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I just saw this film and found it to be one of the best depictions of this
century's malaise I've ever seen, viewed through the eyes of the character
Charles and his friends.
Charles is a nucleus of concern for his friends Micheal, Alberte, and Edwige. They devote much of their time doting on him and worrying over him, because he cannot find solace in anything...consumerism, environmental destruction, and greed have created a vacuum of disillusionment that these young characters live in, and Charles, above all, sees no way out--he finds this world disgusting, but dying to escape it just as pointless as trying to succeed in it and contribute to it.
Every scene and shot in this film is drained of warmth and vitality. It is as though everyone in the world has succumbed to the acceptance of industrialized mechanization and their own resulting powerlessness. Many shots do not even show the faces of people, just their anonymous bodies walking, their heads cut off. The acting is deliberately minimal and understated. In this drained world, there is never a glimmer of hope depicted for anyone.
But this isn't bad! What makes this film so great, in essence what I think makes much of Bresson's work so powerful, is its simple willingness to show things as they really are. While the others in the film cling to naive hopes for a "revolution," Charles has crossed over to an existential enlightenment of sorts...he fully sees that overthrowing the government or any challenge to authority is useless when it is all of humanity itself that guides and allows for the persistance of a destructive status quo. As he tells the psychologist: "My only problem is that I see too clearly."
And that is a problem, if one doesn't have any means for spiritual sustenance or some way to move on from there...and many people don't. Le Diable probablement makes it clear that for some, there are no institutions, no places in society to ultimately gather strength or support from. Giving up is their only option. As in his film Mouchette, Bresson depicts just this type of person as acheiving almost a state of grace in their refusal to accept what they are expected to accept...and paying the ultimate price for it. While suicide should never be celebrated, the beauty and clarity of the depiction of the mechanisms that lead to the character's suicide in Bresson's films is to be applauded.
"For myself, there is something which makes suicide possible - not even
possible but absolutely necessary: it is the vision of the void, the feeling
of void which is impossible to bear."- Robert Bresson
Robert Bresson's The Devil, Probably, is a powerful cry of despair aimed at a world without values. In this 1977 film Charles, (Antoine Monnier) a young man of about twenty, rebels against society's destruction of the planet and arranges his own death as a protest. What does he want? "I ask nothing", he says, " I lay claim to nothing If I did anything, then I'd be useful in a world that disgusts me". Bresson describes his work as "a film about the evils of money, a source of great evil in the world whether for unnecessary armaments or the senseless pollution of the environment." The title comes from a scene on a bus when Charles says to his travelling companion that "Governments are shortsighted," and other passengers join in the discussion. One says not to blame governments, "it's the masses who determine events. Someone asks, "So who is it that makes a mockery of humanity? Who's leading us by the nose?" And the first passenger replies with unmistakable irony, "The Devil, probably," and then the bus crashes amidst the cacophony of honking horns.
The film begins and ends in darkness and light is meager throughout. One is not used to color in a Bresson film but here color is almost non-existent and Paris has never looked colder or bleaker. After an illuminated boat pierces the darkness and drifts along the Seine, two newspaper articles are flashed on the screen. Eliminating any suspense, the newspapers announce the death of a young man in Paris, one article says it is a suicide, the other a murder. We then go back six months. The main protagonist, Charles, joins his friends in a meeting about the environment. All of them watch videos of man polluting the environment and scenes of nuclear destruction. They play bongo drums and talk about religion but to no apparent purpose. Each scene is brief and does not last long enough to involve us emotionally.
