© 2012 by James Clark
The film, Balthazar at Risk (1966), by Robert Bresson, envelops us in a flood of the most intimate cares of consciousness by reason of the donkey/protagonist’s constancy of cherishing his life and its myriad implications with others. The rewards of that work consist of revealing what pinnacles of grace, beauty and excitement inform conscious existence. Its currency factors down to a loving embrace of the infinite problematicness of carnal sensibility.
One cannot overestimate the importance of that filmic offering. But, on ushering in this freeing of primordiality, Bresson was in no mood to rest on such laurels. Quentin Tarantino approached, with great verve, in his Reservoir Dogs, something important that Balthazar could not have covered (but, which Bresson proves subsequently to recognize), namely, a retaliative motive with which to possibly overcome the vast distemper of intent besetting all players in world history. However, he was at one with the Bresson of Balthazar in presupposing entities in the game who could bring startling and photogenic resolve to the deadness of history. In Mouchette (1967), Bresson began to address the chilling reality of large territories completely devoid of that resilience indispensable for major historical efficacy. That would bring into the transaction with his audience a significantly different protagonistic ignition of the warfare that had kept those few stalwarts in their seats. In the later work, we no longer weigh the ordeal of a figure showing some life on the screen. Instead, in a late work like, The Devil, Probably (1977)—that phrase chording with Balthazar’s, “Besides, he’s a saint…—we’re in for a seamless web of studiously maintained enervation, from out of the details of which to embrace a figure not straightforwardly present but looming in the past (here the past of cinema), who can evoke for the viewer privy to this film’s antithetical heart, a route by which to see about the matter of becoming equipped for the open road.
The pre-credits shot reveals a bateau mouche (a Paris tour boat) inching along in heavy darkness, and we have to recall a similar vehicle in Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971). Here, however, unlike the latter’s streamlined spectre of glass-cladding, vivacious light and infectious bossa nova pop music, we have a ponderous, cement-like craft, poorly-lighted and, instead of a bouncy tune, it emits a droning sound, like someone crying a long distance away, followed by waves starkly slapping the shore. That unnourishing factuality gives way to some more unappealing diversion in the form of a page of a tabloid newspaper fussing, from out of its headline, about a “young man,” found shot dead in the ritzy, celebrated precincts of Père Lachaise Cemetery (Père Lachaise being the long-dead confessor to King Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” and thereby whispering to us the irony in this context of regal, grace-concerned life).
Thus the film goes on to recount the undead career of a dead man, as given a send-off within a cynical communications business. His name, “Charles,” touches upon another headlines-hound, Charles de Gaulle, a populist leader with pretentions to superiority and grandeur. Like his namesake, our protagonist never sees fit to adopt anything other than an ascetic mien, a confinement to dour, Gothic, medieval ways bringing back to us Jacques, the one-note nostalgic testing our patience in Four Nights of a Dreamer. We open upon Charles, however, in a reprise of the process of slight movements linking to rightness, which Jacques’ 4-day girlfriend, Marthe, demonstrated in front of her bedroom mirror in a solitary reverie evoked by the abovementioned bossa nova. Not for Charles, however, is the possibility of lonely discovery—and, therefore, his little dance moves constitute a lecture, to a clutch of dropouts lolling about the ancient stonework on the banks of the Seine, concerning how best to take care of footwear by virtue of proper step work habits. “You don’t walk properly,” he tells a first underling coming to the fore (but hardly the last—in fact we soon notice that, in his view, the remainder of the population are his underlings). He’s a self-styled expert on “shifting weight properly,” and we are on notice to recognize that he’s a bust in another area of shifting weight, namely, comprehensive equilibrium of his whole body, putting him in league with a silent comic—not, however, his other namesake, Charlus, the renowned Charles Chaplin, but stone-faced Buster Keaton and, by extension, the equally well-intentioned vandal, Jacques Tati.
