A Masterpiece, Most Likely: Hoberman on Robert Bresson’s “The Devil, Probably”

A Masterpiece, Most Likely: Hoberman on Robert Bresson’s “The Devil, Probably”
A Dostoyevskian story of a tormented soul, presented in the stylized manner of a medieval illumination.
(Sunchild Productions)

“The Devil, Probably,” one of the great Robert Bresson’s greatest, and least-seen, movies gets a week-long run (April 20-26) in the midst of BAMcinématek’s Bresson retrospective — resplendent in a new 35mm print and hailed by no less an authority than Richard Hell as “the most punk movie ever made.”

Hell himself will be on hand to explicate following the final screening of “The Devil, Probably”— we can note however that Bresson’s voluptuously despairing movie was released in 1977, the same year that both Hell’s Voidoids album “Blank Generation” and “Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols” burst upon the scene.

Like all Bresson’s movies, “The Devil, Probably” is a drama of faith so formally rigorous and uncompromising as to border on the absurd — a Dostoyevskian story of a tormented soul presented in the stylized manner of a medieval illumination. At once chic and austere, “The Devil, Probably” is a generic youth movie set in a Parisian student milieu where long-haired panhandlers play their bongos by the Seine while sinister nihilists mock religion by planting pornographic photos in church documents. Opening with a newspaper headline (YOUTH KILLS SELF IN PÈRE LACHAISE CEMETERY), it unfolds in flashback to detail the events leading up to demise of its androgynous protagonist Charles, played by Antoine Monnier, a non-actor and the great-grandson of Henri Matisse.

Suicide or murder victim, Charles is discovered in the same star-studded graveyard where Jim Morrison reposes in eternal rest. For all his hippie glamour, however, Charles’s corpse is discovered beside the tomb of France’s postwar Communist leader Maurice Thorez — Bresson’s statement perhaps on the vanity of radical activism. A drop-out more than half in love with easeful death, Charles is shown to have exuded a magnetic passivity — his equally grave and beautiful peers are transfixed by the purity of his despair, untainted by any belief in the possibility of political action. With his blank, accusatory look, he’s a living reproach to a corrupt, polluted, adult world. “My sickness is seeing clearly,” he maintains at one point. The movie was initially prohibited to those under 18 as an incitement to suicide;

Bresson was 70 when he made “The Devil, Probably,” and his penultimate film embodies all his hatred for modern society. (Inspired by an actual incident, it was also his first to be totally based on his own material.) Religion is a farce, the world is shown as coming to an end. One character’s involvement with the Association for the Safeguard of Man and His Environment allows for the interpolation of 16mm documentary footage of various oil spills, garbage mounds, and nuclear tests, as well as the clubbing of a baby seal. The movie’s great 25-shot set piece has Charles and his eco-activist friend riding a bus through Paris — their trip interspersed with ultra-Bressonian cutaways to the inner workings of the exit door or machine for collecting money — as they debate the nature of No Future.

We’re all on the bus and, as if scripted by Bertolt Brecht, the other passengers join in the conversation. “Who’s in charge?” someone asks, setting up the punch line (lifted from “The Brothers Karamazov”) that provides the movie’s title. This is followed by a mordant Bressonian joke. The vehicle hits something. The director never shows us what — it’s just a speed bump on Charles’s single-minded march towards oblivion.

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