A review of "The Devil, Probably" by Mireille Latil-Le-Dantec. Originally published in Issue 77, July-August 1977, of Cinématographe. Translation by Ted Fendt. Thanks to Marie-Pierre Duhamel.
"I challenge you all now, all you atheists. With what will you save the world, and where have you found a normal line of progress for it, you men of science, of co-operation, of labour-wage, and all the rest of it?
With credit? What's credit? Where will credit take you? [...] Without recognizing any moral basis except the satisfaction of individual egoism and material necessity! [...] It's a law, that's true; but it's no more normal than the law of destruction, or even self-destruction. [...] Yes, sir, the law of self-destruction and the law of self-preservation are equally strong in humanity! The devil has equal dominion over humanity till the limit of time which we know not. You laugh? You don't believe in the devil? Disbelief in the devil is a French idea, a frivolous idea. Do you know who the devil is? Do you know his name? Without even knowing his name, you laugh at the form of him, following Voltaire's example, at his hoofs, at his tail, at his horns, which you have invented; for the evil spirit is a mighty menacing spirit, but he has not the hoofs and horns you've invented for him."
—The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky
"Conversely, loss of conscience due to the satisfactory liberties granted by an unfree society makes for a happy consciousness which facilitates acceptance of the misdeeds of this society. It is the token of declining autonomy and comprehension. [...] In its most accomplished modes, such as in the artistic oeuvre, sublimation becomes the cognitive power which defeats suppression while bowing to it."
—One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse
Two hands on top of a wall at night. One silhouette followed by a second hoist each other up before jumping to the ground. In A Man Escaped, before they vanish into the shadows, one of the two men embraces the other: "If my mother could see me now!" This departure means freedom, returning to the family of man.
Twenty years later, in The Devil, Probably, almost the same images cruelly reverse the symbolism of escape. The prison Charles is escaping from is a human society that has become unbearable. Freedom is suicide, "the only act where will power still means something." The companion is a mercenary paid to do it for him. A silent, human wreck whose footsteps we hear disappearing into the night once "the thing" is done.
Between these two scenes the trajectory of an oeuvre unfolds that, with each step, we thought had reached the extremity of despair. The dread of suicide runs through it: the country priest's temptation in his night of agony; the imprisoned pickpocket's thoughts ("There was something I hadn't told him yet: why live?"); all this being a sinister prolongation of the mother's sentence in Au hasard Balthazar ("'Marie is gone,' 'Gone?' 'She'll never come back again'"); Marthe's frail, black silhouette overlooking the Seine from the Pont Neuf in Four Nights of a Dreamer; Lancelot's final, almost suicidal fight, having lost Guenièvre; not to mention the actual suicides of Mouchette and the Gentle Woman.
The momentary stir created by the censorship issues during the film's release risk, then, at the film's expense, turning the public's attention towards pointless sociological discussions of the type, "Has Bresson made an accurate portrait of today's youth?" To the people who ask him where he found his new character, Bresson would undoubtedly be inclined to respond, like Dostoevsky in regards to Stavrogin, "I took him from the deep within me." Because through all of his models, he is always talking to us about the same person, fighting with the same oppressive universe, using the same means of expression, probably increasingly purified and concentrated but whose fundamental intuitions are already present in A Man Escaped. A monotony to some maybe, but a monotony marked by genius in the sense of Bachelard describing the universe of E.A. Poe. An impressive monotony commensurate with the famous style that is the man himself.
Because, in the end, this is what all this is about. Why should we care that Bresson, in his turn, is addressing the problems of drug addicted youth, pollution and baby seals while these problems are what nourish the everyday verbal gruel of TV and newspapers? Bresson's big gamble here is, precisely, challenging the devil with his own weapons. Because if, as Baudelaire says, "the devil's finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist," why would we doubt that the favored instrument of this trick is other than which hides it through banalization, the whole multiplication of images that normalize tragedy and emasculate every scandal and every refusal, and all the dossiers and round tables that, by integrating the unnameable into everyday discourse, rationalize it and transform it immediately into a commonplace, a bromide? As all the reflections of someone like Resnais can attest, consciousness of reality means a detour in the imaginary. The oppression of rational discourse can only be fought off by the irrational discourse of art and its force of refusal.
