Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Devil Probably (dir. Robert Bresson)

Bresson's second to last film, "The Devil Probably," is easily the most experimental of all of his works. Its loose narrative (an original screenplay written by Bresson himself) borders on aimlessness, and he leaves out so many essential plot details that we're often left grasping for straws. It's also perhaps his only film that openly lectures to the audience; several scenes clearly and simplistically indict a global economy wreaking environmental havoc on the earth. Opening with conflicting reports of a suicide, it's also one of the more striking examples of Bresson's preference for showing the effect before the cause. We're constantly weaving back and forth in time, desperately searching for clues that might explain the encounters we've witnessed. And in the end, we're left without any answers or enlightenment.

Set in France nearly one decade after the failed student revolutions of May 1968, the film opens with two newspaper accounts of the death of the main character, Charles. One states that it was a suicide, while another paper alleges a murder-suicide pact. The rest of the 90-minute film is filled with flashbacks to the six-months prior to that event, covering seemingly unconnected episodes from Charles's life. He's inexplicably suicidal; some of his companions do their best to save him from his depression, while others simply try to make some money off of his despair. His plight mirrors the general malaise of his generation, disilussioned with the aftermath of their failed uprising. They no longer speak of creation, peace, or a new world; they can only speak cynically of destruction, and of the ease with which they can manipulate the masses.

"The Devil Probably" is unrelentingly bleak. Bresson admitted as much himself, stating, "Of all my films, The Devil Probably is the most ghastly. But none of them are despairing." For me, it's his only film that I've been genuinely disinterested in. The writing, like the plot, feels unfocused at best, and lazily didactic at worst. And though I in general appreciate Bresson's pencience for eliminating outcomes as a source of tension by showing us the effects before the cause, it's only because he typically crafts a story that creates its own tensions, regardless of the outcome. It's the burning "how's" and "why's" that give the best of his films their infectious single-mindedness. But 'Devil's' confounding plot mitigates against that necessary focus, and even serves to conceal that interior beauty that he so often displays through his peculiar montages.

Last Word: A daring experiment in form and narrative that in the end mitigates against Bresson's greatest strengths.

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