, the actions and intentions of the protagonist is not always totally clear, at least not to me. Bresson does not give us an easy or mainstream story played by mainstream actors. Instead he gives us his vision of the world and society. Here he also uses what he calls "models" insetad of "actors", that is the actors are just to deliver the lines and not really act by displaying emotions and so on.

As I see it, Charles problem is not just as he says: that he sees things too clearly. That is, he sees all the bad stuff in the world and therefore can't find any meaning in anything: environmental pollution, the list of things you "have to do" like raising a family, education, work and so on makes him sick and bored near death. Charles is a slacker in the 1970s, and he refuses to contribute to the society he finds so rotten (but he clearly has no problem using others money). But clearly Charles also has got problems relating to other people. He finds himself "superior" and more intelligent than others (and feelings of "superiority" is a theme in Bressons earlier Pick Pocket). And therefore he don't really care for others, despite his idealism with books about "saving the planet". The other characters are more caring about each other - and for Charles. (Maybe Charles is even a sort of fascist?) I won't go into the ending here as it may spoil the experience. This dark movie demands some reflection afterwards.

The DVD from AE has very clear and stable picture. There are no extras, but at a price of 8GBP it is very good value for money.
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on 20 July 2008
Sometimes, the outward manner of a work of art (the "style" or "form") may be incredibly rigorous and intensely stylized, yet the thematic concerns (the "story" or "content") may be wildly disorganized, almost anarchic. It may seem a heresy to say this of Robert Bresson, but after UNE FEMME DOUCE (1969), his concentration on youth and his determined pessimism led him into a series of increasingly fragmented works, perhaps mirroring his fractured sense of the world.

THE DEVIL, PROBABLY is surely one of the most schizoid film in Bresson's career: there are (literally) unleavened chunks of didactic discourse, droning lectures over immaculately edited stock footage showing atrocities done to animals (baby seals, etc.) and the planet. The "message" isn't even subtle: Bresson wants to clobber his viewer with his vision of a planet gone beyond redemption, now in the throes of degradation and destruction. Yet Bresson lingers over his youthful protagonists, in their (deliberately) blank ambiguity (innocence? inexperience?), and he allows the camera to catch them in moments which come perilously close to emotion.

The fracture in the movie's structure is symptomatic of what seems to be an almost hysterical need to make a statement on Bresson's part (and he was never known for didacticism before). Yet, as photographed by Pasqualino De Santis, this is one of Bresson's most seductively tacticle works, with the lighting seeming to irradiate most of the scenes.

The late 1960s and early 1970s seemed to be a time when many in the French cinema were driven to make apocalyptic fantasies: Godard with ALPHAVILLE and WEEKEND, Truffaut with FAHRENHEIT 451, Louis Malle with BLACK MOON, Alain Resnais with JE T'AIME JE T'AIME, even Jacques Demy with THE PIED PIPER. But Bresson didn't turn towards science fiction for his apocalypse: he turned to science fact, and let the facts speak for themselves to come up with this vision of hell on earth.
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on 11 May 2008
Robert Bresson is probably upset with the world of the late 70s. During the introduction of the group of activistic Parisian youth, which becomes Bresson's ensemble of the film, problems of the present are scattered at us with direct hits. Environmental issues such as Oil-dumping, seal-extermination, pollution, overpopulation, industrial interest in rain forest as well as the need for modernity in Christianity surrounds our band of outsiders. What frightens me is that these problems and statistics have increased muliple times since then, and left us now, with even more troubled minds. When a teenage girl inserts nude photos inside Church programs and Bible booklets in the Cathedral to provoke disgust, a teenager named Charles with mid-long dark hair, steps up to his group and tells them that this is not respectable. After the opening credits, a newspaper displays Charles' face on the cover, with the headline: "Parisian teenage committed suicide." Only to be replaced by a new coverage: "Parisian teenage murdered". I find Charles, the most interesting figure in the film, and his search for answers for his existence in a decadent world, gets more and more intense. The love of his girlfriend is not enough, stealing money is too accessible and the psychiatrist is avoiding to go deeper into his troubles, because he is above all interested in money. What are the reasons why Charles is giving up on the world? The world through his eyes seems to be both senseless and unbearable. I like how material concern, the focus on success and fame are depicted as enslavement of people, manipulating our way of living and alienating our inner selves. Bresson is very clever at following the same stream of consciousness all the way to the inevitable death of the teenager. The film feels confident as Robert Bresson's next film 'L'Argent' which follows the usage of fake money from unaware teenagers, to the hands of an axe murderer. Both film are searching for something of a soul in society. I think Bresson is less preoccupied with external threats to our existence, which is mere backdrop, than the need for spirituality in the world, which many find in religion. This seemingly hopeless search is what drives the film forward, even if we learn that all misery today can probably be blamed on the devil.
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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 [1983]) 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 [1950], A Man Escaped [1956], Pickpocket [1959], Au hasard Balthazar [1966] and Mouchette [1967]) 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.
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The Devil, Probably has many of the faults of latter Bresson: here he makes no attempt to make his cast of amateurs convince, reducing them to mannequins going lifelessly through the motions of various systems of belief they quickly reject - anarchism, religion, drug addiction, psychiatry. Their very awkwardness (while not as horribly counterproductive as in L'Argent) may be the point, but while it does draw attention to ideas over performance and people, it also keeps you at more than arm's length. Parts of it work - there is a great scene on bus that gives the film its title as the various passengers join in a conversation positing that its not government but the masses who unthinkingly, unknowingly dictate policy - but perhaps more don't, leaving you with a film populated by people who believe in nothing that it's hard to care about or, more importantly, engage with its ideas or its pessimistic worldview. Not exactly a failure, but not exactly a success either.
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VINE VOICEon 17 September 2009
This is Bressonian compression and foreknowledge. We find out about the student who has committed suicide-or was it murder? from newspaper headlines then the film flashes back 3 months to unfold the story in full. So no suspense and the characters and city of Paris have been devitalized.We do get one student showing his friends film of environmental pollution and damage: the clubbing of seals,the despoiliation of the forests,the pollution of the land and oceans.We next see the uselessness of protest,the empty sloganeering and rhetoric of futile revolt. The death of God and the lack of relevance of church hierarchies with the splitting and dilution of religion.A psychiatrist can provide no answers but charges 200 francs.He thinks he sees too clearly.A Jansenist fatalism hangs over the young man and his group of friends.He reaches out to his friends who try to help him or look out for him, he has amoral sex without commitment to the two women in his group. Bresson decries acting and his `models' perform their actions perfunctorily without emotion.This is truly the chronicle of a death foretold in a world without spiritual values.The young anti-hero could be a Christ figure in a Pasolini film.There is a hypnotic,magnetic austerity to this penultimate film of Bresson's which is strangely prescient for our own times.
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The main character in this movie, who is 'more intelligent than the other ones' is confronted with political, psychoanalytical and religious gibberish, the misuse of scientific discoveries for the fabrication of deadly weapons (atomic bombs), economic (unrestrained growth, drugs) and environmental (pesticides) catastrophes, ridiculous police interventions and relational difficulties (real love is impossible).