Charles looks like a typical College student but has the air of insufferable superiority that can only come through righteousness. Physically, he is slender and quite handsome and one does not expect to see an attractive actor as the lead in a Bresson film. He has a nucleus of friends, Michel, Alberte, Eddwige who are concerned about him but he gives little in return, showing no outward emotion and all seem to move about in a catatonic state. Concerned about where Charles seems to be headed, his friends arrange for him to visit a psychiatrist but he tells Dr. Mime (Regis Hanrion) that his problem is only that he "sees things too clearly". He reads from a crumpled brochure in his pocket, telling the doctor what he would lose if he lost his life: family planning, package holidays, cultural, sporting, linguistic, the cultivated man's library, all sports sickness, credit cards, and so forth. The young man says that he is not depressed, that he just wants "the right to be myself. Not to be forced to give up wanting more . . . to replace true desires with false ones based on statistics". In a moment of humor rare for Bresson, the doctor tells Charles that it if he was spanked as a child it is possibly the cause of his feeling crushed by society and asks him, "When it's over, do you see yourself as a martyr?" The reply: "Only an amateur."
On his way to his ultimate protest, the young man hears the sound of a sublime Mozart piano concerto coming from an open window. He stops to listen as if trying to find the source of grace but is denied. When he sees that the music is only coming from a television set, he continues his journey to its inevitable conclusion. The climax, unlike other Bresson films that engender a feeling of spiritual lightness, left me uninvolved, more depressed than moved. When Charles begins to talk about his lack of sublime feelings, he is stopped suddenly in the middle of a sentence, unable to explain to the world why he thinks he has run out of options. In the end he gets to be right dead right. His death, however voluptuous, does not clean up any toxic waste, save the felling of a single tree, or protect the life of one baby seal.
I just saw Le Diable Probablement this evening, and I really enjoyed it.
While some may criticize the film, I thought it to be an extremely creative
look into the psychological circumstances of the film's protagonist Charles.
The film was striking in what it doesn't express. The catatonic nature of all the characters is what gives the film its vitality. The sparse and unemotional dialogue, the bland atmosphere, and the visual depictions of the characters themselves capture an emotion quite lost in modern day cinema.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
(WARNING: This review contains spoilers)
Was Bresson a 'materialist' or a 'transcendentalist'? For those new to Bresson this might seem a reasonable question-and it still is, to a point. Like it or not, Paul Schrader's theory of transcendental style still seems to be floating about out there (despite lofty opposition in Bresson scholarship from Jonathan Rosenbaum and Kent Jones). When I first started studying Bresson, I was immediately driven to two writers: Susan Sontag and Schrader. Why? Probably due to their name-value, and I think that many before me have taken this path as well. Which is a shame. For while the labeling of Bresson's film style as `spiritual' (pace Sontag) or `transcendental' might be suitable for his earlier films, the later ones, including Le diable, probablement, which is expressly secular, 'sensuous,' atheistic and contemporary, defy the applicability of such terms.
A shot of a nude Michel getting out of a tub in Pickpocket would have seemed awkward, even disruptive, yet this is exactly the kind of scenario in which we find Le diable's protagonist, Charles. A question worth asking ourselves is how Bresson has changed as a filmmaker so that he can come to include such an image in one of his films. As one comes to realize that one is being asked to 'look at' and 'feel' the texture of Charles' flesh, one comes to the point of the film-a fascination with surfaces as surfaces, their textures and ultimately their 'penetrability.'
One must recall a key distinction between Le diable and Bresson's best known works-his 'prison cycle': Pickpocket, Un condamne a mort and Le proces de Jeanne d'Arc-and that is that the former is in color. This might seem to be a platitude to some, for color has become an integral (and overlooked) part of film language. It is telling that nowadays the use of black-and-white stock is viewed as an 'artistic statement.' For an artist as careful and rigorous as Bresson, who began making black-and-white films, the use of color was the reverse-it is not coincidental that all of his films after and including Une femme douce (save Lancelot du lac) are set in the modern city. The use of color renders the image more complex, opaque; the eye has more difficulty attaching itself to one object in particular (the 'surroundings' captured in the frame become just as interesting as the central figure(s)). It would seem, then, that as Bresson sought to depict the toils of the individual in contemporary urbanity, he also became more interested in the environment that surrounds the individual.