Before proceeding with the thematic content of the full flashback, we should consider for a moment why this, and not one of the other post-Mouchette Bresson films, is the one to consult at this stage of our full survey having cleared the decks for the entire macrocosmic component of the labors of an underestimated challenge. In its many affinities with the clannish circulation of Four Nights, the Devil, Probably can most fully bring to light the pitfalls of entangling ardent youngsters in academic, classical rational training, and the secondary industries of popular culture and popular crusading devolving from that. A Gentle Girl (1969), the Bresson film directly following Mouchette, explores the haplessness of simple ways becoming caught up in urban priorities; and, while its drama is compelling for many reasons, its focus does not lie upon the essence of elaborate, massively armored cultural entrapment that we need to address at this point. (Interestingly, the response vehicle to this film, namely, Claude Goretta’s The Lacemaker , sets its delicate protagonist down amongst the network of Post-Grad carnivores.) That leaves Lancelot of the Lake (1974), a tale of ascetic, clan-obsessed, violent exertions, to be sure, the streams of blood there admitting of some kind of relationship to Reservoir Dogs. Its dark comedy of a management caste that cannot manage does in fact feed directly into the bloodstream of Devil. But no film by Bresson speaks as tellingly to the apparently implacable weight of distemper at work within contemporary life. Its leading light, Charles, attains to emitting an iconic presence of that compound of arrogant competence and cowardly poisonousness we all know only too well.
The Devil, Probably attends to discharging deadly pressure of that sort by means of a deft distribution of historically entrenched powers and legions of those unbeknown fellow-travellers imagining themselves to be countering entrenchment. The tabloid sends us back to not only Charles and his school but a coterie (seen in embryo as far back as Pickpocket ), led by Charles, of indifferently budding scholars who ratchet up the charade of independent discernment by looking askance at those who look askance at conventional procedures. After straightening out the kid with pitiful shoes, Charles and his elite force attend an on-campus anarchist organizational meeting. A speaker intones, “I proclaim destruction,” and goes on from that sensational moment to opine, “Everyone can destroy. It’s easy. We can sway hundreds of thousands of people…” Bemusedly positioned in a little bubble of chic, their clothes markedly more magazine-approved than those of their associates, Charles rallies his confidants by enlarging the scope of the snug little grotto—“Destroy what? Why? What will be left?” The unsatisfactorily dressed malcontents snarl a bit, and one voices the mainstream tilt of the proudly-off-the-map, presumably wild bunch with, “It doesn’t matter…” Charles takes a run at nuking those odious little people, but the nuclear axiom somehow jams: “Our only strength… Our only strength…” (The subsequent narrative somewhat frees it up for our consideration.) One of the girls in his entourage whispers, “Drop it.” Charles grumbles, “Idiots! Let’s go…” and some tepid booing sends them on their way.
More to their liking is a documentary film-cum-seminar about despoliation of nature by more of those idiots out there. Painful morality play content surges by—poisoned birds floundering, relentless smog, relentless chemical spraying of crops, oil tankers befouling the seas, jets befouling the air, adorable baby seals being slaughtered…—and to these researchers it functions as confirmation of their end-of-the-world malaise. Next stop, a church where the vaguely faithful wing of the student body debate the prospect of building “a new, logical form of Christianity,” their deliberations—like, “Montesquieu said Catholicism would destroy Protestantism, and Catholics would become Protestants;” “we want to bring modern life into Christianity”/ “why not bring Christianity into modern life?”—given high-pitched clown honks from the organ undergoing a tuning exercise. One of the girls with Charles during the pollution-probe maintains, “Your music is too civilized…insipid…” One of the convenors sniffs, “Priests and the clergy at large search every day for change. They meet every day with Protestants to prepare the Church of the future. Give us a break from your searching!” Then Charles and one of his angels drive up in her white, convertible sports car, and soon the avant-garde proceed with some apparently much-needed uncivilized action, inserting pornographic photos into prayer books and other literature meant for easily-shocked souls.
