Thursday Editor’s Pick: The Devil, Probably (1977)

by on April 20, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri April 20 thru Sun April 22 at 2:00, 4:30, 6:50, 9:15 and Mon April 23 thru Thur April 26 at 4:30, 6:50, 9:15 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]
*Thurs April 26: intro and brief Q&A with Richard Hell at 6:50 show
**No 6:50 show on Tue April 24

The hottest ticket at Film Forum’s Bresson retrospective earlier this year now gets a new print and a one-week run, courtesy of The Film Desk and Olive Films. Punk rocker cinephile Richard Hell will introduce.

Hell proclaims, for Mojo:

It is by far the most punk movie ever made. It’s about a kid who rejects the idealism of his activist contemporaries — the movie is full of harrowing stock footage of the destruction of the world by humans via everything from mercury poisoning of the oceans to nuclear explosions — because he’s come to feel all is hopeless and no action’s possible. His only solace is sex, but it’s not enough. Of course, as always in Bresson the movie’s really about the succession of moments it presents, the sounds and images, but… There’s nothing to be said but to go see it.

You can read further excerpts from a 2002 Hell introduction of the film here.



Andrew O’Hehir for Salon:

Shot in color among the disillusioned, long-haired youth of post-’60s Paris, Bresson’s next-to-last film remains controversial, viewed by some critics as a classic study of postmodern alienation and by others as an aging filmmaker’s desperate grasp at hipness. (Bresson himself was 75 when this was made.) As usual, the acting is affectless, the camera largely static and the story is deliberately “de-dramatized.” We already know that androgynous 20-something drifter Charles (Antoine Monnier) will die after his explorations of religion, revolutionary politics and psychoanalysis; what we don’t know is exactly why or how. Both a visually ravishing work and a supremely unforgiving one, “The Devil Probably” has the feeling of a stern farewell to youth, movies and the modern world. Bresson would indeed retire from filmmaking after “L’Argent,” his next film, although he would live on for many years, dying in 1999 at age 98.

Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:

Robert Bresson’s penultimate feature (1977)—his only original script apart from his early short Affaires publiques and his masterpiece Au hasard Balthazar—is a ringing indictment of the modern world, centered on the suicide of a disaffected 20-year-old Parisian. There’s something mannered and at times even freakish about Bresson’s handling of well-clothed adolescents and his multifaceted editorializing—which improbably recalls Samuel Fuller in its anger and dynamic energy—but the power and conviction of this bitter, reflective parable are remarkable. Not a masterwork perhaps, but certainly the work of a master, and, judging from the work of many of his young French disciples (including Leos Carax), one of his most influential features.


Francois Truffaut:

It seems very clear to me that what is important for Bresson is to kill the puppet-actor and to show a person at his best, at his or her truest moment of emotion and contained expression…. In a Bresson film, what is important is not so much what is shown but what is hidden. Ecology, the New Church, drugs, psychoanalysis, suicide? No, these are not the subjects of The Devil Probably. Its real subjects are the intelligence, the seriousness, and the beauty of the young people of today, and particularly of these four of whom one could say–quoting Cocteau’s remark in Les Enfants Terribles–‘the air they breathe is lighter than air.


Richard Brody for The New Yorker:

Constructed as a flashback from news reports of a young man’s suspicious suicide, Robert Bresson’s splenetic 1977 drama puts the post-1968 world on trial and judges it unlivable. Charles (Antoine Monnier), a quietly imperious sensualist of blazing intelligence, lives idly in a bare garret and does little but brazenly chase women. Essaying the gamut of modern pursuits—politics, religion, education, drugs, psychoanalysis—he finds them all pointless, and his despair is deepened by atrocious documentary footage of dire pollution that he watches at the home of the writer and environmentalist Michel (Henri de Maublanc), whose girlfriend he steals. Bresson’s chilling visions of daily life—including a brilliant sequence aboard a bus that depicts the mechanical world as a horror—suggest its hostility to the passions of youth. The film, however, offers a near-parody of the tamped-down spiritual universe of Bresson’s earlier work: these children of the revolution tremble with uncertainty, and their loose gestures and shambling ways conflict with his precise images. Both the world and Bresson’s cinema are in disarray, and the signs of his inner conflict are deeply troubling and tremendously moving.