This preoccupation with surfaces leads, in Le diable, to an investigation of their penetrability. To what degree are surfaces-images, sounds, persons, characters-seductive? While 'surfaces' can make us feel and react, to what extent do they truly convey meaning? Charles, it would seem, is impenetrable to the tools of excavation available to moderns (that is, to the friends, professionals that surround him), and as such, he is an emblem of Bresson's explicit refusal to acquiesce to our modern preoccupation with penetrating surfaces and extracting meaning. Bresson stops us at the surface of the film and denies access to a comfortable interpretive stance. 'Who is Charles?' and 'why is he so miserable?', the other characters ask. And this is a telling point.
In Le diable, many questions are asked (about Charles and the many problems, environmental, political, that afflict the world), many theories and answers proposed. Yet none are sufficient. This is a film in which Bresson denies the importance, efficiency, and even validity of discourse. Charles is confused, and this confusion is either spawned or enhanced by trivial, quasi-academic discourse. And so, to avoid contact with discourse, Charles rushes to pleasures of the flesh to remind himself that he is still human. Since he cannot locate the source of his angst and disenchantment by way of exchanges with others, he retreats into himself, making up his own social rules as he goes and snubbing those already in place. Charles is a young contrarian without a purpose, thus his singular pursuit of Eros. The perspective the viewer has of this pursuit is external and fragmentary; one 'sees' Charles and his episodic wanderings, yet one does not participate.
To paraphrase Keith Reader, Charles is the most unsympathetic of Bresson's protagonists. His point of view is cold, illogical, unfamiliar, and unprogressive. The film presents itself as a death-march, yet the final moment seems arbitrary-it just so happens that this time he succeeds (he attempts to take his life a few times prior to the film's 'climax'). In the end, Charles is an elusive character; we are unable to figure out his complexities. As a result, the characters with whom we identify are Charles' friends, who at different points employ various methods to either dissect him, or engage him and inject purpose or passion into his existence (Edwige and Alberte are not battling themselves for his affection, they are battling Charles, who displays varying degrees of indifference to both, unlike Pickpocket's Michel, who is 'saved' by his affection for Jeanne and hers for him).
Bresson, in showing the world and its surfaces as dazzling (or at least attention-grabbing), restricts the viewer's connection to the film to the realm of the purely visual and auditory, denying ultimate access in the form of narrative engagement or understanding. Naturally, this makes the film a challenge to watch. But the experience is not unrewarding. The film is, among other things, a healthy reminder of the limits of film as a medium of communication that works toward social amelioration. One should recall that Le diable was released in the aftermath of the failed revolution(s) of the late 60s, and works very much to capture the vacuity left in the wake. Some have compared early Bresson to Pascale, in his worldview and fragmentary style. I would compare the Bresson of Le diable to Emile Cioran, who wrote in fragments that were consumed by a stinging pessimism.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Isn't there a limit to doing nothing?" Michel (The Devil, Probably)
"Sometimes, doing nothing is the most violent thing to do." Zizek
Robert Bresson's "The Devil, Possibly" opens on a newspaper headline which informs us that Charles, the young son of a wealthy property developer, has committed suicide. The film then proceeds to document the key moments leading up to Charles' death.
At first glance, "Devil" doesn't resemble Bresson's previous film. Early portions, in which French radicals rage against capitalism, scream mid career Godard. Gradually, though, Bresson's personality appears. If "A Man Escaped" was about rejecting a passive acceptance of God in favour for action and self-actualisation, its caged hero struggling to latch on to a sort of Sartrean "authenticity", then "Devil" posits the opposite. Here, the young Charles, a dejected kid with forlorn eyes, rejects action outright, accepting his own impotency and making the ethical choice to cease participating in a world which he deems abhorrent, which he can no longer support and which he knows cannot be changed through revolution, religion or politics. Committing suicide, in other words, becomes a moral statement, Charles not only the ultimate dropout, but the poster boy for radical non participation.