Noting that, a few days later, Charles and an environmentalist friend, Michel, attend a lecture where a smug professor insists that there is no danger about nuclear power plants that can’t be obviated by advanced science, we come to the end of underlining stalemate amongst rationalists as a context for impasse surging amidst Charles and his intimates. While we are at it, however, we have to put into play a discovery that another context has crept up upon this iceberg, perhaps carrying a bit of sizzle. Let’s notice again that the environmentalist is named, Michel. He is unlucky in his career—the ecology book he rushed to press has quickly been remaindered—and unlucky in love (his girlfriend moves in with Charles [“With him it’s something else... Not love...”]), and he drives a clunker of a 2CV Citroen (with its assemble-it-yourself look), very redolent of the 50’s, say 1955. Add to this the fact that Charles’ girlfriend, in addition to being the woman having ditched Michel, is one of several chicks who chauffeur the born leader around in expensive up-to-the-minute two-seaters (invariably white, invariably convertibles), and we have a constellation bringing, with much irony, into the miasma an avatar of zip (“Something Big”) in face of killjoys, namely, Mike Hammer, as precipitating serious damage (due to a nuclear explosion) to both the natural and social environment of California, in the noir, Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
Bresson’s scenario confines the interpersonal vacuity of the protagonist and his acquaintances to the well-meaning (and low-wattage) “best and brightest” precincts of academia, as presuming to manage global crises of confidence and physical survival. The blandness of that misfiring power center sets the tone for a pervasive slackness (a sensuous career of “too civilized”) in the twists and turns of Charles and those who go through the motions of constructively attending to depressive, self-destructive factors of his conventional energies as intuiting lacunae beyond his stamina and nerve to overcome. As we field the string of foul balls these rusty youngsters offer up in lieu of cogent adventure, we now have in our sights an uncivilized, uneducated alternative to the long night of the living dead coming to pass in what purports to be a hotbed of creative passion and innovation. (The name of Michel’s ex, Edwige evokes a loyal assistant of a mad scientist.)
Though Mike, the “private investigator,” hated equally by cops and robbers, attains to very little success in plunging into the world of twice stolen nuclear material (in one case stolen for peace [bookish peaceniks abounding], in the second case for war [courtesy of an erudite thug and his psychotic partner, a lady of few words, all of them lies]), his saga is marked by zest for mystery and its amplitude, as well as sexy wit, and thereby its introduction into Bresson’s march of fatuous death leads us to behold the ascetic eventuation as seriously lacking the best shot available in the problematical draft of contemporary history (even if the instance of “best shot” is far from completely discernible and manageable). On learning of Edwige’s decision to leave him, Michel utters a line we can be sure his American namesake would never dream of—“You’ll break your parents’ hearts.” On spamming the church literature with Edwige’s stab at exotica, Charles takes a number of unused copies to the source (a bookseller, as per The Big Sleep) and dumps them on his desk with the kind of grim self-satisfaction the old Temperance League used to put out there, when sledge-hammering bottles of gin. “What you’re making her do is despicable…Take her money but leave her alone…Anyway, she loathes you.” (Mike, you’ll recall, was certainly not above using [and actually staging] compromising photos to facilitate divorce proceedings. Lining up these pursuits in this way, Bresson wants us to see registers of intent light years apart, registers where moral instinct has lost traction in being pulled off course by overpowering and unmanageable exigencies of equilibrium.) Driven to a forest by Michel and his tin car, Charles holds his ears as trees are noisily cut down. In his page-boy haircut, he looks like somebody’s skittish daughter.