In The Devil, Probably, what is striking about the ecological sequences is that the didacticism we might fear to see weigh down Bresson's usual style is warded off by an emotional reorganization and re-editing of the archival footage that undeniably bear Bresson's stamp. For example, the chilling cry heard off screen – hence not yet identified – followed by the image of a trail of blood on the snow, before the dragged head of a mother seal appears. The muffled noise of the club recalls the blows raining down on Balthazar. The gull in the sticky tar trap, frantically struggling in agony recalls the birds in Mouchette. These are echoed in another sequence by the terrifying snapping of trees being chopped down, sometimes heard while the shadows of the leaves announcing its fall shake on the ground: nature's loud, wordless complaint. But the accelerated editing of the falling trees and their centripetal direction (like the hunting sequence in Mouchette or the archers in Lancelot) creates the impression of being harassed, surrounded and stamped on. This is how Charles feels, conscious of being transformed, if not into paper pulp, at least into a robot by the technological society that prevents him too from being who he is, that "forces [him] to no longer desire," to replace his true desires "with false ones, based on calculated statistics, surveys, formulae, dumbass American-Russian-Scientific classifications." This is how Charles talks to the analyst. But it's inevitable that this ordinary, conceptual language (which, alas, makes up 90% of today's films) appears rather poor in Bresson's film (due to its commonplaceness) in comparison to the implicit, poetic language of the filmic discourse. That's what shapes Charles' universe – while perhaps, moreover, psychoanalyzing Bresson.
Critics often take pleasure in noting that at a certain point, Bresson's characters were headstrong and obstinate. This is a limitation of a psychological type. Better to borrow the biblical expression "man of desire": a desire trained on somewhere else, against the world in which one finds oneself, beset by what philosophy calls "impatience with limits." And, above all, it would be better to read this non-patience, this revolt, less in terms of the subjects than in terms of the limitations of cinematic space and of the "pace" that give each Bresson film the precious irregularity of a heart beat.
Bresson has often expressed his characters' relationship to the world by showing their isolated hands. The man escaped, the pickpocket and the young painter in Four Nights of a Dreamer have something to do. But their hands are engaged in a rigorous, technical effort that is actually the asceticism of a refusal. The man escaped is the single, beautiful example of constructive destruction. He rips, guts and twists the prison's technical apparatus to forge instruments of freedom. It is technology, and therefore rational in appearance, but put in motion by an irrational, subversive force, by a visceral desire for freedom. The negative, gestural asceticism of the pickpocket also subverts the order of things that it refuses because, in any case, "the world is upside down." And Jeanne tells him, "You're not in the real world." As for the young painter in Four Nights, his not being in the world of men is concretized in sensual, solitary contact with the pictorial material he transforms into another world, that of his "dreams."
Charles, however, is a Bressonian character whose hands are beyond revolt or evasion through art. The radicalness of his refusal goes beyond this, into an asceticism of non-doing and its desperate delight. Charles' hands, as if no longer belonging to him, can only be the support of his gaze and offer the refuge of his open palm to a bullet whose slow rocking he contemplates, sitting on the banks of the Seine (a bit like Arnold, in Balthazar, looking at the gun that the thug Gerard puts in his hand). Charles does not act, he watches because he too "is not in the world." He has already taken leave of it, in the simple sentence from The Brothers Karamazov scrawled in his math book: "When will I kill myself, if not now?"
So suicide is written. Written by Bresson as well, as for the Gentle Woman, from the first images. Indifferent to the laws of suspense at a factual level (we know that Fontaine will escape and Joan will be burned), Bresson brings back interrogative emotion at every moment in accordance with a known outcome. We watch the "suicide victim of Père-Lachaise"* with the same powerless agony as the Gentle Woman, and when Charles' finger, on the lit-up subway map, lights up in bloody dots the deadly route, we get the same feeling as in A Gentle Woman when the maid opens the window letting us see the table and when the scarf comes out of the drawer. But this "destiny" does not use any of the symbolism tacked onto the set, the actors and the objects that was made famous by films noirs like Le jour se lève (with the famous alarm clock and cupboard door).