"Do you get pleasure from non action?" a psychologist asks Charles, hours before his death. "I'm perfectly aware of my superiority," he replies, "but if I did anything, then I'd be useful in a world that disgusts me." It's not only that Charles is crippled by his intelligence, but that he is both unable to find an "outside" of capitalism and is unable to ethically justify operating within it. It then becomes easier for Charles to imagine the end of all life than the end of his political-economic system. A system which, because it consists of an endless Eternal Now, no longer allows for a future.
Charles flirts with resistance at first he hangs out with other disaffected youths and activists but eventually rejects their "shocks to the system" outright. Their subjective outrage to violence and immorality simply blinds them to the objective violence endemic to a socioeconomic order in which they themselves are perpetrators of violence and not just innocent bystanders. Buy a stick of dynamite to hurt the machine, and your dollar fuels the machine.
What Bresson and all great directors were concerned about during this period, was the question of where political and revolutionary agency now lies. Where did the political radicalism, hopefulness and sense of urgency of French youth (and cinema) of the late 1950s and 1960s go? What Bresson finally hits upon is not post 60s political disillusionment and despair, not the rejection of all politics, not the admittance that political engagement turned out to be infinitely more complex than simple Lefts versus Rights, but the need for total fking suicide. This is a form of nihilistic conservatism, but intellectually, and ethically, Charles has no other choice. Ironically, even Charles' suicide is quickly commodified. He thinks techno-capitalism's the devil the invisible hand which guides all things - and yet is forced to pay a friend to help him die (and 200 francs to his psychologist!).
Incidentally, Bresson's film was released at the same time as "Star Wars", one of many "fight the power!" orgasms routinely churned out by Hollywood. Lucas' bombastic climaxes were the kind of thing parodied at the end of Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point". Antonioni's climax was not an attack on consumer culture, as many think, but an attack on a cinema image bank that sells a specific, and desired, violent fantasy; the possibility of an apocalyptic purge. What Antonioni was concerned about was the seductiveness, flatness and perhaps impossibility of a very leftist fantasy.
As "Devil" unfolds, Charles' friends begin to deem him mad. Charles, though, recognises that capitalism requires psychosis. He thus views THEM as being insane; hypocritical apologists who offer nothing but distractions and dilutions and who unwittingly fuel a brutal machine. From here Bresson then splits the film in two, using heavily symbolic scenes and dialogue to examine where exactly, if at all, political agency now lies.
In "Devil's" first half, political agency is shown to reside with the masses; church gatherings, political rallies, bookshops and various group activities. Things then begin to fall apart after a bus scene, in which jaded radicals state that "maybe society is not run by us, but by the devil and other obscure forces". Inexplicably, the driver of the bus then stops and gets off. The point: both their radicalism and their very social order has no leadership, no conscious driving force. Who then controls things? The Devil, probably; the market's invisible, amorphous hands.
From this point onwards, the "group" disappears and Bresson focuses on Charles. Agency and morality now lies solely with the individual, but the only revolutionary action is seen to be suicide. As capitalism has no outside, Charles will remove himself rather than risk support. But this itself is merely a kind of apoptosis or programmed cell death, Charles' self annihilation becoming the very self-defence mechanism of his socioeconomic order; a "suicide switch" which gets rid of all contaminants, individual cell destruction rather than the death of the socioeconomic super-organism itself.
Typical of Bresson, the film is slow, sparse, heavily symbolic and filled with shots of faceless people and anonymous, tired bodies, all of whom have long succumbed. Though much hated, "Devil" has many supporters. Rainer Fassbinder loved the film and threatened to quit the 1977 Berlin film festival unless it won an award (clips of it are included in Fassbinder's "Third Generation"). Musician Richard Hell dubbed "Devil" the "most punk film ever made". Claire Denis, Leos Carax, Nicolas Klotz, Dennis Cooper, Elisabeth Perceval and Olivier Assayas all likewise champion the film heavily.