The expert about foot positioning has, with that odd expertise, from the beginning, drawn attention to a cripplement of bodily motion he particularly—but also, to a pronounced extent, his associates—in fact puts across. (En route to the place where he has chosen to die, Charles and the underling he’s hired to kill him shuffle through a subway station the signage of which reads Invalides.) Much in demand by other students to whip off answers to math puzzles, his fluency with abstraction (about the whole range of inferences where, presumably, final answers are there for the taking) has rendered his physical procedures almost insubstantial, weightless, with little or no evidence of flesh finding traction on the ground and developing from there to rhythmic possibilities of the upper body. (As he walks, his arms stay virtually motionless, as if suffering from a virulent atrophy.) That absence of convincing occupancy of a sensual world infects Michel, and, even more disconcertingly, Edwige and another of Charles’ groupie-roommates, Alberte (the masculinity of her name perhaps denoting aberrant carnality). The whole circle of these stolid novices (including the hit man, Valentin, who’s captured all the optics of rock stardom, but none of the music) moves in far “too civilized” a way to be convincingly conscious. (The name, Valentin, would seem to take up this courtly version of love, as looking back at the geriatric twenty year olds in Four Nights.) It is from out of that watershed of youth wasted by dotage upon ratiocination and its intolerance toward what is not cut and dried that the prospect of suicide becomes compelling. Michel pipes up at one point (Charles’ brief on behalf of suicide becoming insistent, though not explicit), “Even if the earth has been ruined beyond repair, I’d still want to live.” But he hasn’t evinced for a moment that living is about more than politeness and comfort.
As we observe Charles gradually withdrawing from the lameness of not only university life but rational proceedings in general, as if he had reached a gagging point in overseeing the certitude that they are massively flawed and therefore hold nothing for an ultimatist like him, there comes about increasing illumination of a strain of fragility at the core of his bruising officiousness. Bresson’s concern here is, I think, not merely to set in relief the deflation of a long-dominant tradition and what that means to those few who can live without its administration. The main cinematic fascination of The Devil, Probably is its incisive incursion into individual refusal to pay the price of that equilibrium intrinsic to dynamic carnality, and the adamant violence by means of which that cheapness scars any bid toward “Something Big.” This factor surfaces in fact near the outset, during the invasion of that first church on the itinerary. In the course of a self-cancelling deliberation about melding Christianity and “modern life,” someone declares being bored by this, and from out of the little band of sceptics someone says, “So are we!” They begin to leave—all, that is, but Charles, who is clearly still held by the notion of religious solace prevailing in some form. Though he goes on to join in desecrating the Church’s outreach, he also goes on from there to deliver a rather prissy and hypocritical denunciation of the pornographer. After urging Charles not to “get involved” in such sleazy matters, Alberte (I can’t seem to help seeing her as a late version of Proust’s promiscuous good girl, Albertine) joins the shutter-bug in a stainless steel hotel. She tells him, “There’s something ridiculous about you that makes you seem funny.” Then she goes on to say, “I’ve only got an hour. What are we waiting for?” In the course of hearing Edwige complain about prejudice, Charles interrupts her with, “Prejudices are never dated”—in one sense, a melancholy radical, in another sense, a relieved atavist. He leaves a bottle of cyanide tablets for Edwige to discover, and a note scrawled in a textbook, “When I kill myself…It’s not now…” Michel remarks, “Maybe it’s to scare himself, or to scare us.” But the real upshot of this episode is to allude to Charles’ suicide adventure as closely akin to the thrill-seeking of the anarchists he despises and the girls he claims to adore, the latter pair finding in his slow death-spiral another opportunity to feel something. In this light, Michel’s, “I’d still want to live” might be a polite gloss of a frisson, of sorts, about watching a planet die. Mike’s gusto for Something Big would certainly not be unadulterated; but its speeding would gain a purchase upon a thrill big enough to be creative.