On the contrary, Bresson plays on the paradoxical coexistence of the irreversible (known) and the "maybe still possible" conveyed by the emotion carried by the composition. This is an emotion that postulates the absolute refusal of the usual means of tragedy and that creates another tragedy, all the more stronger because it simply organizes space and time more and more around the character of Charles: arrivals and departures, "repeated absences" that are increasingly worrisome for the friends around him who attempt (like the viewer, but without the certainty in the future) to scrutinize his smooth, still childlike face, barely brightened at times by an ironic smile, where, precisely, the signs of destiny – as is the case in general for people who are actually suicidal – are entirely effaced. No romantic fascination emanates from this anti-hero that critics, always seduced by literary references, are calling a new Werther, while also complaining about his lack of charm. A nonchalant grace in the way he walks around and a particular beauty in Antoine Monnier's features are corrected by hair that dims these features and above all a sometimes unattractive pronunciation. Bresson's stroke of genius with this problem of pronunciation he hadn't initially wanted (Nicolas Deguy, first hired for this role, having been changed – with what extraordinary results – to the character of the drug addict), is to use this obstacle the way Michelangelo used defects in his marble. Charles becomes less attractive but much more interesting in proportion to his opacity.
The only (but important) kinship between Charles and the above quoted Stavrogin is precisely the inexplicable devotion he creates among the little group in which he nonetheless seems to sow misfortune and waste in spite of himself: powerless to choose in a world where choice, anyway, has no more importance; the at least equal powerlessness of others to play the role of saviors and to triumph (like in Pickpocket) over an interior evil foreseen as terrible – an evil that Michel (the eternally faithful friend, believing in the good feelings that inspire Bresson so marvelously in so many films) sees right through: "You want to live as an exceptional being in an exceptional world." But this evil and this asceticism of inertia are the reverse side of a force of searching and refusal. If Lancelot ceases to pursue with his lance what Guenièvre calls his ghosts, he risks suffocating in a shrunken universe.
This shrunken, suffocating, chaotic universe is seen in the first images as it is shaped almost abstractly by the brilliantly discordant elliptical editing of the first sequence, in the form of an absurd inventory: a loud meeting of anarchists, a film projector showing massacred nature; two travel bags coming out of an open door, the sign that a girl is leaving her parents; a Triumph with another girl, carrying the boy with whom the first girl goes away; empty bottles kicked in an attic amidst laughter; an organ revealing the depths of its mechanical guts under the fingers of the tuner, throwing brief notes into an immense nave; a vacuum cleaner vacuuming a red carpet while on chairs while rigid people sitting on chairs talk about religion and, in the back of the church, the girl with the Triumph slides obscene photos into the prayer books...
What does it matter if gauchistes, traditionalists or psychoanalysts recognize this mad world as their own or consider themselves summarily caricatured? The fetishism for verisimilitude is decidedly relentless: defeated in painting, it is far from being so in film.
What is wonderful here is, instead, the creative power from which springs the real world transformed. Clients of the Méridien hotel, do you know how framing and editing can transform a palace into a mousetrap? Playing on the cold inhumanity of sliding windows, on the smooth surface of a metallic elevator door framed so tightly that it reveals what it is only by half-opening its mystery, on the key of a door whose escutcheon wavers, on open and closed closets of a room, signs for vacant and full rooms, Bresson poetically shapes a trap, a new Alphaville, a planet beset by the hell of rationality that love cannot save. Cornered in this trap, like Marie in Au hasard Balthazar, Edwige, who gives herself "for an hour" to an anarchist bookshop employee, challenges him: "What are we waiting for?" and scorns, in the following shot that closes the ellipsis, the "happiness" she has given – "You're not going to cry too?" – while her face, when she looks up, shows a tear.
