Clear and Present

Dennis Lim on The Devil, Probably

Robert Bresson, The Devil, Probably, 1977, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 95 minutes.

ROBERT BRESSON DIED IN 1999, leaving behind only thirteen features, an unyielding corpus that has been held up to renewed scrutiny since his death and yet never seems to fully give up its secrets. This is as it should be: Bresson made films of extraordinary clarity and ineffable mystery. (As he himself put it in Notes on Cinematography (1975), the most important ideas “will be the most hidden.”) But the barriers to understanding are not always intrinsic to the work. Especially in the English-speaking world there exists a mythical, not always helpful picture of Bresson as an austere transcendentalist, a Christian artist wrestling with suffering and sin and redemption in a fallen world. This notion, partly true and conveniently vague, derives largely from oversimplifications of what are still probably the best-known writings on Bresson in English: Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay on his “spiritual style” and Paul Schrader’s grouping of Bresson with Dreyer and Ozu in his 1972 book on “transcendental style,” which respectively predate the second half and the last third of Bresson’s career.

This year’s North American touring retrospective, organized by TIFF Cinematheque’s James Quandt, has made official the canonization of Bresson’s late films, once dismissed as minor or, worse, a comedown after the glorious midcareer stretch that culminated in Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) and Mouchette (1967). The shift in emphasis is also evident in the substantially revised second edition of TIFF’s essential Quandt-edited anthology, Robert Bresson, which devotes ample space to the post-Mouchette work, in particular his last two films, The Devil, Probably (1977) and L’Argent (1983), and suggests that questions about the best approaches to Bresson—most conspicuously, transcendentalist or materialist—have been posed with greater urgency of late, and also treated with greater flexibility, as befits what Quandt terms Bresson’s “cinema of paradox.”

To many Bresson acolytes at the time, the 1970s and ’80s films must have seemed incongruous, if not jarring. Sontag wrote that she could not imagine a Bresson film in color. As it turned out, that switch—which occurred in 1969 with A Gentle Woman—corresponded with two not unrelated developments: a darkening of Bresson’s vision and a greater degree of contact with the contemporary world. His most pessimistic films, The Devil, Probably and L’Argent are also his most lucid, and The Devil, Probably, which BAMcinématek is showing for a full week as part of its Bresson retro, has gone from being among his least popular films to arguably the one with the most fervent cult following.

Of all the Bresson films that deal with suicide, The Devil, Probably most resembles a death march. Its impassive young protagonist, Charles (Antoine Monnier, great-grandson of Henri Matisse), single-mindedly rejects the solutions and opiates of a corrupt, toxic, late-capitalist world and succumbs to the tug of oblivion—although, lacking the will to do the deed himself, he has to buy his own death, hiring a junkie friend to kill him. In France the film was banned to under-eighteens, lest it give alienated kids any ideas. In the US it went unreleased until the mid-’90s. One of only two original screenplays that Bresson wrote (the other, Au Hasard Balthazar, has strong intimations of Dostoevsky), Devil may be his least typical film. The didacticism (newsreel footage of environmental disasters), blunt satire (especially in a scene with a Jacques Lacan–like shrink), and pronounced nihilist-atheist streak all made the film hard to square with received readings of Bresson—and, much like Antonioni’s post-’68 portrait Zabriskie Point, easy to dismiss as an out-of-touch geezer’s strained bid at topicality. (Bresson was seventy-six at the time.)

But The Devil, Probably has always had its partisans, starting with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who threatened to quit the 1977 Berlin film festival jury unless it won an award (it took the runner-up prize) and included a clip from it in The Third Generation (1979). After seeing The Devil, Probably the novelist Dennis Cooper was moved to write Bresson a series of “long, desperate, worshipful” letters offering his assistance in any way possible. The musician Richard Hell, a longtime champion (he will introduce a screening at BAM), has called it “the most punk film ever made.”

Bresson influenced almost every major French filmmaker who came after him (beginning with Louis Malle, his onetime assistant, and Jean-Luc Godard, one of his most perceptive critics), but The Devil, Probably seems to have special significance for those who encountered it at a formative age. Claire Denis, an extra on 1971’s Four Nights of a Dreamer, has said that The Devil, Probably was the first film in which she saw her generation onscreen. It’s a clear touchstone for the cinema of Leos Carax, who absorbed its anguish and infused it with a mad romanticism. Nicolas Klotz and Elisabeth Perceval’s recent Low Life, a haunting meditation on the possibility of youthful resistance, is essentially an elaborate riff on—or an urgent sequel to—The Devil, Probably. Olivier Assayas has written eloquently of his complicated relationship with the film, first rejecting it and then over time coming to regard the troubled Charles as “the truest portrait” of his younger self; Assayas’s most autobiographical film, Cold Water, owes a debt to The Devil, Probably, as will, perhaps, his upcoming Something in the Air, a coming-of-age story in the context of ’70s youth culture.

How to account for the intensity of feeling this film inspires? Speaking from experience, I can only suggest that for those on its wavelength, The Devil, Probably has the force of a revelation, even on repeat encounters. It’s an existentialist horror movie, complete with zombielike cast and looming apocalypse, and in place of scare tactics, a brutal, breathtaking logic and concision. In an early scene at a church, the congregants discuss the role of reformed Catholicism in modern life in clipped, accusatory tones, while the taunting, dissonant sounds of an organ being cleaned adds to the cacophony. As Serge Daney put it: “There are no sides in the debate; everyone is against everyone else.” More than one philosophical conversation in the film unfolds in this way—in the most famous scene, a spontaneous Brechtian chorus on a city bus, likewise punctuated with a battery of mechanical whirs and clanks, climaxes with the utterance of the film’s title (in response to the question, “Who’s leading us by the nose?”) and the driver crashing into an unseen object. Indeed, the entire movie is built on a system of oppositions, refusals, denials. Bresson ushers Charles through a succession of potential sanctuaries—a political rally, a church, a lecture hall, a psychiatrist’s office, the beds of two devoted lovely young women—and each is found in some way wanting. Like a law of physics, the principle of negation is absolute, extending to Charles’s ultimate fate: a suicide that is also a murder, with the grim anti–punch line of a final epiphany that goes unexpressed—he’s shot in the back of the head, midsentence.

Thirty-five years on, The Devil, Probably can still trigger a shock of recognition: Charles’s world is ours. “There won’t be any revolution—it’s too late,” someone says, succinctly articulating a generational tragedy that became a fact of life. But the scope of the film is larger even than the malaise and anger of the post-’68 universe. Beneath the desultory despair, it expresses something timeless about the power and the powerlessness of youth, its coiled energy and its raw-nerved capacity for sensation even when shrouded in an apathetic fog. The lucidity of The Devil, Probably—“seeing too clearly,” as Charles describes his “sickness,” in the film’s most-quoted line—is inseparable from its beauty. For Bresson, seeing—and hearing—clearly are in themselves expressions of a kind of faith. Amid a swelling sense of disgust and resignation, the film registers the sensuous facts of faces, bodies, colors, the Seine at night, a field of tall grass, a snatch of Mozart through an open window. The Devil, Probably is a film about the death drive, individual and collective, all the more painful for being so alive to the world.

A new 35-mm print of The Devil, Probably runs Friday, April 20–Thursday, April 26 at BAMcinématek in New York. There will be an introduction and a brief Q&A with Richard Hell at the 6:50 PM showing on Thursday, April 26.