Searching for Charles near his haunt by the river bank under the Pont Neuf, Michel leans over the rampart in an attitude reminiscent of Jacques and Marthe, in Four Nights, being truly thrilled (by the band on the bateau mouche) for one of the only times in their lives. Here that thrill never happens. Michel sees Charles, goes down to him and tediously preaches, “Is there no limit to doing nothing?” Charles dryly replies with formulaic ponderousness, “You experience such unheard-of pleasure…” Then he goes on to ask, like a womanizer who wants the world to envy his unheard-of pleasure, “Which one do I love?” Michel asks in return, “What if you didn’t love either of them?” A petulant Charles pules to Edwige, “He really told me off…” And Edwige remonstrates to Michel, “Cut that out! Or he won’t love me.” On a later occasion he is again verbally attacked by Michel, as touching upon a messiness he can’t stand about life, “You want to be an exceptional guy in an exceptional world.” After a retort—“What do you stand for? Progress? Brotherly love?”—Charles purports to be about, “…making love like a beast, a wild animal…” He sees about drowning himself in the bathtub at Edwige’s place, finds that he doesn’t have the nerve to bring it off, gets scolded by her for possibly dying and thereby getting her into trouble with the parents/cash-flow, gets thrown out in his bath towel (but with a send-off gift of a box of deluxe chocolates), gives the gift to Alberte after having shown it to Michel, and the latter throws the tainted item out of the window and onto the road, where it pops open, and a Mike Hammer/Pandora’s Box reprise at Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort races into view, for the sake of further questioning the flood of fright on parade.
One of the last times he sees Charles, Michel issues his own clouded affirmation of life, capping it with the borrowed dramatics and phrasing, “Living for the life force…” Charles loots Edwige’s place along with junkie friend, Valentin, who was part of the brains trust at the first visits to the anarchists and the theologians. Together they invade a second church in the middle of the night, Charles playing, and gripped by, stolen sacred music discs on the stolen portable record player. He falls asleep on the floor while his opportunist friend gets into the collection boxes; the police arrive and arrest Charles (the only trespasser in sight), who gets kneed in the kidneys by a cop who doesn’t defer to his snideness (something Mike Hammer could deliver with a more winning demeanor); and this little bump—the likes of which, and much worse, Balthazar endured many times a day all through his life—sends him into near catatonic shock and confinement to bed at Edwige’s. She arranges for therapy from a psychiatrist known to her family—“Only a great analyst like Dr. Mime (a name implying putting the body into efficacy) can make him better…” Mime asks, “How did this conflict with society begin?” Charles settles into axiomatic artillery: “I’m perfectly aware of my superiority. To be useful in a world that disgusts me would betray my ideas. It would only entrench me further. I prefer to know that there’s no way out…” Perhaps stung by the prospect of more than one genius in the room, the doctor continues with, “Isn’t that an excuse for laziness?” After dumping on “paid sick leave” and a torrent of other mundane advantages so grating to him, Charles is edged toward the topic of God, which he claims to take seriously inasmuch as he finds “everlasting life” to be sound, though he seems not to have paused over the ambiguity of that prospect. He quickly takes shelter in the rationale, “I can’t be faulted for not comprehending the incomprehensible.” After more of the film’s patented wise words going nowhere—“…love puts me in touch with my sensual life…I just want the right to be myself…”—he says something we sit up and take notice to, in its exposing a feeble carnal energy: “I hate life, but I hate death, too. I find it appalling!” Mime commiserates about the difficulty of suicide and adds a bit of high-priced info that the ancient Romans would have a servant do the trick for them, a line of reasoning Charles had already completed in supplying Valentin with drugs to keep him on a leash for the right moment. (That the instrument of self-hate is named Valentin is a way of stressing that love is nowhere to be found in this sampling.)
On the night of the right moment, speaking to his accomplice, he borrows phraseology from the doctor and thereby puts in place a seal of retreat from the present and future—“Will you do me a service worthy of the ancient Romans?” They visit a bar and he asks for, “A lot of something strong…” unwittingly divulging that he is far from strong by way of his own resources. There is the shooting and just before that his finding himself unable to muster “sublime thoughts” for the occasion. But far more important to fathoming the pulse of this philosophical horror production, there is Charles walking toward the appointed exit scene, walking by an open window and hearing within mellifluous music from a TV. His being drawn to such soporifics makes a strong, if lugubrious, impact.