Faced with a devastating human habitat, the 'hero' of the film can only choose the ultimate solution, in the ancient way.
This movie (a formidable uppercut) should not only be characterized as a masterpiece, but above all, as a very serious wake-up call for all human beings, and, in the first place, for its fundamentally diabolic masters.
For Robert Bresson, man himself is the devil, and not probably. His destructive actions are nothing less than a global planetary suicide.
A must see.
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on 18 November 2014
There is a telling scene near the end of the film when Charles, on his way to Pere-Lachaise to have himself killed, stops in front of an open window listening to Mozart being played on the piano. Then he moves on. And therefore failed to take his last chance of salvation through art.
The fact that we take aesthetic pleasure in watching this film has already opened up an unbridgeable gap between us and Charles. When deep depression takes hold, when all meanings have drained away as in the case of Charles, when aesthetic redemption is nolonger possible, this utterly bleak condition can only be represented as fact. Thus Bresson does not attempt to engage us in the emotional world of Charles (nor any of his other characters). Instead the alienation technique that the director uses is not unlike that of Brecht, where the characters simply deliver their lines rather than act their roles. In a world without meaning what we are given are the mere facts, what we are shown is the heaviness of existence.
The restricted world which Bresson set up in this film is emphasized by the use of the standard lens in close focus. Places and even the outline of the actors are severely cropped. This sense of claustrophobia is further articulated by the slow ritualistic pace of dialogue and action.
Cinematography is superb, the muted palette of colours being consonant with the subject of the film.
Bresson's next and final film "L'Argent" returns to a less austere narrative and visual style. But it is in "The Devil Probably" that finds Bresson at his purist, with its unrelenting slowness and starkness foreshadowing the films of Bela Tarr.
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on 19 May 2015
As a lover of French films I've got to say this is one of the worst films of any nationality I've ever subjected my self to watch.the acting was so wooden that I wouldn't have believed it possible.the whole film was disjointed and eventually in slow motion.all this has to be down to very bad directing.none of the characters had any character.the story line was really none existent other than whether one of the people in had enough intelligence to commit suicide.after appearing in this film or even watching it that option might seem quite reasonable.if my review makes you want to watch this film good luck.
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on 5 December 2009
Though I hesitate to use the archaic language of religion, on some level I saw Charles (this film's protagonist) as the spirit sputtering and fading in inhospitable times. Through him we see a spirit which is loosened from its moorings and exploring. He looks into the possibility of finding a way to live which includes retaining his integrity, but the world will not let him do both and deep down Charles seems to know what the outcome of his search will be before it reaches its conclusion. He is keeping half an eye out for something that is worth his attention and his time - for something that he can invest himself in, for something that will make his life worth living. He encounters, and half heartedly engages with, political activism, spirituality and love. The dialogue that revolves around all of these is somewhat insipid and hollow and I felt as distant and as bored as he seemed to while watching much of the film. It's as though the world in which he attempts to live is a lake polluted by waste burbling out of the pipes of industry, and he simply can't stomach diving into it. So he skirts around the edges of his life vainly seeking fresh water.

