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.