The tincture of grace reaching him in that way would have been emasculated by bondage to a tradition of discernment palpably falling short, and given free rein by that faintheartedness so carefully brought into view by Bresson’s astonishingly demanding film. The almost asphyxiating directness of the sensual vortex elicited by Charles and his little band is accompanied by a conceptual constellation on the order of the one Joan struggles with in Bresson’s Trial of Joan of Arc. Though incandescent ideas spill over the whole course of The Devil, Probably, the scene in which that title comes explicitly to light merits attention at this concluding point of our trek. Charles and Michel—one of Joan’s cautionary, disembodied and all-knowing voices—board a bus (about as banal a means of motion as you can get) and Michel complains, apropos of the environment, that facts don’t impress his opponents, leaving the issue in a “supernatural” status. Charles, increasingly amazed anyone would care, tells him, “You’re unbelievable!” Undeterred, the guardian angel, certainly not sharing Mike Hammer’s way of getting things done, announces, “Governments are short-sighted” (as if only governments are short-sighted). A man in an adjacent seat has a more comprehensive sense of the problem (this episode coming as a very welcome mobilization of wit and intent after being confined to the senescent energies of the principals): “No government can say it’s actually governing…the masses call the shots and we’re all swept up by obscure forces whose laws are unfathomable.” Thus he adumbrates in a rough and ready way a tripartite coalition of power. More or less educated officials guided by mandarins positing efficiencies and the occasional ideal; “masses,” with circumspective vitality akin to that of locusts; and a thrust of primordial dynamics which embraces and is in turn embraced by conscious entities. It is this latter, shadowy membrane to which one turns in trying to imagine how world history could be such a disappointment. A woman passenger quietly wails, “Something is driving us against our will. You have to go along with it. Who is it that is making a mockery of humanity? Who’s leading us by the nose?” And a man rounds things off by answering her as best he can. “The Devil, probably…” Now a frequenter, like Charles, of forward-looking theological confabs, might sneer at such an inference. But in choosing, however inadvertently, to be inextricably entangled in an action zone confined to isolates doing intellectual gymnastics to get ahead, where the ahead crumbles at the moment of its emergence, Charles has surrendered his freedom (that mantra of politicians everywhere) to a causal priority allowing of a hegemony of manipulative power, and that’s where a figure like the Devil becomes a going concern apropos of a demonic surge toward “Something small.” The little symposium on the bus (which, fittingly, crashes due to the driver’s being distracted by some heartfelt troubleshooting), by contrast with all the bullish insistence at the academic religious seminar, offers a glimpse of a wave of despair welling up amidst a huge public network of satisfied, certified problem solvers. In this way the narrative provides reflective architecture to sustain its metaphorical case that a bon vivant like Mike Hammer, attending (in however disorganized a way) to payoffs off-limits to respectability and material wealth formation, could see things worth seeing, and far more strange and exciting than the Devil.
Apparently on its release this film occasioned something of a caution, due to the possibility of leading impressionable adolescents to commit suicide. There is to me a far more serious difficulty elicited by its so consummately disclosing a compact of malignancy and an extremely violent exponent of refusal to engage that travesty. Bresson’s ruthlessly ironic presentation might be readily taken to broach an icy subversion as more appropriate for a mass of effete thugs than Mike’s one-man Zulu uprising. Weighing the way in which that latter figure presides over the eventuation (hardly an all-powerful archangel, but something of a devil)—tracing from Gene Kelly and his white sports car (quite a different matter from Alberte’s white Triumph) in Young Girls, to Roland Cassard and his Dr. Soberin-like black limo in Umbrellas of Cherbourg, as trailing back to Lola, where there is a Michel in a white Cadillac convertible and a diamond smuggler (Cassard’s associate) named Valentin—we can be quite sure Bresson had a far more self-controlled sense of countering the nearly universal blight. How would Lars von Trier read this sticky logical ordeal, in his film, The Idiots (1998)?