8.5/10 - Worth two viewings.
Robert Bresson's twelfth feature film depicts a story which is set
during a summer in Paris several years after the historic student
protest which took place in May 1968 in France, and starts off with
images from two newspapers declaring the death of the main character.
However the cause of his death is viewed differently whereas one
newspaper describes it as a suicide and the other as a suicide-murder
plot. Here on out the story moves six months back in time and
introduces the viewers to Charles, a detached existentialist in his
mid-20's interacting in a relationship with Alberte.
The characteristic and disciplined style of French auteur Robert Bresson (1901/1907-1999) is prominent in his second to last film which won the Silver Bear at the 27th Berlin International Film Festival in 1977. The acting (performed by non-professionals) as the filming, is often static and at times it seems like the characters only function is to convey the dialog without any signs of emotion, which is in accordance with the directors view on actors as non-theatrical models. As in his earlier films "A Man Escaped" (1956) and "Pickpocket" (1959) the actors mostly walk through the film following their given destinies and much of the tension comes from the directors use of sudden natural sounds which irrupts the ongoing silence and Close-ups where he focuses on single acts.
"The Devil Probably" is a slow-paced and remarkably minimalistic study of character lightened by sporadic moments of spiritual joy and a socially critical art film engrossed with existentialistic themes.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Robert Bresson was at the age of 70 when he made his 12th feature which
also marked his second last film. The style is pure Bresson for its
dogmatism of ideas and characters. Precise 'mise-en-scene', perfect
development of aesthetics and astonishing construction of state
characterize the stylistics of Bresson. The Devil, Probably is for its
world view one of Bresson's most inconsolable films. It portrays
Parisian youth and its consciousness but at the same brushes many
current topics, such as; pollution, profusion of wood industry,
slaughter of baby seals, the threat of ecological disaster, the decay
of religion and politics, the cruelty of all social institutions and,
the absurdity of consumer society. But as usually in the films by
Bresson the essential battle is being fought inside man - in the zone
of personal emotion, faith and morality.
The protagonist of the film refuses to be a part of this society. He doesn't want to compete in this rat race whose values he seems as absurd. In the middle of materialism and superficial values he tries to find spiritual deliverance from his friends and family - but can't, because they all are already slaves of this society. Eventually his friends suggest him to see a psychiatrist - the culmination of blind appreciation in our world. Thoughts of suicide begin to fill his mind, even that he can't bear the idea of being unable to see, experience and hear - Mozart's music. In the end he understands that any decent action in a corrupt world only reinforces the corruption of it and, intrinsically for a materialistic world he has to buy his own death.
An important observation is that in the development of aesthetics Bresson very rarely moves his camera. He edits and uses montage instead. This is Bressonian aesthetics; perfection of the state and composition. There are several unforgettable images in the film and together they form a spellbinding synthesis - the art of continuity; the film starts with an image where a boat suddenly enters the state and, ends with one where a man exits the state. The minimalism can be seen in both, aesthetics and narrative, and it reinforces the overall distressing atmosphere of the film.
The Devil, Probably has an incredibly pessimistic world view of the destruction of civilization but, at the same, it proves that there still is hope. How else mankind could have made a masterpiece like this? The images we observe force the viewer to think, watch closely and see the beauty in simple things. There is no love, nor hope to save the protagonist as there was in earlier films by Bresson but his unsentimental death will be remembered as the culmination of life and the mystery of it.
During the protagonist's conquest he seems to be failing miserably because there is no spiritual deliverance for him. This is the thesis of the film but, as an atheist, the Christianity of the film didn't bother me at all. The protagonist could just as well be searching for philosophy, for a deeper meaning in life - not necessarily from religion. Even that the title refers to Bresson's Catholicism it can also be read as an allegory. The Devil is the one who pulls the strings and enslaves us in this absurd consumer society. There is something much deeper, something that goes beyond the limitations of religion.
