The Devil Probably (Le Diable Probablement, Bresson, 1977)

The Devil Probably (1977) is a powerful meditation on the arbitrariness of life. Originally restricted in France to those under 18, the film developed controversy due to it’s subjectification of suicide. Many believed that it may incite suicide in certain individuals, particularly within the youth.

Charles (Antoine Monnier), a young man who seems to have everything one would desire of life — romantic and platonic relationships, intelligence, a home, a place in life — sees the pointlessness in doing anything. For what reason do we do the things we do? What would we really be missing out on if we were not here? These are the questions Charles poses. These are the questions he thinks about, but has no answer to. Instead he sees despair, social and moral decline, and a world — and earth —  that (naturally) perpetuates death, with or without his action in it.

He asks his friend, do you think you could do it? When his friend responds that even if the world were to disintegrate and chaos was borne of its ashes (paraphrase, I really can’t remember the words) he would still rather live. Charles tells him he didn’t mean if the world forced him to it, but could he do it just for the sake of it. In other words, just out of the arbitrariness of life.

Though he states he cannot imagine a point where he would stop feeling and thinking, and that he hates both life and death,  he claims that he “has no illness; [his] illness is seeing clearly”. One might mistake his behaviour for apathy, but Charles is not apathetic; he does care about what he’s doing. Regardless, he decides that it’s time for him to see what happens when life ends.

The Devil Probably is a bleak mediation on the nature of humankind. It suggests that moral wrongdoings, a nature that is part of the human conscience, is the Devil’s doing, and, therefore, the problems in the world that may be associated with evil human acts are the cause of the Devil.

To some degree, it seems that Bresson uses Charles to voice his own personal struggle. Though Charles would be labeled an atheist, as Bresson himself would be,  he does believe in the possibility of some kind of extraordinary — but unknowable —spiritual conscience. In this regard, the Devil should not be taken to be of a necessarily Christian concept. It’s just a word that accurately conveys what he believes to be the way things are; the connotations of the word are more or less the same, despite one’s religious — or nonreligious — background. The film could have just as easily be named God, Probably, but this would probably cause even more controversy.

In ways, The Devil Probably is unlike the typical Bresson film. It is rather more complex in that it shares a richer background. There are more characters, relationships, and even what could be considered sub-plots. However, the film does retain Bresson’s ascetic style of showing only what is necessary. Aspects of the relationships that are not integral to the central story of Charles’ life are left out, yet the viewer is made aware that certain things must be happening.

My one qualm with the film is that it doesn’t have the same artistic or poetic quality that some of his other films contain. While it certainly has moments of great beauty, the images do not lace together quite as gracefully as I have come to expect from Robert Bresson.

On the other hand, what is most typical of Bresson is the powerful silence that accompanies the film. Though shot in colour, the film lends itself to a hollow darkness that complements the mood of the film. As usual, Bresson leaves the viewer sitting silently in contemplation of how things are. Besides Mouchette (1967), which is likely my favourite of his films, no other Bresson film has moved me as powerfully in this regard. The film gives rise to a profoundly spiritual state as one sits in awe, contemplating the depths of life and death.

9/10

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About Kamran Ahmed

I have a Masters in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto. I work as a freelance writer and film critic in Vancouver. My writing is primarily distributed through Next Projection, an online film journal based in Toronto.
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4 Responses to The Devil Probably (Le Diable Probablement, Bresson, 1977)

  1. Hora says:

    Great Bresson reviews, found the link to them on PC’s twitter.

    Bresson’s ascetic style, as you described it, makes it difficult for me to really read the characters, since his actors don’t emote much on screen (I’ve only seen 3 of his films so far, but from what I read this is a big part of his style). Because of this I couldn’t trust Charles’ dialogue, when he was talking to his friend on the bus or to the psychoanalyst, I couldn’t believe him when he said he wasn’t depressed, that he was simply “seeing clearly”. In the end I found his ‘suicide’ naive and childish, but I like your idea that he did it out of curiosity and not depression or resignation. If he really was telling the truth, then that is the only explanation I can understand for why he actually followed through with the suicide.

  2. Kamran Ahmed says:

    Thanks, dude. I appreciate that. Which of his 3 films have you seen?

    I have found myself being drawn closer to Bresson as I become more attuned with his style, so perhaps that will happen with you as well. While I was first put off by the actors’ withholding of emotion, I now find it quite brilliant. In Bresson’s style, the actors are able to express a sense of spirituality by not participating in egotistically driven human facial expressions. Instead, Bresson wants them to radiate an expression of awe, tragedy, sorrow, and they do that (well) with their serious, if not blank stares. You can kind of feel that they are spaced out, and that is a feeling of transcension.

    Glad you enjoyed the reviews; lots more to come!

  3. Hora says:

    I’ve seen Pickpocket, Le Diable Probablement, Les Dames de Bois du Boulogne and L’Argent, all during the current retrospective at PC. I’m hoping to see a few more before it’s over.

    I’m not sure I understand your point of humain facial expressions being egotistically driven. What do you mean by that?

    While watching L’Argent, I saw the emotionless acting style almost like a submission to fate, like the characters in the film were stuck in a particular path in life and had no way of escaping it, especially the main character Yvon. I also saw it as a reflection of the immoral society they were living in, one in which people couldn’t care less about how others were feeling and only cared about money and themselves. I thought the style really worked in L’Argent, but maybe that does have something to do with having a better understanding of it. I should re-watch both Pickpocket and Diable, I wonder how I’d see them now.

  4. Kamran Ahmed says:

    I have yet to see Les Dames.I think the best are yet to come: Mouchette, A Man Escaped, Diary of A Country Priest, and Au Hasard Balthazar are all must-sees. I saw Une Femme Douce there last night, and have writtien a review of it. I’ve seen L’argent a few times, and there’s actually a review on here already from about a year ago. I think it is, from a technical standpoint, the most ostensibly “Bressonian” of his films. Still have 4 or 5 to see.

    Ii think you’re right about the influence of fate. I think this is a major concept in all of Bresson’s work. The characters are rendered humble by their inability to control what happens around them.

    By egotistically driven I mean that all facial expressions are, to varying degrees, an expression of one’s personal thoughts. Thoughts that arise from the ego. Thoughts about whether they find something funny, or scary, or disturbing or whatever. Facial expressions can be read. You see a person’s facial expression and you can feel what they are thinking, and all conscious thoughts exist in the home of the ego. So, by not having emotional expressions, Bresson resists the need to egotize the characters. They don’t exactly show whether they are happy, or scared, or sad, or whatever. Instead, Bresson gets them to make more universal expressions, such as that of awe or tragedy, that don’t necessarily mean that the ‘person’ is feeling that feeling. The blank stares are, like you said, a kind of surrendering to fate. It opens up spiritual doors, since the characters are not defined by overemphasized emotions.

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