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  • 18
  • Drama
  • 1977
  • 93 mins

The Devil, Probably

The Devil, Probably

Synopsis

Robert Bresson's penultimate feature examines the nihilism that drives a young man to suicide

About

"Don't you get pleasure from non-action?" asks psychoanalyst Dr Mime (Hanrion) of the feckless, death-fixated young man before him. "Yes," replies Charles (Monnier), "but the pleasure of despair, obviously."

Obviously. This exchange reveals a lot about Robert Bresson's penultimate film The Devil, Probably. It is not just the heavy-handed dialogue, where everyone seems to talk only in BIG THEMES (even the anonymous passengers on a French omnibus offer a stylised dialectical chorus), but also the fact that the film, much like its protagonist, is full of inaction and self-indulgent despair.

With his long hair, dreamy eyes and general indolence, Charles is a slacker avant la lettre - but his arrogance, self-absorption, and glib way with words reduce even his sometime girlfriend Edwige (Carcano) to declaring early on, "You bore me to tears." That Bresson included this line suggests his own ambivalence about his protagonist (and perhaps his film too). It is an ambivalence that many viewers will doubtless share - for unlike the main character in Louis Malle's similar Le Feu Follet (1963), Charles is never allowed to engage our sympathy or even understanding.

The Devil, Probably makes no effort to win over the affections of its audience, or indeed to entertain. Pasqualino De Santis' cinematography transforms Paris into a place of bleak alienation, leeched of all feeling or warmth. The film begins, much like Bresson's earlier Une Femme Douce (1969), at its end, with an announcement of the protagonist's death, so that the ending is, from the start, a foregone conclusion with no room for comforting redemption or eleventh hour salvation. Even if the newspaper headlines which open the film show some confusion as to whether Charles committed suicide or was murdered, this hardly serves to generate anything as reassuringly conventional as suspense, insofar as Charles' suicidal tendencies are apparent throughout.

For most of the film, Charles is shown on a quest for something - anything - to shake him out of his ingrained disgust with the world. But everything to which he turns, be it student radicalism, organised religion, the environmentalism of his friend Michel (De Maublanc), casual sex, science, the prospect of marriage to Alberte (Irissari), even psychoanalysis, seems only to "accelerate the process of psychological disintegration already begun" (as one character puts it).

The only quick fix available is the heroin injected by his fellow traveller Valentin (Deguy). There are no developments as such in Bresson's narrative - just a parade of political, social and spiritual ills that are leading one young man (and, more allegorically, humanity itself) to an early grave.

So reserved is Bresson's style that anything resembling a 'cinematic' event (hotel sex, a bus accident) is studiously kept off screen. The one exception is the incident around which the film is organised and towards which it inevitably builds, namely Charles's death - but even here, despite an attempt on Charles's part to fashion his final moments into something 'sublime', his doom plays itself out with shabbily bathetic understatement.

Near the beginning of The Devil, Probably, an unnamed church congregant is heard asserting, "You have to evolve, move with the times," to which Valentin responds, "To hell with the times!" Viewed today, Bresson's film shows the error of Valentin's conservatism. For even if the problems it adumbrates (rampant capitalism, environmental degradation, nuclear waste) have lost none of their relevance, the film's artifices and didacticism grate much more now than they would have at the tail end of the French New Wave.

The seriousness of Bresson's intentions and the restraint of his craft are never in question - but Charles's slow drift towards death will inspire in the modern viewer a slightly different kind of ennui from that which afflicts Charles himself.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Nicolas Deguy, Henri de Maublanc, Antoine Monnier, Laelita Carcano, Tina Irissari, Régis Hanrion, Roger Honorat, Geoffroy Gaussen
  • Director: Robert Bresson
  • Writer: Robert Bresson
  • Producer: Stéphane Tchalgadjieff, Daniel Toscan du Plantier
  • Photographer: Pasqualino de Santis
  • Composer: Philippe Sarde

In a nutshell

The Devil, Probably bears all the hallmarks of Bresson's celebrated restraint, but it also shows its age, so failing to engage that, like its protagonist, you too will (probably) find yourself just wanting it to end.

by Anton Bitel

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