A Robert Bresson film in color, The Devil, Probably is more contemporary than anything from him that we know how to understand. Right off the bat, this is jarring: a film by an old man (who has always been old) about young people, made at a time when everyone was obsessed with diagnosing or understanding The Youth (the 1970s). This is not an uncommon perspective. We’ve seen it time and time again – Youth ‘66, We Can’t Go Home Again, … – Sometimes it works, sometimes not so much. In this case, the results are mixed.
The narrative centers around Charles (played by non-actor, Antoine Monnier, who also happens to be Henri Mattisse’s great-grandson) a brooding baby-faced long hair who bums around the bank of the Seine with the other barefooted riff-raff. Despite having a girl at every port, he’s obsessed with suicide. In fact, his nihilism is part of his charm and his women are all just as brooding as he is. The film begins with a newspaper headline: YOUTH KILLS SELF IN PERE LACHAISE! This front page news reveals Charles’ end. The rest of the film is tracing back the six months that lead to his demise.
Although Charles’ death wish is the central issue, he’s not the one talking about it. Instead, his friends and lovers endlessly discuss the various permutations of his mental state. How is he today? What does it mean? He’s so smart, yet so tortured. How can we save him? The conversations circle round and round their subject, but the takeaway isn’t clear. Do they even want to save him? Or is it more glamorous to have a dramatic presence in their lives. These are children of the bourgeoisie overeducated and overprotected, having their first go at playing adults. In the absence of actual problems, they spin their own.
Though these milquetoast twerps serve as our entry point to Charles’ inner life, he is more interested in the other population down there on the river bank: those who have gone past playtime and are fully committed to living outside society. These are the guys who hang out by the river bank because they have nowhere else to go. Most prominent is a swarthy junkie who crashes out from time to time in Charles’ apartment, happy to take advantage of the warm bed and food on the table while he waits for his next fix. Charles follows his desperate, amoral lead. He may not have conviction, but at least he’s not living hypocritically like the rest of the hippies.
As in so many French films from this era, there are two throughlines. One, interpersonal, the other political. Like Jean-Luc Godard’s work which increasingly maligns the sexual relationships to the sidelines, mere distraction from a larger issue, The Devil, Probably also uses the youthful escapades as a way to corral a host of tangentially connected socio-political ideas – i.e. global warming (this was in 1977) and how we humans with our capitalist greed are ruining everything – into a film that “says something” about modern life. Is change possible? Is there anything left to live for? Can we escape the prisons we have built for ourselves? These are big questions, and the takeaway here is a firm maybe.
As the film progresses, Charles’ need to quit living seems to become increasingly urgent. Although he does not actually exhibit this urge, various external factors indicate a rising tension. The turning point comes on a city bus as it barrels down the road. Charles gets into an argument with another passenger about who controls fate, obediently riding along as it picks up speed. Suddenly the bus crashes and it’s clear that nobody is in control. They are all just barreling along on the bus of life with no control. Charles seems to be enjoying himself. Those ignorant people, just riding along in their lives, get what they deserve.
Bresson rides this wave of nihilism to its natural end, but he seems to be more in admiration of the youthful spirit from which such turmoil stems than the philosophy itself. Which is why Charles’ nihilistic journey spirals into tedium. Philosophically, he’s against the hypocrisy that prevails in his friends’ lives. They believe one thing, live another. The activist and rallies are too political, trying to toe too many ideological lines. Unable to find a way of living that supports his beliefs, Charles’ obsession with death is an urge to drop out.
The big thesis statement comes in a most predictable locale – Charles visits a psychologist – his friends are hoping to cure him of his suicidal urges. Dr. Mime is the only one who will be able to help. It’s Charles’ big chance to tell us why he’s so meh on life. It comes down to him just being bored, though he dresses it up in a pseudo-philosophical and naive quest for authenticity. This scene is the closest that The Devil Probably gets to satire – the one tone that would truly suit it. When the doctor, who (like us) thinks Charles is a bit of an ass, enlightens him on the ancient Roman tradition of avoiding suicide by enlisting a friend to do the deed, it’s all Charles needs to finally make it happen. The one man who can help him is the one sending him right to the grave. But this little wink only lasts until the end of the scene and Bresson’s right back to finding tragic beauty in the stupidity and melodrama of adolescence.
Stylistically Bresson is, as always, masterful. There’s an affecting beauty imparted on the everyday. Glasses of last night’s unfinished wine in the dim light of dawn, bedsheets crisply tousled, light glinting through green glass bottles. Bodies move through the frame with unusual focuses; fingers twist together, skirts swish by with flashes of thigh, worn fabric crumples elegantly against spare flesh. The most dramatic moments present themselves in painterly tableaux. Not surprising that Richard Hell would find this film so revelatory. Little scruffy Jesuses running around the banks of the Seine. Any Rimbaud enthusiast would. However, unlike Bresson’s masterpiece Pickpocket (1959) which still feels fresh in its exploration of the fringes of society, The Devil, Probably hasn’t aged well. The quarterlife crisis film is now a familiar trope. These kids are just so moody, it’s impossible to feel for them. Maybe if they had a little fun, if Charles’ women actually had any charisma… but as it is, it seems like a lifestyle film, a page from a catalog advertising philosophical depth through style alone.