It can be difficult for many viewers, even some of the director’s champions, to reconcile themselves with Robert Bresson’s hard, pessimistic side, and his frequent tendency toward putting his characters through the ringer, only to crush them in the end. It’s as if someone once said to him, “God doesn’t give us more than he can handle,” to which he responded by quietly chuckling and thinking to himself, “Well, I don’t know about that.” Balthazar, Mouchette, Jeanne, the priest of Ambricourt—more often than not in the features he made after 1950 (commonly viewed as the dividing line between the early stuff and when he operated at full power), the men and women whose stories he chose to tell tended to meet with bad ends. Even when the prognosis wasn’t fatal, they might otherwise be broken, heartbroken, bereft, incarcerated, or delivered into a madness and rage so black as to elude salvation. For some, it can be a bit much.
It’s almost as if, in some small way, we’re meant to rage against a creator who (once reclusive and reticent, now departed) will not answer for the horrors he’s wrought. The auteur as a stand-in for God? That’s a little on the nose as interpretations go, but it ought to be self-evident by now that, while viewers don’t need to have capital-F faith in order to appreciate fully the depth and breadth of Bresson’s art, it helps to have, at least, a conceptual knowledge of how faith and belief work, if only as a user’s manual for the films themselves. It’s never so simple that we should submit to Bresson’s often malevolent storytelling tendencies; his work requires vigilant engagement, a resistance to summary.
As it should happen with The Devil, Probably, Bresson’s penultimate masterpiece is also his dizziest curveball, right before he knocked our collective blocks off with L’Argent. After Les Affaires Publiques, this somber film is also Bresson’s most comical, with several brief digressions and asides (amorous encounters in the glen, a box of chocolates tossed into a busy street, Charles’s catalog of insolent gestures), and looks askance at the ill-defined chip on the youthful, maladjusted hero’s shoulder. By way of introduction, Charles (Antoine Monnier) absorbs and rejects at least three different “answers” that are being tossed around a roomful of what might be unkindly referred to as angry hipsters: presumably bourgeois Parisians, none within hailing distance of 30, all of them ready to vault over police barricades and protest nuclear power—at least, if you take them at their word.
The thing is, Bresson does take them at their word, but also seems to spoof, in his dry, dry manner, their insular, piecemeal dissatisfaction, bickering among themselves (as they did in Zabriskie Point) over how best to express said dissatisfactions, and concerning themselves with petty jealousies and trivial power plays. This dual response, hypothetical good faith and caustic ridicule, is most clearly pronounced when the characters watch film strips that comprise a dossier of the sins of the modern age: pollution, deforestation, wholesale slaughter of precious wildlife, and birth defects resulting from careless disposal of hazardous waste. In voiceover, the litany of our heinous acts is read aloud by characters in the fiction, but the horrors depicted in the films-within-the-film are real enough.
When Bresson talked about movies other than the ones he made, it was rare enough as to constitute a major event, like finding out something Chaplin said about Hitchcock, and when he depicted non-Bressonian cinema in one of his movies, it was even rarer. The hilarious crime film that shows up in Four Nights of a Dreamer, coupled with the mind-melting pastoral trifle the characters watch in Une Femme Douce, stand as proof that the movies, by and large, were some kind of alien landscape for Bresson. In The Devil, Probably, surreal movie-ness is cast aside, in favor of a terrifying reality that (by design) downgrades Bresson’s own fiction to an irrational supplement, his characters incapable of adequately responding to what’s actually happening outside their headspace, and outside the screen space.
The Devil, Probably is also surprisingly diffuse for Bresson, though viewers acclimated to the elliptical storytelling in Lancelot du Lac, as well as the dreamy, erotic longueurs in Four Nights of a Dreamer, are less likely to be traumatized by the way Bresson frequently takes leave of Charles, the D’Artagnan-esque youth at the center of the story. First-time viewers will find themselves playing catch-as-catch-can in order to piece together what’s happening, who’s talking about whom, and what kind of chronology we’re dealing with, as the story unfolds. The major movement in the film mirrors Mouchette, in which the tragedy of the world and existence is, finally, too much for the youth to endure. In spite of all the humor and the reduction of the characters relative to the reality they contemplate, this is, at its heart, a grim affair, and Bresson grants us enough latitude to mourn the lost soul of the young boy, Charles.
The ridiculous and the tragic—obverse sides of the same coin that Bresson turns over, and over, from one film to the next. Even in Diary of a Country Priest, there are flickering, fleeting suggestions that the Ambricourt priest’s unyielding piety and eccentric behavior indicates, to some onlookers, a fool. The most astringent test of this theory is L’Argent: Yvon endures trials comparable to that of Job, but his response is the reverse of Job’s, a perversion—going toe to toe with the universe both as the last protest of a soon-to-be-extinguished soul, or the perfect absurdity of a hollowed-out clown, performing an ornate, geometric dance of motive-less mass murder. Charles has none of Yvon’s working-class sobriety, curling his insolent lip at the slightest prompt, covering his ears to the real sounds of logging, acting the desirable cad for a series of trusting girls. (He’d be incapable of carrying around a tape-recording of a girl’s name, as Jacques does in Four Nights of a Dreamer.)
But even as ideas, political avenues, and ideologies pass through Charles like neutrinos, sometimes sticking, sometimes not, he’s the rare tragic figure in Bresson who sees himself as a free agent, even if that’s a delusion. He challenges his friends’ commitments and ideas, but, in doing so, he comes off badly, a know-something-ish twit who might have heard or read something, somewhere. A billion miles from Mouchette, Charles is at the tender, intolerable age where kids know just enough to be aware that a lot of their world is built on bullshit, but they’re clueless as to what, and how much, and so on. A walking swath of flypaper for bad ideas, it seems logical to Bresson that suicide is the most powerful turbine intake for this leaf on the wind; Charles wanders into it first as a lark, indistinguishable from the rest of his lackadaisical impulses, experimenting with drowning in a clawfooted bathtub. Then it’s a dare, its concept taunting him, the warnings of others accentuating the lure of the void. Looming larger than any of the other paths he’s offered, he mistakes it for truth. A fool, but a tragic figure, but a fool, but a tragic figure—two sides of a coin, turning over and over across Bresson’s knuckles, end on end.
It's regrettable that Robert Bresson remains unreleased on Blu-ray in the United States, but Olive's standard-definition transfer is acceptable, if interlaced and unremarkable in terms of color reproduction. The clean, muscular 2.0 sound mix helps.
Bresson's second-to-last film is not his bleakest, but it's probably his most plot-heavy, a droll tragedy about a young womanizer who contemplates, as many Bresson heroes and heroines have done before him, an exit strategy.