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Robert Bresson's penultimate film The Devil, Probably sees him reaching the end of his own theories about what a film should do and what it should be. Every Bresson picture is something to contemplate, even if he moves away from narrative and drama on his personal quest for a pure cinema. Bresson wanted to restrict his camera to observing real things as opposed to theatrical constructions -- designed sets, "performing" actors.
Back in 1945 Bresson directed a fascinating drama about a twisted romantic revenge, Les dames du Bois de Boulogne. It is said that from that point on he avoided using professional actors, as their performances interfered with his controlled visuals. This method enhanced the existential quality of a number his pictures: the stories and the people in them are no more 'deeper' than the observable reality around us. The priest in Diary of a Country Priest can only draw so much of our sympathy, as we are forced to observe his external actions without a 'special' insight into his true motivations. Our time with the condemned resistance prisoner in A Man Escaped is limited to his immediate experience, as he dares to break out of a Nazi jail; Bresson has us sharing the prisoner's every breath and thought but has no interest in greater issues, not even what the man will do if he does indeed escape. Pickpocket shares the same intense focus on tiny details, as the title character keeps pushing his luck in his chosen profession. By this time Bresson is directing his non-actors to simply perform motions without added behaviors or personal expression. When the pickpocket sits still and stares, his face is in "neutral". Bresson wants him to just Be and nothing more. Bresson isn't Hitchcock, making sure that his actors aren't upstaging his cutting patterns; he wants the actor to be just an object.
In au hasard Balthazar and Mouchette Bresson's worldview embraces depths of pessimism unseen elsewhere. A pack donkey and an unloved teenager take abuse, suffer and eventually perish in a world cruelly indifferent to the fate of the innocent. Bresson finds beautiful images that sometimes suggest a statement about faith, and seems to break his own rule when classical music offers some comfort to the audience, if not his victims on screen.
By the time of The Devil, Probably Bresson was something of a legend who made movies seen by only the most dedicated followers of film. We follow a small group of students and drifters in Paris, a few years after the political optimism of the strikes of 1968. Longhaired, passive Charles (Antoine Monnier) is an accomplished math student but quits school because he sees no point in living in such an ugly world. With a small group of friends, he attends lectures about the ecological destruction of the planet and its animals. They also talk with a priest, rejecting the church's 'mediocre' fairy tales. They also walk out on a political gathering, sensing the hopelessness of it all. Charles has two girlfriends, one of whom he might marry. Nothing seems to give him a reason to live. Charles's friends send him to a psychiatrist, only for the young man to further express his alienation and refuse to return. Charles seems bent on suicide as the only way out.
Although beautifully photographed by Pasqualino De Santis, The Devil, Probably to me seems the show in which Bresson's style breaks down almost entirely. His pessimism is surely sincere, but his theme of the terrible gulf between the way the world is and the way it could be simply hasn't teeth. Bresson's rejection of dramatics and theatricality had hinted at a more 'true' cinema to be found beneath the surface of conventional filmmaking. All that is revealed here are authors' messages and an empty nihilism that doesn't begin to engage the viewer. It may be pure cinema in Bresson's definition, but I see a film that doesn't begin to engage an audience. What meaning I derived from it is mostly due to a respect for the filmmaker gained elsewhere.
There's nothing trivial about Bresson's messages. The science class is a slide show of ecological atrocities, which are all the more depressing considering how much further the planet's destruction has proceeded in the intervening 35 years. The author's bleak rejection of the value of political activism and church attendance are surely debatable. What one gets from politics or the church depends on what one puts in, and Charles and his friends are unwilling to anything but offer criticism.
What's more evident from the very beginning is that almost nothing in the film works. The 'story' is as inert as the 1970s Film School epics that wanted to express political alienation. The visual that cropped up again and again in our student screenings was a view of an unhappy young person in a blighted urban alley, kicking a can in frustration.
