The Devil, Probably Review
Even by Robert Bresson’s own unique standards, The Devil, Probably, coming late in the director’s career, is his most Bressonian. Probably. In his use of non-professional actors as models, blankly reciting the text with minimal acting; in his stripping away of narrative drive and reducing the purpose of the film down to the most essential and unadorned form of expression; displaying no overtly conventional form of technique, yet characteristically demonstrating utterly the identifiable hallmarks of the director; having a subject matter that delves deeply into its characters despair with an apparently cruel, unjust and uncaring world, The Devil Probably drives those ideas and approach just that little bit further. Here, the misery seen in Mouchette, where a young girl is unable to cope with the horror of the cruelty of the life she has been born into, is taken to a global level, questioning how one is to respond when the whole world seems to be a complete mess and beyond hope of redemption. The film is accordingly bleak in the extreme, and Bresson’s attempt to convey this large subject through his film makes it a fascinating if not wholly successful exercise.
Made in 1977, Bresson’s cause for concern in The Devil Probably is remarkably prescient of the issues that would come to forefront of most people’s minds today. Nowadays, it isn’t just students, hippies and members of Greenpeace who are concerned about the threats posed to the environment, by the deforestation, by contamination of rivers and oceans, by the depletion of the ozone layer, by foodcrops sprayed with poisons or with the killing of animals and entire species for profit, but the practical steps that need to take place to correct the damage that has already been done still seems to be almost impossible to achieve. In The Devil Probably it’s a matter of great concern for a group of young idealists, but the manner in which they believe these issues should be confronted is radically different. A member of the Society for the Conservation of Man and his Environment, Michel (Henri de Maublanc) believes that it is their duty to protest, to raise awareness of the issues through pamphlets and sabotage, and if necessary resort to direct action through violence.
Charles (Antoine Monnier) on the other hand rejects what he sees as empty slogans and ineffectual actions. His idealism however is no less impractical, but his personal torment is that he knows this. He despises the society he sees around him and wants no part of it, feeling superior, believing in science and preferring the purity of mathematics. But he is unable to reconcile his beliefs with how one must live. He seeks the sustenance he needs through indulging in unbridled pleasure with women, and there is no shortage of women who are want to get close to this enigmatic, messianic young man. Charles however comes to doubt the love and affection he has both with Edwige (Laetitia Carcano) and Alberte (Tina Irissari), two young acolytes who are torn between Michel’s pragmatism and Charles’ idealism, and the realisation plunges him further into despair, a despair that we know, from the conflicting reports at the start of the film, will lead either to his suicide or his murder.
This rather weighty subject is dealt with appropriate gravity by Bresson, to such an extent that the overbearingly serious tone almost becomes ridiculous. As if the blank intoning and aimless shuffling of the performers isn’t enough, the dialogue is incredibly stiff and preachy, the characters not so much having discussions as throwing pithy pamphlet slogans at each other; “An earth that is ever more populated and ever less habitable”; “Do you know how civilisations end? It’s when stupidity is accelerated”; “It’s the masses who determine events. Obscure forces whose laws are unfathomable”; “Something is driving us that is against our will. You have to go along with it”. And what is this force that is leading us by the nose into destroying the world around us? “The Devil, probably”.
Perhaps surprisingly – and certainly disappointingly to many who look to Bresson’s films for a deeper understanding of the issues that affect our lives - that appears to be the extent of the culpability that Bresson wishes to assign to mankind’s environmental vandalism, and what seems to be the only true and valid response to it is to give in to despair. That’s perhaps not an entirely satisfactory treatment of the subject, but how else are we to comprehend the incomprehensible? The relentlessly bleak plod through these considerations across the length of the The Devil, Probably could certainly lead many viewers to contemplate Charles’ actions as a valid response, but - like it or loathe it – that is the strength of Bresson’s treatment. Utterly compelling and fascinating, reduced to almost abstraction, it exerts a tremendous force. It’s a technique that has been harnessed by many great filmmakers – Eugène Green uses Bresson-influenced techniques to depict a similar divide between two young men’s loves and idealism in Toutes Les Nuits and Abbas Kiarostami reduces the despair of the individual with the world further to abstraction in Taste Of Cherry, to name but two films that gain force from the Bressonian method - and in The Devil, Probably, as well as the director’s final film L’Argent we have the chance to see those smaller, individual flaws and torments exposed on a vast scale, and Bresson makes the prospect genuinely terrifying.
The Devil Probably is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a single-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
Presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the transfer here is nothing short of outstanding, and almost flawless. Progressively encoded, the image is stable, clear and unmarked, has perfect colour tones and impressive black levels. There are no noticeable marks or damage on the print and only the barest flicker occasionally, whether through telecine transfer or compression. Even though presented on a single-layer disc, this seems to be more than adequate for the transfer.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track similarly presents the original soundtrack very well indeed. Dialogue, sounds and noises are clear – almost piercing on the scene on the bus when the car horns blare - with little evidence of distortion or background hiss.
English subtitles are provided and are optional. The font is white and can be clearly read at all times.
The only extra feature is a one-page text screen of Bresson’s brief Filmography.
Bresson’s treatment of the subject of the destruction of the environment and its impact on the human psyche would seem to be way ahead of its time in many respects, but the director’s failure to find any effective way to deal with the issue other than through submission to despair may not convince everyone. Stripped completely of hysteria, mannerism and even expression, while heightening the stakes, Bresson almost slips into parody, making the film even more difficult to like, but the incredible force of his dark vision remains. Artificial Eye’s release of The Devil, Probably on a barebones DVD5 disc may seem slight, but the quality of the presentation is outstanding nonetheless.