Classic Corner: The Devil, Probably

The key scene to understanding Robert Bresson’s The Devil, Probably occurs about two-thirds of the way through the picture, when our disillusioned young philosopher Charles (Antoine Monnier) and his activist friend Michel (Henri de Maublanc) are bickering about politics on a crowded city bus. The argument spills over to their fellow passengers, the surly strap-hangers piping up with pithy, pessimistic observations about recent government failures. But in this anxiously edited sequence, Bresson gives the same weight to their commentary as he gives the clunky bus ticketing system and creaky door mechanics. It’s an audiovisual cacophony of pointless conflict and industrial noise, cutting away from angry faces to empty mirrors and encroaching traffic, until finally the driver becomes so distracted that he crashes the bus in a wreck that remains perversely offscreen. It should be noted that this is the only time in the film’s entire 97 minutes that we see Charles crack a smile.

It’s a clever microcosm of the movie’s worldview — or at least the protagonist’s – in which a bunch of disagreeable strangers uncomfortably crammed together, wasting time talking while hurtling towards a catastrophe entirely out of their control. The Devil, Probably starts with a litany of dire statistics about nuclear devastation and harrowing footage of environmental disasters. (Not a great movie to watch with someone who loves baby seals.) Its idealistic young people squabble over the most effective means of protest, getting hung up on petty disagreements about process, the way idealistic young people are wont to do. Charles is having none of it. As far as he’s concerned, the only proper form of protest in the modern world is a rebuke of the entire endeavor. He’s going to kill himself.

The Devil, Probably was initially banned by the French government for fears it could be an incitement to teenage suicide. It screened exactly once at the New York Film Festival in 1977, then wasn’t shown again in the U.S. until it was rereleased in 1995. I suppose it is, indeed, a dangerous film – dangerous in ways that movies with ideas can bump up against conventional wisdom and unsettle audiences looking for easy, feel-good bromides. (This was the summer of Star Wars, after all.) Bresson was 76 years old when he made the picture. An art cinema legend for austere Catholic allegories like Mouchette and Au Hasard Batlthazar, the director had previously worked in such a timeless, literary tradition I can’t imagine how jarring it must have been to see him make a color film set in present day Paris. (Probably like seeing Fellini and Marcello adrift among 1980s feminists in City of Women, or those bizarrely unpleasant ‘70s movies in which John Wayne tried to play a contemporary cop.)

Bresson famously refused to work with actors, instead hiring first time performers he called “models” and running them through take after take until all their affectations and energy had been forcibly worn away. His “models” were mostly young and beautiful. They look like figures out of religious paintings, positioned in carefully composed still frames. (Monnier, who plays Charles, is the great-grandson of Henri Matisse and resembles an androgynously handsome bird.) Bresson did not believe in guiding our emotions with a musical score, and shot exclusively with a 50mm lens because it’s the closest to how the human eye perceives things. This lack of adornment, plus the somnambulant performances, leave a lot of audiences out in the cold. But if you find your way onto Bresson’s frequency, his films can feel like they’ve transcended cinema’s inherent artifice and found a purer, more exaltedly spiritual mode of storytelling. There’s a reason Paul Schrader has made an entire career out of remaking Pickpocket and Diary of a Country Priest. There’s also a reason Bresson’s most beloved movie stars a donkey. 

The title alone should tip you off that The Devil, Probably is his most blasphemous picture. An early, earnest church discussion is drowned out by bleats of the maintenance man cleaning the pipe organ and running a vacuum cleaner, while one of Charles’ girlfriends surreptitiously slips dirty pictures into the prayer books. The protagonist tries in vain to be a libertine, attempting to lose himself, like so many others around him have, in sex, drugs and music. But his fundamental despair is unresolvable. What I think worried the French censors is that there’s nothing hysterical or self-pitying about Charles’ suicidal ideation. The act is not a reaction to the world around him so much as a level rejection of it. The ultimate refusal. I believe this is why no less an authority on the subject than Richard Hell called The Devil, Probably “the most punk movie ever made,” marveling at how a septuagenarian on the other side of the world knew exactly what he meant when he wrote “Blank Generation.” (Both came out in 1977, curiously enough.)

I saw The Devil, Probably for the first time almost a decade ago, during a period when I wasn’t doing particularly well. To say that the movie spoke to me back then would be an understatement, and in my mind I’d remembered it as being much funnier than it seems to me today. (Though I maintain it still might be the most comedic of Bresson’s films, the tragedy tempered by a healthy awareness of Charles’ fundamental ridiculousness.) Maybe now that I’m eight years older and sadder, I just don’t find these things as amusing as I used to. But I can still respect the rigor of the argument, the austerity of Bresson’s filmmaking and the unwavering, cross-generational appeal of what another rocker once described as “a denial, a denial, a denial.” 

“The Devil, Probably” is streaming on the Criterion Channel.

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