Bresson’s second to last film, 1977’s “The Devil Probably,” is easily the most experimental of all of his works. Its loose narrative (an original screenplay written by Bresson himself) borders on aimlessness, and the filmmaker leaves out so many essential plot details that we’re often left confused. It’s also perhaps Bresson’s only film to openly lecture the audience; several scenes clearly and simplistically indict a global economy wreaking environmental havoc on the earth. Opening with conflicting reports of a suicide, ‘Devil’ is one of the more striking examples of Bresson’s preference toward showing the effect before the cause. The film constantly weaves back and forth in time, desperately searching for clues that might explain the encounters we’ve witnessed. And, in the end, we’re left without any answers or enlightenment.
Set in France, nearly a decade after the failed student revolutions of May 1968, ‘Devil’ opens with two newspaper accounts of the death of the main character, Charles (Antoine Monnier). One states that it was a suicide, while another paper alleges a murder-suicide pact. The rest of the 90-minute film is filled with flashbacks to the six months prior to that event, covering seemingly unconnected episodes from Charles’ life. He’s inexplicably suicidal; some of his companions do their best to save him from depression, while others simply try to make money from his despair. His plight mirrors the general malaise of his generation, disillusioned in the aftermath of their failed uprising. They no longer speak of creation, peace, or a new world; they can only speak cynically of destruction, and the ease with which the masses can be manipulated.
“The Devil Probably” is unrelenting, as Bresson himself has admitted, stating, "Of all my films, “The Devil Probably” is the most ghastly. But none of them are despairing." The writing, like the plot, feels unfocused at best and annoyingly didactic at worst. Often I can appreciate Bresson’s penchant for eliminating outcomes as a source of tension by showing us the effects before the cause. He typically crafts a story that creates its own tensions, regardless of the outcome. It’s the burning “hows” and “whys” that give the best of his films their dramatic punch, but ’Devil’s’ confounding plot dilutes focus and conceals the interior beauty so often displayed through his peculiar montages.