Young girls' tears and powerless tenderness. In vain, Charles would like to save Edwige, Michel and Alberte, and all three of them would like to save Charles. There is no salvation, the opposite of Pickpocket. No "strange path" can lead to Charles. And Bressonian space expresses this poorly rewarded effort to join together, the perpetual dissatisfaction of the searcher and the agony of the person waiting. Do we really think that the permanence (paroxysmal here) of these stairways where people meet, of these ascending and descending elevators from Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne to Four Nights of a Dreamer, are a purely aesthetic repetition, an affected juggling trick? We are entitled to see, instead, an obsession with ephemeral and missed encounters, with the fundamental instability of all things, with the mysteriously inseparable escape of and desire for the Other. If the theme remains constant, the form is increasingly refined; it suffices to observe the progressive aesthetic tightening of the elevator scene, from the simple, general depiction in Les Dames to today where it seems as if the more the characters are gagged, the more the objects and sounds are brought closer to the eye and ear, offering the imaginary the beautiful provocation of their pure presence: the elevator's moving counterweight and the red button that lights up, revealing the presence we fear or that, on the contrary, escapes us; the door opening wide on the first steps of the staircase, seen from the apartment where Charles is late to arrive; the threshold where, hunted by Alberte, Michel sits down like a faithful dog.
Tender gestures are, then, the only recourse of powerless speech or of the compassion for evil we provoke ourselves and for which we are at once guilty and innocent. In an admirably lit scene following the half-lit shot of a table covered with leftovers, Charles consoles Alberte, whose shoulders are shaking with sobs, by patting her back and drying her eyes with the corner of the tablecloth, as one does for a child. Over rational explanations (which he gradually erases from dialogue that already had very little) and explanations implied through "performance," Bresson always prefers the silent eloquence of a gesture (a shrug, the evasive movement of a hand) and the flash of a glance.
In effect, what good is "explaining" (a word that constantly returns in Bresson's work like an admission of failure)? "I'm going to explain everything," Charles tells Alberte when he comes back from running off. "Don't explain anything," she says. And in the movement of Charles trying to embrace her, the camera "catches" a strangely sad glance, not "explained" by the director to the actress, but captured on the fly in one of those gifts of chance Bresson watches for, digging like a gold hunter in search of a nugget.
Spaces of separation, failure of language, or at least of rational language. With his mastered art of narrative cruelty, Bresson uses parallel editing and the paradoxical help of a phone booth to express in three short shots and two sentences ridicule for communication and the heterogeneity of material and spiritual spaces. While his friends think he is saved, at the same moment the psychoanalyst's intervention (whom Bresson depicts in venomous satire) pushes Charles even more towards his final trajectory. These final paths and steps towards death inspire Bresson's greatest cinematic moments. Through the poignant use of silence and rare noises, through the art of pauses, he is an unequaled musician and poet of despair and unjust death.
Think of the donkey's road to Calvary – Christ pummeled by blows – his pauses, ears perked up to the whistling of bullets in the night, his sudden departure, then his immobility at the sunset pierced by bird songs before the final image. Think of the concerto for milk pail by Mouchette, harassed by the villagers, stopping to look for one last sign of life from a peasant who doesn't see her, then the horror of the first three "attempts" before the goal is reached. Of the Gentle Woman, impenetrable, alone in her room and her own road to Calvary near the dresser, then at the edge of the bed, back to the viewer. Of Lancelot's stumbling progression before his cry of love and revolt and his collapse on the pile of his dead companions.
