Review – THE DEVIL, PROBABLY (“Le diable probablement,” Robert Bresson, 1977, France)

DevilProbablyposterThe works of French cineaste Robert Bresson show an awareness of spirituality. The director himself is quoted as having said that he felt the presence of the devil twice in his life. However, in The Devil, Probably, his ghastliest film, the devil is not restricted to a theological discourse. It is most present, for instance, in the often aggressive scenes of humanity’s environmental and psychological self-destruction. The ending of the movie is predetermined. The Devil, Probably, opens up with newspaper headlines referring to the death of its protagonist Charles, a disenfranchised Parisian youth. The film then cuts back to the events that led up to his suicide and paints a depressing picture of the world at large that encouraged his drastic decision. His suicidal thoughts come to the fore through his behaviour and conversations with friends (and his psychiatrist). His mind seems made up, his self-imposed demise inevitable. People around him are unable to help him, just as they are unable to help their own selves.

The Devil, Probably is essentially undermined by a general sense of helplessness and predestination, which recalls the naturalistic (and pessimistic) works of Emile Zola. This is perhaps most evident in the often cited scene of the movie, during which Charles asks his traveling companion “who is really in charge?” Many of the passengers get involved in the conversation and share their own answer to this question. The driver is distracted and, suddenly, as a result, loses control of his own vehicle, crashing it. Just as significant, is Bresson’s choice in this instance not to look at the scene of the crash, remaining instead fixed at the door of the bus, perhaps in order to avoid looking into another “void,” or the “real” of the situation. Of course, a significant void (and the “real”) is most evident in the film’s use of documentary footage of acts of cruelty and environmental devastation – such as the brutal shots of seal hunts – and talks on television about the construction of new superior weapon of mass destruction. We also find out that Charles’ father is a contractor employed in the destruction of forests. In other words, images and facts concerning the bleakness of the real world seem to succeed one another endlessly.

Occasionally, Bresson chooses to distract our attention from such scenes and focus on romantic intrigues and subplots involving Charles’ friends. The Freudian power-play they portray fits in with the continuation of the theme of helplessness but, also, by depicting these scenes, we are made aware of the world beyond Charles’ own perspective. The Devil, Probably is not totally driven by Charles’ viewpoint. This allows the spectator to be horrified by this crude depiction of the world in their own subjective way. Bresson, whose background was in painting, often talked of himself as a painter but of film as a textual language, and the process of filmmaking as a process of film writing. This may be evinced from the stylistic clarity of his works. For instance, Pasqualino De Santis’ cinematography in The Devil, Probably is quite still and shows no signs of manipulation. Furthermore, there is no music in the soundtrack, placing non-diegetic punctuation in Bresson’s narrative. (It is a type of cine-realism that Bazin would certainly have admired.) This not only detaches the spectator from an inescapable link to the protagonist of the movie, but also from the cinematic clichés in which individual sequences may be viewed as singularly beautiful, sad, pivotal and so on. Very often, individual sequences are charged with multiple emotional and psychological attributes. In one instance, Charles and a junkie friend get high and sneak into a church with a vinyl turntable. Lying on their backs, quietly looking at the roof of the Church, its stained windows, and listening to the notes of the music of Monteverdi bounce off the stone walls, they seem to be enjoying an unexpected heavenly experience. The beauty of the moment is only momentary; it is abruptly ended by his friend’s decision to steal money from the collection boxes, which leads to Charles’ subsequent arrest.

At the time of its release, French authorities threatened to censor The Devil, Probably. According to Brian Price, “the administration assumed that Bresson’s film promoted suicide as a logical response to consumer society whose effects it details so thoroughly.” One may assume that if Charles had been happy to face his own death throughout the film, their response would have been different and more amicable. Instead, Charles himself explains that he does not want to die, but that the idea of living is even more unbearable. 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 a void which is impossible to bear.” This is precisely what The Devil, Probably is about. – ★★★★★

LE DIABLE PROBABLEMENT || 1977, France || Drama || Directed by – Robert Bresson / Produced by – Stéphane Tchalgadjieff / Written by – Robert Bresson / Cinematography by – Pasqualino De Santis / Starring – Antoine Monnier, Tina Irissari, Henri de Maublanc, Laetitia Carcano, Nicolas Deguy, Régis Hanrion / Running time: 95 mins.

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