Though 'The Devil, Probably' deals with ecological themes, I felt that the real pollution here was to be found in what people were saying. Language swirls through this film like mustard gas. What these people were saying often sounded intelligent enough but on closer examination was in fact rather empty, and morally bankrupt in particular. Whether it came from the mouths of the members of a Marxist political group, who Charlie dismisses as idiots. Or the pages of a crass 'lifestyle' magazine which seems to map out a future for him that he detests. Or from his mathematics lecturers who are smart enough to understand nuclear physics but allow their efforts to fall into the hands of people who will use them to build ever more spectacular ways of blowing people up. Or members of the clergy who listlessly go through the motions of promoting a God who even they don't seem to believe in anymore. Or from Charles himself, who talks about his own supposed superiority and steals from grocery stores as well as stealing his friends girl without remorse. My favorite example of this semantic pollution came from a psychoanalyst who offers words of wisdom such as: "Do you know that the feeling of being crushed by the society that you live in might well be the result of that spanking you got a a child? That, together with the painful dream of being murdered for a good cause, would point to the development of psychomotor symptoms and explain the root of your disgust and your wish to die." This kind of Orwellian language conceals more than it than reveals and has an aura of authority while at the same time managing to be misleading or meaningless. Perhaps Robert Bresson would agree with the Taoist notion that: those who don't know say and those who don't say know.

Given this films themes, you would expect it to be full of anguish but it isn't and this is problematic. All of Bresson's characters seem to react and interact primarily with their intellects rather than with any kind of passion and they seem to be half in the land of the living and half in the land of the dead. I'm reminded of Descartes words: 'Without the passions, the soul would have no grounds whatever to remain joined to the body.' I suppose that the impassivity could be seen as a Buddha-like lack of attachment, or as a comment on the film maker or artist as watchful bystander, or as an antidote to the way in which much of contemporary culture bypasses our intellect and appeals directly to our baser emotions, but its an approach that makes Bresson's films difficult to engage with. Charlie does sometimes show an acute sensitivity at least - while he waits in a car and trees are being cut down with chainsaws around him, he can't bear to listen or watch and he puts his hands over his ears. But without passions or even interests to anchor him to the material world he begins to float away like a paper cup in a freezing winter breeze.

The camera is static throughout much of the film and many of the scenes would make excellent photographs. The sense of stasis is also highlighted (by way of contrast) in a sequence in which Charles catches a fish and he and his friends are delighted by its spirited struggle for survival. The police arrive to enforce a no bathing rule and Charles and company hide in the long grass by the riverbank. In a rare playful moment they play hide and seek with a policeman but the fun can't last in '...a world where egos are measured with tabloids, where automobiles double for morals, where beliefs are like naps - you leave them behind when somebody touches you and in a place where oil always takes precedence over life...' as Anis Mojgani put it in a poem.

Like most people, Charlie's friends are more pragmatic than he is and manage to make compromises but he simply can't adjust to such a flawed world. As he ducks out of commitments and enumerates the bitter virtues of doing nothing, the trajectory of his life slowly and inexorably begins to resemble more the Indian proverb: 'It is better to sit down than to stand, it is better to lie down than to sit, but death is the best of all.' Relenting to his friends suggestion he goes to see a psychoanalyst who inadvertently gives him, by example, yet more evidence of the irredeemably vain, superficial and money grabbing nature of contemporary society. Charles tells him that his problem is that he sees too clearly and the analyst offers some clumsy analytic babble in return but he does at least give him a useful tip about how to kill himself. In a way he takes the analysts rather predictable counsel that instead of being concerned with or trying to fix the culture that we share, he should try to fix himself - he does indeed fix himself, once and for all. When his end and the end of the film comes I didn't see the martyrdom of a saint because Charles already seems to be somewhat corrupted, and because he can't beat them his future would seem to be one of joining them or else of despair. To live in despair is to live with a feeling of emptiness and as Bresson said: "...there is something which makes suicide possible - not even possible but absolutely necessary: it is the vision of the void, the feeling of void which is impossible to bear." It's as though he had been set the thankless task of attempting to light a candle underwater.

Perhaps his assessment of his prospects was correct and perhaps he was better off hitting the ejector seat and bailing out of this world before he became something that he hated. But I can't help thinking that the world needs more people like Charles in it, now more than then (in the late 1970's when this film was made) and that perhaps we should consider not sacrificing them to our hollow Gods.

As something of a connoisseur of fine corduroy, I appreciated the fact that so many of this films cast were clad in that noble material.
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