Time Out Film Guide:

Bresson observes his Parisian student protagonist in numb recoil from a culture, almost a species, compromised beyond recall. As so often in Bresson, the process of detachment ends in deliberately sought death. Here Charles’ proxy suicide stands, as Jan Dawson has perceptively noted, both as an affirmation of a purity no longer possible within society, and ‘as a portent of the millions of deaths, not self-willed, which must inevitably follow’, given the ruthless course of society’s crimes. Charles and the two women in his life are offered less as convincing portrayals of life on the student fringe than as indices of a particular state of consciousness. Beside the toughness of Pickpocket, the depth of feeling of Une Femme Douce, the rigour of Lancelot du Lac, The Devil, Probably has a certain opaque quality. Its case is presented rather than argued: one buys its cosmic bleakness or one doesn’t, but there is no doubt about the conviction with which it is put.


Andrew Sarris for The Village Voice:

The Devil, Probably leaves us with a testament of moral and artistic elegance that is extremely rare in any age. Though much of the film may seem exasperating even to his erstwhile admirers, its privileged moments are so rigorously and exquisitely fashioned that the ultimate effect is one of an abrupt awakening to the longings of the spirit. Bresson has always tended to denote rather than depict earthly sings and pleasures, thus dealing more in sign than in substance. Yet in rigidly controlling the visible feelings of his players he has often succumbed in his own style to giddiness and feverishness brought on by an excess of spiritual consecration. One can walk away from Bresson as from any bothersome eccentric, but if one chooses to stay one may well decide that The Devil, Probably expressed the malaise of our time more profoundly and more magnificently than any work of art in any medium.



Joshua Rothkopf for Time Out New York:

Undeniably, The Devil, Probably has a new way of capturing discontent. From the start, a newspaper tells us about a suicide; then, there’s a revised headline. Now it’s murder. Cut to six months earlier, when a bunch of sullen, impossibly thin Parisians are lounging by the waterfront in a collective countercultural snarl.
Our hero is Charles (Antoine Monnier), lank of hair, blank of stare and accessorized with a floppy man-purse. He hates everything: the phony rebellion of “destructive” Situationists with their angry meetings, Christianity, environmentalism—even sex, it’s suggested. Charles is simply not into anything. Sympathetically, the movie charts his trajectory toward self-annihilation; but the film’s beauty (as with all Bresson) lies in its focus on simple details: the clicking of shoes in nondescript hallways, the fashion-spread-ready poses of sexy, ennui-laced youth. There’s a higher dimension here, not as clear as it is in the director’s Mouchette or A Man Escaped, but present just the same. Hold on to something, Bresson implies, or you may fall in love with boredom itself. See it for the mood.


Vincent Canby for the New York Times:

Time hasn’t softened the Bresson esthetic. The world he perceives still looks unlike that of any other director. Objects, people, places—everything is seen with a clarity so fine that his images achieve something beyond realism, as if clarity so intense could distort truth, at least as we have come to accept it.
“The Devil Probably” has the air of something out of the 1960’s in that it recalls a time when dropping out was so fashionable it was virtually epidemic among the young of the bourgeoisie. But Bresson is not a filmmaker of fashion. Fashions rise and fall around him like tides around a continent. No other director I can think of has come as close as Bresson to molding his players into what are, in effect, variations on a continuing personality, much the way a painter might.
What sets apart “The Devil Probably,” though, are social concerns that are sometimes expressed with irony and wit. “Isn’t there a limit to doing nothing?” asks Charles’s friend Michel. “Yes,” says Charles, “but after that there’s extraordinary pleasure.” When Charles and his friends go on a picnic, ordinarily blasé Parisians exclaim when they see an old man catch what one of them describes with wonder as “a live fish!” In the world that Bresson shows us in “The Devil Probably,” the catching of a live fish has become not only very rare, but also a crime.