Bresson certainly can't be accused of pandering to his audience. His young non-actors are indeed directed to behave like moving mannequins, showing no personal qualities whatsoever, and saying their lines in a rote monotone. They might be Pod People rehearsing impassioned dialogue. When Charles's friends express concern, their dialogue is an emotional flat-line. Worse, Bresson's script envisions gatherings in which posed actors take turns reciting exposition about ecological crimes or the shortcomings of church policy, with all the conviction of a GPS voice. Removing the 'theatrical' dimension reveals only Bresson's bare screenplay outline, which has all the vitality of a shopping list. When Bresson's actors move about singly or in groups, they often resemble sleepwalkers, or the silent children in The Village of the Damned. They all look as if they're aliens communicating telepathically, and the words are just a front to fool us humans. I'm all for films that communicate in unorthodox styles or that reject complacent narrative conventions. The Devil, Probably rejects the full possibilities of the cinema experience the way its leading character rejects living.
Bresson has not lost the core of his style, which is neither lazy nor arbitrary. We sense the intelligence and sincerity of the man behind the camera even as we wait to hear something new, which never comes. The montages of atomic terror are more graphic than what was expected in 1977 and we're certainly in tune with his observations about the condition of the world. But Bresson's conception of these disconnected (and apparently economically well-fixed) youths drifting about in an existential fog is simply dull. The 'profound' pessimism that Charles preaches is too well studied to have an impact: "To reassure people you only have to deny the facts." If he's such a sage, a prophet of doom, Charles ought to write a book. His response would probably be that that means destroying more trees.
Bresson is also no dilettante; he seems to believe wholeheartedly in this nihilism. When not visiting with panhandlers living on the banks of the Seine, the friends slip dirty photos into church hymnals, as a perverse public service. That's pretty much the full extent of their rebelliousness. Since this kid Charles gets no kick from a free and easy lifestyle, devoted friends and women who want to sleep with him, there isn't much to morn when he does himself in. He's so unwilling to risk anything, that even when he decides on suicide he hires an acquaintance to do the actual deed. Bresson makes sure that this idea was provided by the 'helpful' psychologist.
In one scene several people on a city bus discuss the role of government, in Bresson's zombie-style of line delivery. When one asks who is behind the failure of social structures, another answers "The Devil, probably", just before the bus collides with another car. The scene carries a faint, faint echo of a Bertolt Brecht scene on a bus in the 1932 German anti-Fascist propaganda movie Kuhle Wampe or, Who Owns the World?. The concerned passengers in that old film were emotionally fired up when debating the direction of society. In Bresson's world the game is lost and nothing matters.
Bresson's final film L'Argent is both more bleak and more engaging. He follows the same anti-dramatic filming theory, but puts it to use in a complex and fascinating screenplay. To illustrate the terrible influence of money on human relationships Bresson concocts a horrible chain of events that builds from a single petty theft to atrocious mass murder. L'Argent is cold, cruel and resolutely pessimistic, but it's a fascinating construction. In The Devil, Probably we mainly watch and wait to see how the darn thing turns out. Just the same, some respected critics rate it very highly among his work.
Olive Films' DVD of The Devil, Probably is a beautiful presentation that will be snapped up by Robert Bresson enthusiasts. The color cinematography is in perfect shape, as is the lean audio track that features the music of Philippe Sarde.
Olive's packaging design and menu are attractive. The liner notes stress the film's dark nature while mentioning its awards at the Berlin International Film Festival. Having lived through the early 1970s observing the affluence of Los Angeles mostly from the outside, I found one part of the liner notes amusing: "...a dark story of disaffected French youth in modern Paris: four disillusioned young adults who wander city streets and hole up in tiny apartments while serving witness to society's destruction of the planet." Heck, that's what all of us job-hunting graduates deprived of new cars and weekend ski trips did... while never missing a meal and listening to our records and always feeling slightly superior to the decadent world around us. Free the UCLA 30,000!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Devil, Probably Blu-ray rates:
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