Sunday, May 20, 2012

Robert Bresson | Le diable problement (The Devil, Probably)

by Douglas Messerli

Robert Bresson (writer and director) Le diable problement (The Devil, Probably) / 1977

Often described as Bresson's most controversial of films, Le diable probalement (The Devil, Probably) today seems almost prophetic, and, unless one is willing to close his eyes upon the environmental and social issues concerns the movie presents—and unfortunately, we all know individuals who fit that definition—there is little of real controversy in the work. The four young individuals at the center of Bresson's work sit through documentaries, lectures, and other presentations on subjects such as global warming, the effects of the atomic bomb and atomic energy, the overfishing of the world's oceans, and numerous other still-hot topics that seem as central to our world today as they obviously appeared to these young French drop-outs of the late 1960s.

      Perhaps what people mean by describing the great film director's work as controversial derives from his forceful and unwavering statement of these young people's correct evaluation of the a world gone crazy in its greedy search for quick expedients and money. Bresson does not leave anything to doubt as to his position, utterly mocking the university professor who, in describing the advantages of atomic energy, for example, keeps suggesting that "eventually" the problems of using such energy will be solved by vague military and corporate forces in the United States! As Charles summarizes it: "To reassure people, you only have to deny the facts."

     From the very first scene to the final images of the film, Bresson makes it quite clear that, even though his androgynous hero chooses the solution of suicide to cure his illness of "seeing too clearly," his commitment is to life.  But then Bresson's heroes, from Mouchette and the Country Priest to his compulsive pickpocket, all choose routes to salvation that might be damned by their faith. That is the way it is with such a great deep moralist as Bresson: for individuals faced with the evils of the world, probably the work of the Devil, there is no easy decision in knowing how to survive and react.

     Much like a kind of hippie cult leader, Charles (Antonie Monnier) collects a small group of people around him—Edwige (Laetita Carcano) and Alberte (Tina Irissari) as well as the drug addict Valentin (Nocolas Deguy) and Edwige's former boyfriend, Michel (Henri de Maublanc)—as they undergo a series of what might be described as educational explorations of the decline of  contemporary society. Unlike some cult leaders, he asks only that, with him, they witness discussions of the societal problems. In return he offers each of them a deep love—which we observe most intensely when Valentin is desperately in need of a fix and suffers withdrawal symptoms, Bresson showing Charles not only obtaining the drugs but gently pulling the covers around his suffering friend. At one point, Charles even offers to marry the more needy of his two women friends.

     Yet Bresson hardly ever sentimentalizes his figures, and the characters here are also kept at a kind of emotional distance through the director's fragmentation of their bodies—as in nearly all of his films, his characters' acts are often recounted in the movements of hands, arms, legs, and feet, instead of head-on face shots—and through the effect that sounds—music, footsteps, voices, sirens, etc.—have upon his actors' psyches. These cinematographic devices give the viewer the sense of sharing their lives since we observe them so very closely, while at the same time releasing us from an objective viewpoint. We are encouraged to mentally and physically share in their daily experiences. And so too do we, then, become witnesses of and participants in the world they are forced to evaluate.

     It is almost inevitable, we come to see, that the sensitive Charles should chose to commit suicide; certainly his friends fear for it. But as he tells his psychiatrist, he does not really want to die; it is simply that in such a world he cannot sanely go on living. Like the Romans, accordingly, Charles chooses another—in this case, his drug-needy friend—to carry out his wishes. Always in need of a quick fix and the money to find one, Valentin agrees to become Charles' Judas, carrying out the awful deed only too well, shooting and killing his loving friend mid-sentence, as if to cut off any possibility of regret or his friend's ability to talk his way out of the end he has determined for himself.  In his suicide-murder, Charles is also, probably, a kind of devil, but at least he has been saved from seeing, like Cassandra, everything he has predicted come true. Whereas, unfortunately, we must now daily face just those horrors which Charles and his friends already witnessed, as well as facing all those still in denial today.

Los Angeles, May 19, 2012

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