Amy Taubin for the Soho Weekly News:

The film, as all of Bresson’s films since “Balthazar,” focuses on youth and it evident that Bresson is more than sympathetic to his heroes and heroines. He is erotically and emotionally infatuated with their ascetic beauty, with the lines and spare shoulders and thin arms, with wrists grown too long for their jacket sleeves witht he purity and absoluteness of bodies and sensibilities that have not yet and perhaps will never have a notion of comfortableness, of mellowing (or corruption, depending on how you look at it) of maturity and age.
Since “answers” are transparently false, there is nothing left to do but nothing: but to do nothing in the face of such agony is to plunge into shame and self-hatred at one’s impotence. In the two or three films before this one, Bresson’s very particular and striking camera a camera of mimesis, desiring to be as close as possible to the human eye, to the gaze of its protagonist, has seemed somewhat mannered. Here, those shots of feet and waists and floor and doorknobs are clarified. This is a camera of shame, as reluctant and unable to gaze directly at its subjects as they are to gaze into the faces of their comrades and lovers. As Charles covers his ears and bows his head before the fallen trees, Bresson bows his camera. They both are raised only in a sudden barely suppressed rage at the enemy or in an ironic confrontation with the despair of the void. And as we realize the implication of this gaze, it becomes more and more painful for us to lift our eyes to the screen: we become ashamed of our role as spectator.


Calum Marsh and Jordan Cronk discuss the film for PopMatters.


J. Hoberman, also for The Village Voice:

The Devil, Probably is a drama of faith so uncompromising as to border on the absurd. Chic yet austere as a medieval illumination, The Devil, Probably is a vision bracketed by the void. It’s a movie that begins (and ends) in total darkness, presenting itself as an interlude during which abstract creatures flounce purposefully in and out of frame. The Devil, Probably is a fiercely irascible movie and part of its kick is in watching Bresson invoke the modern world
The Devil, Probably maintains its formal rigor through Bresson’s geometric interest in fragmenting his actors – isolating their feet or truncating their gestures. The close-ups of hands trafficking in drugs by the Seine affords the sort of transaction he revels in. Still, the movie is not altogether devoid of acerbic humor. Charles adopts a heroin addict and brings him to crash on the floor of Notre Dame: the junkie immediately takes the opportunity to rob the poor box. The greatest scene has Charles and Michel riding a city bus – their trip interspersed with cutaways to the inner working of the exit door, the machine for collection money, the rearview mirror. They are talking, of course, about It (death, despair, the end of the world) as it scripted by Bertolt Brecht. The other passengers join in the conversation, “Who’s in charge?” someone finally asks, setting up for the inevitable punchline, “The devil, probably.” The sequence is majestically punctuated – it ends when the bus hits something, we never know what.
When Charles expresses his fear of killing himself, the shrink taunts him with the observation that in ancient Rome, the suicidal hired their own assassins. Meeting him after this session, his friends think Charles has been cured – and in a sense, he has been. Logic prevails. Like a rocket burning off its heat shield as it plunges to earth. The Devil, Probably incinerates all affectation in tracing Charles’s single-minded march toward oblivion. That we never known his final interrupted thought only underscores Bresson’s voluptuous pessimism. Charles is us.



James McCourt for Film Comment in 1997:

Robert Bresson’s The Devil, Probably is just another film in the calculatedly-not-long-line of masterpieces which must make young filmic aspirants despair of ever in their careers growing up to achieve anything nearly so perfect. What does this latest Bresson masterpiece say? What does it look like? The same. The same. And God bless him. “The same, only more so,” as one kindly neighbor did whisper.
The situation is urban. The two central lieux are a church (St. Sulpice, probably-or St. Eustace) and the cemetery of Pere Lachaise. Bresson’s symptomformations (“Why are we on this earth; where shall we go?”) are, as always, sveltly presented. The dialogue between the poor box and the psychiatrist’s money drawer…is…is…there. Bresson lives just next door to Gabriel Marcel, speaking metaphorically. They probably buy their bread and eggs in the same shop.
Frame by frame, this film, like all of Bresson’s films, can serve as an exquisite example of how it is done .
Each gaze is a gaze of farewell…. This is the searing message of The Devil, Probably.
The hero, Antoine Monnier, is, as all Bresson’s hero(in)es are, strictly beautiful. He has, as they say, a future, should he decide to enter stardom (a perilous realm, as Bresson would be the first to avow). Monnier is Matisse’s great-great grandson. Under other circumstances, that and a few sous would get him on the Métro, but under the current ones – his achievement playing Charles in The Devil, Probably – it is a nice bijou circumstance to. . .not exploit, but to ply. Should he so wish. He is the most beautiful Bresson hero since Martin La Salle (Pickpocket). He is the most beautiful Bresson Heroine since Maria Casares (Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne). Bresson understands androgyny the way Mrs. Woolf did . He knows just what to do with it; he celebrates it and he mourns it. The devil was, probably, not a woman. Nor a man. He was a chimera. Bresson, in holy battle against all devils, shows viewers the face of evil. He invokes blessings for the damaged and the fallen, the weak and the rest of us. He never sermonizes. He is the greatest living film creator.