In The Devil, Probably, never has tragedy been as strongly expressed through total de-dramatization. Only the squeaking of treading rubber fills the silence of a back staircase, nothing appears on Charles' face; no words, or almost none, are exchanged with his executioner, who longs for his bed. The night is only filled with car noises and pedestrian footsteps. The recreated world of night time Paris, the banal world of the subway where the uncut shot from one station to another without any words between the two young people acquires an unbearable density. An anonymous hand serving cognac in a closed café would be one final contact with life if Charles didn't stop for a moment before an unknown window out of which filters the gentleness of a few piano notes. It is the only concession to tenderness through an alibi of realism in a finale of utmost toughness, by Bresson who solemnly banished music in the form of authorial intrusion as the Magnificat in Mouchette was. We cannot complain then about any "spiritual recuperation" by an author with such a rigorous point of view. But the sacred nevertheless returns as an absence, a nostalgia, in a manner at once strong and subtle as a distant rhyme. The face of Charles, lying on his back, hair unkempt, now has (like the Gentle Woman) the calm beauty of a recumbent statue. It is the echo of the shot where he is sleeping in the empty church to the sound of the Song of Songs (a magnificent, unfinished choral piece by Monteverdi, "Ego dormio, cor meum vigilat" – "I sleep but my heart is awake"). The words of the psalm Bresson chooses to have clearly heard rise to the ceiling (while Valentin pours on the stone floor the coins he stole from the collection boxes), what are they? "Immaculata mea columba": my immaculate dove.
Nostalgia for a stainless nature, for an ocean without oil-tankers, for a love freed from the violence of desire. As happens in the work of the greats, the hero's adventure intersects with the author's creative adventure. As the swan and the azur haunt Mallarmé's vocabulary, this nostalgia for a purity that constantly out of reach is Bresson's own in his exhausting and never satisfied search. Removing the coating, pruning away the too much at the risk of the too little. Agony of the choice (Edwige or Alberte) associating the commendable endurance and faithfulness of the crew in search of the One Thing Necessary. Refusal to put two strokes where one is enough, preferring over drawing with a stump and nuance, the arc that is seeking the same precision, the same economy and the same beauty as the brush of a Japanese artist.
Purity of the light which avoids obvious dramatic contrast. Purity of the sound done over a hundred times, returned to its original radiance in a setting of silence, creating echoes within the heart and mind like a stone falling into a well, and put in its right place, the right being "not enslaved by verisimilitude." Purity of the simple movement, combined with other elements so that a girl taking items out of a refrigerator to the fine creaking of a fence and the light shock of two full bottles – evoking freshness on their own – shows what a Vermeer would do today with cinema. The stylized harmony of an embrace: Michel and Alberte's mixed silhouettes creating, back-lit by the light in the Bois de Boulogne, a brief moment of tenderness in the sweetness of forgiveness. Perfection of lighting, like in the gun sequence, the night in the Vert-Galant garden, lit by Pasqualino de Santis following Pierre Lhomme for Four Nights of a Dreamer; Bresson reuses almost the same angle as he used for Marthe to frame Charles sitting next to the water in suicidal meditation. And he seems – because of the flattering lighting, the dark water without luminous reflections, the absence of the bateau-mouche glimpsed in the distance as a farewell at the beginning of the opening credits – to recall the minute of happiness that has forever disappeared.
Inverting the moments of hope in A Man Escaped, Pickpocket and Four Nights of a Dreamer, then, Bresson's camera spontaneously returns to familiar images. And the young martyr of the modern world, picking himself up between the legs of the agents in the church scene, recalls Joan of Arc.
Bresson's universe refers above all to Bresson himself. Even when he appears to approach current events, he digs into his own world, into a poetic alphabet he has created for his own use. This lack of variety certain people mock is a sign of both superb exigency and great solitude.
As in music and poetry, the sterling game of elective affinities cannot be discussed. We can't force anyone to be moved by Bresson's films. What, however, cannot be done without falling into ridicule is – in the name of rational criteria and of some taboo of going against verisimilitude – is declare as a lack of know-how something that, instead, is precisely the expression of a strong and coherent aesthetic will. Stronger because it is not about intelligence but a response to the deep orders of the irrational. Let's just return to Bresson's own question in Notes on the Cinematograph: "Is it for singing always the same song that the nightingale is so admired?"
*The film opens with two newspaper headlines announcing Charles' suicide: "Youth Kills Self in Père-Lachaise" and "Suicide Victim of Père-Lachaise, or was it murder?"