Ecology and other current issues are just part of the frame-story. The film goes much deeper in humanity studying themes, such as; the fragility of materialism, pressure of urban living, soul searching, superficiality and vacancy of modern life. In addition for its pessimistic world view of the destruction of civilization, the film is a remarkable masterpiece which proves that there still is the consciousness of man that will set us free from the chains of materialism and irrationality.
"What prompted me to shoot this film is the waste we have made of
everything. It's this mass civilization in which the human being won't
exist any more. This mad restlessness. This huge demolition undertaking
where we will die where we thought we lived. It's also the astounding
indifference from people in general except some young ones who are more
This is what Robert Bresson declared when his film was released thirty years ago and he surely had good reasons to defend his deeply pessimistic view about the future of the world. It's 1977 and the "thirty-year boom period after World War II" is just over. This golden age of economic, social growth improved many people's lives but also led to grave results like pollution or the nearly extinction of several animal species. Although "le Diable Probablement" was released thirty years ago, the main issues it broaches are still topical ones in 2007 especially with global warming. Could Bresson be a visionary?
Different characters in Bresson's work experienced a cruel, ruthless world, either it is a priest (Journal d'UN Curé De Campagne, 1951), a donkey (Au Hasard Balthazar, 1966) or a little girl (Mouchette, 1967). Here, he puts his camera amid a bunch of teenagers in their twenties something who are horrified with man did to the planet. The strongest points of the work take place during the slide shows when they comment on a neutral voice the damage man caused to the environment. These pictures pack a real wallop and it's impossible not to remain indifferent in front of them. They efficiently serve Bresson's purpose.
But why "le Diable Probabalement" is ultimately underwhelming in Bresson's filmography? These scary pictures are well here to bear witness of the "huge demolition" in which we're trapped but the filmmaker doesn't introduce the causes. They are absent, either they're of social or economical source. That's why we are little convinced and indifferent once these images aren't on the screen any more. And what doesn't help matters is that when the camera lingers on Charles and his friends' everyday life or significant events, these issues of pollution, famine, waste of natural resources seem so far from the filmmaker's main lines that our interest progressively wanes. And the thought that this bunch of teenagers doesn't seem to directly live in this horrible world often springs to mind, except maybe once when Charles and Albert go in a forest and not to see and hear the sound of the trees falling down, the former puts his fingers in his ears.
So, Bresson's film is the victim of a large gap between its purpose and its manner to reach it. It should have gained intensity by being more tightened. Of course, it's a "Bressonian" work to the core with an austere, straightforward directing, "models" who recite their texts and the confrontation of subjective minds with an objective, cruel world but "le Diable Probablement" isn't Bresson's most adequate film to see these features blended to create a big harmonious work. On virtually the same topic, the documentary "an Inconvenient Truth" (2006) is more effectively creepy.
In the sequence when Charles is to the analyst's, at one moment he bends over the shrink's desk and can see a drawer full of checks and notes. This detail could be an indication about the next direction taken by Bresson for his next film: "l'Argent" (1983).
This film is so terrible there are no words in the English language to describe it, which must be why it was made in French. In fact, there are only two French words which apply: 'le neant' ('nothingness') and 'merde.' To roll out a few English adjectives just to give an idea: this film is pretentious, revolting, boring, offensive, empty, worthless, pointless, and one could go on like that for some time. The characters are those typical French spoilt brat university students of the 1970s still in the grip of the horrible Jean-Paul Sartre and his phoney existentialism. They search for meaning in a tepid sort of way (inert, more like it), but of course find none. When you start out by being convinced that nothing has any meaning, and then glance around you just in case you might see some lurking in a dusty corner, you are bound to see nothing there but rubbish. It is inconceivable to me what kind of person could possibly praise this film. Two pseud reviewers from leading newspapers are quoted on the DVD box, and one says this film is 'A masterpiece ... A film that is impossible to forget.' Well, try me.
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