Olivier Assayas in a personal essay on the film’s profound effect, for Film Comment’s 1999 Bresson symposium:

Certain films contain – quite consciously, to be sure – a bit of an enigma that lives within all of us. Namely, the vertigo that overtakes us whenever we stare into the abyss of the past, and the different people we once were appear before us, the superimposed version of which we are the result. We keep looking to the point where our vision becomes hazy, dates mix together and things that once seemed like facts become uncertain.
It’s not a stretch to see in Bresson’s conception – of the invisible Devil who rules the world. of the elusive principle of Evil that undermines relations between human beings, eats away at the foundations of social life, and spreads destruction – “the automatic movement of the non-living,” one of the definitions that Guy Debord gave to the Spectacle. Who else expressed this? It was my truth and only Bresson showed it, in this film. So how could I have missed it?


It’s a plain, indisputable fact, like it or not, in Breeson’s filmaking: the power of affirmation is such that, when all is said and done, you forget whether it’s doing nothing but discovering, exploding, what was hidden in the shadows.
Bresson’s characters seemed to evoke certain appearances and attitudes of the former period, but they were in fact those of a timeless bohemia (“There was then on the right bank of the river a quarter where the negative held court” -G. Debord). In fact, they were giving voice to my own questions at the center of this new moment that was tormenting me. And if this fact escaped me, if I rejected that which directly addressed itself to me, wasn’t it because at that moment I was too young to understand that the cinema could do just that? Isn’t it exactly that intimacy, that close proximity that blinded me? I didn’t hear what Bresson wanted to say because what he was saying was what I experienced in the deepest part of myself. I didn’t imagine that the cinema such as I understood it at the time could go so directly to the heart of things, that it could know more about me than I did myself. It’s just like reading certain poems: you can’t believe your eyes, because the author puts there, in clearly articulated form, ideas that exist within us. Unformulated, without having found words to express themselves, they have nonetheless always been with us, since it was on them that we based our entire rapport with the world.
A true faith in art, in this context the cinema, is to take responsibility for hearing its truths, for finding in the peculiarity of others – of the other – something of value in the search for one’s self, the possibility of an intimate revelation. There is absolutely no other way of getting to what comprises the essence of cinema. Bresson was saying what I felt, only he employed other words to say it, outside of time, that address themselves to the universal – this strikes me today, and for quite some time now, more consciously than then. That which allows me to bring back to life forgotten passions, reduced to their essential truths, and have a dialogue with myself across the years.



Dennis Lim discusses the film’s considerable influence for Artforum:

Of all the Bresson films that deal with suicide, The Devil, Probably most resembles a death march. 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. 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.
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.
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.


  • project717

    “There are ways of killing yourself without killing yourself” is one of the last lines of dialogue in reference to the climatic teenage suicide/accident in Norman Wexler’s screenplay for John Badham’s “Saturday Night Fever”, released a mere six months later in the winter of 1977, via Hollywood, to blockbuster receipts and epochal, world-wide pop-cultural impact. It could be argued, especially in the wake of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s recent review from a prestigious Italian film festival screening of “Fever” in 2017, that this mainstream artifact of American capitalist cinema was a kind of adolescent Actor’s Studio doppelganger to Bresson’s austere, “non-actor” and visual-centric European screed against modern society, especially in terms of it’s resolutely firm excoriation of organized Catholicism, which was never given much recognition by American critics at the time of it’s initial release. They could be seen as two aesthetic opposites of the same thematic equation and concerns in their moment: one considered as a lost, or possibly failed, object d’ art from an internationally recognized genius, and the other as a historical cinematic touchstone of American pop culture, only recently raised to a higher pedestal of serious critical re-appraisal as an important artistic achievement in it’s own right, once the superficial diversions of it’s immense box office success and disco faddism chronologically faded away.

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