Drama · France

The Devil, Probably (1977)

Robert Bresson, The Sublime Minimalist Part 12

5

The Devil, Probably

1977 // France // Robert Bresson

Suicide has been a looming shadow in Bresson’s works from the very beginning to the end. The thought of it seeps through the mind of the country priest during night of agony; the ambiguous denouement of Marie in Au hasard Balthazar (1966) as “Marie is gone,” and “She’ll never come back again”; Lancelot’s suicidal fight upon losing his adulterous lover; and of course the attempt suicide of Yvon in L’argent (1983) and the actual suicide of Mouchette, and Elle in A Gentle Woman (1969). But only in The Devil, Probably that suicide becomes the devil that continuously overshadows the entire film.

Baudelaire once said, “the devil’s finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist.” But Bresson had no intention of trickery, he presents the post-68 French youth, embodied by the narcissistic, sensitive and suicidal Charles (Antoine Monnier), with the acknowledgment of a decaying world and their alienation with the world they are living. The film opens with two newspaper headlines, informing us the final outcome of Charles, before the flashback to six months ago. But instead of analytically tracing the rationales behind suicide, Bresson offers two forms of correlated detachment, the disengagement of men from society coinciding with the society’s own estrangement from any abiding ethical values, including morality and faith. Wherein suicide becomes the final step of the complete detachment.

The film was banned in France as “incitement to suicide,” perhaps it’s truer to say the film was too bleak and drab in its presentation of “an earth ever more populated and ever less habitable,” as one person commented in the film during a projection of documentary footage. The footage shows the pollution of water and air, the merciless killing of animals (a seal being clubbed to death!), the deformed bodies suffered from accumulated mercury poisoning, the relentless cutting of trees. By crosscutting with the stock footage, a doomed vibe is suffused in the film, thus reinforcing the senseless act of self-destruction in humanity.

What’s wrong with the world, as seen through Charles’s eyes, thereby becomes more persuasive. His opposing reaction to the call of destruction in a political rally, his dispassion in a church gathering about the status of Catholic Church in the contemporary society, his dissatisfaction on the lecture of the nuclear power on the environment and the respective responsibilities, the film illustrates his adolescent angst and pessimism as restrained and austere as any other Bressonian protagonists in suffering. To distract himself from the valueless society, Charles directs his attention to two women. Thinking he is in love with Alberte (Tina Irissari), Charles leaves his former girlfriend Edwige (Laetitia Carcano). Alberte subsequently moves in with him while reassuring Michel (Henri de Maublanc), their mutual friend, that it is really he she loves. They notifies Charles’s suicidal behaviour as they find cyanide in his house, along with a note he has scribbled amid his mathematical exercise: “When will I kill myself, if not now?”

Their intervention, alongside a therapeutic talk between Charles and a psychiatrist (Régis Hanrion), is to no avail. Charles refuses to recognise himself as suicidal, as he hates death as much as living. But he understands his blessing with a superior mind and clarity of vision that he eventually finds a solution by enlisting his drug-addicted friend Valentin (Nicolas Deguy) to kill him with a gun. There is a prolonged scene, calm and ordinary, from the start of their cooperation to the final gun-down in the cemetery which repels any sign of romanticism and heroism in Charles’s action. They buy a gun, ride in the subway, stop at a cafe where only Charles drinks a coffee, get into the cemetery like any ordinary day. Charles, walking at the front with his back to Valentin, receives the shot amidst speaking halfway through.

François Truffaut’s impression that the subject of the film is “the doomed beauty of adolescence.” In still image the film would possibly looks like a film by Jacques Rivette or Jean Eustache. But Charles’s end is far from a gratifying beauty. As during a bus-ride scene of the film, one person asks “who is it that makes a mockery of humanity? Who’s leading us by the nose?,” another man responds, “The devil probably.” Bresson demonstrates the works of a devil, from the pride of humanity to the absence of faith, and how one human eventually escapes from these.

Film Rating: 4/5

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