The Devil, Probably (1977)
Directed by Robert Bresson
Like the director’s other late works, The Devil, Probably has a pessimism that’s so rare in movies that it’s startling when you see it so sincerely articulated. A suspicion that life is pointless or even evil remains a taboo mindset, but it’s how Charles (Antoine Monnier) feels, and Bresson finds little fault with his deductions. Charles attempts to embrace life in various ways, but his sexual relationships leave him unmoved (or vomiting water after trying to drown himself), and his dips into political resistance only irritate him—at one rally, he declares the yawping emcee and the echoing attendees idiots, “every last one of them.” Sweets are no balm—given a box of chocolates by one girl, he only re-gifts it to another, and it ends up frisbee’d out a window and squashed in the street. Attempting to replicate transporting holy grandeur, Charles sleeps in Notre Dame with Monteverdi playing on his portable record player, but his acquaintance Valentin (Nicolas Deguy) starts cracking open donation boxes for drug money, then the cops show up.
Charles does have friends. He is seeing two women, Alberte (Tina Irissari) and Edwige (Laetitia Carcano), friends themselves, and their concern for his accelerating life-disgust is genuine and touching. Alberte is the former girlfriend of another chum, the unibrowed eco-activist Michel (Henri de Maublanc), who tells Charles that even a meaningless life is worth living simply “for the life force”; reason and intelligence don’t factor. Charles agrees to see a psychiatrist, but it only results in Charles articulating his stance and further convincing himself he’s in the right. (The doctor also unwittingly advises his patient how to kill himself—like the Romans). Charles tells the aloof doctor that he’s suicidal because he “sees things too clearly,” and he can’t get past the conundrum that doing anything positive or forward-propelling in his life, in this world which he despises, would be a criminal act antithetical to his intuitive and in fact passionate sense of virtue. Charles, a calculus prodigy, says he’s not depressed, as the doctor diagnoses, he only hates his options: “I don’t want to be forced to give up wanting, to replace my true desires with false ones based on statistics, surveys, formulae, ultra-stupid American-Russian scientific calculations.”
In the list of suicidal Bresson characters, Charles is the brashest and least immediately sympathetic entrant, more contemptuously Hamlet-like than the more pathetic, martyred Mouchette or Dominque Sanda’s femme douce. But Bresson, consistently empathetic with the suicides in his films despite his devout Catholicism, presents a world surrounding Charles that largely validates his revulsion. His friends sit around a desk watching reels of environmental horror, blankly commenting on the effects of rampant pollution, food toxicity and baby seal clubbing (we see them too). Airing grievances at a church meeting, one female sneers at the idea of religion, as practiced in 70s Paris with its “inane” hymns and stale verses, as a worthwhile source of inspiration. “God doesn’t reveal Himself through mediocrity,” she says, wincing at blurts and bleats emitting from the pipe organ being tuned. The statement doubles as a combative thesis statement for Bresson, whose filmography is mediocrity-free and spiritually alive with the presence of God, always hidden.
While it’s risky to apply characters’ views to the writer/director, Bresson does endorse their angry arrogance. The film’s style is so clear and assured, that it seems “perfectly aware” of its “own superiority,” per Charles. When the bookseller/writer (Geoffroy Gaussen) notes the acceleration of the “process of psychological disintegration” aided by “books, films and drugs,” you know that The Devil, Probably is an exception, or an indictment. The film attacks quietly—Lancelot of the Lake scorer and Bertrand Tavernier collaborator Philippe Sarda’s music only dresses the edges of the ambient sound, and the effect is post-apocalyptic. When a bus driver crashes, he simply abandons his vehicle. At an acoustic jam circle, Charles lifts his gun from a seeming peace activist, but why did the guy have a bag of guns?
Opens April 20 at BAM