Wednesday, February 29, 2012

PopMatters Feature: ReFramed No. 20 - Robert Bresson's The Devil, Probably

The Devil, Probably is one of Robert Bresson's deepest, most compelling dramas, worth remembering for far more than its controversial subject matter.
Calum Marsh: If the films of the great French director Robert Bresson don’t require critical reevaluation, it’s because for the most part they already have been. Considered for many years to be too demanding and coldly intellectual, Bresson’s work has more recently been embraced by the critical establishment, and a few of his most popular films—Au Hazard Balthazar and Pickpocket in particular—have pretty much secured their place in the canon. This is certainly a positive development, and I’m happy to see any of Bresson’s films celebrated so effusively.

But, as with many of the canonical directors discussed in this column, selective praise can have unfortunate consequences, as when later, less easily digestible works find themselves eclipsed by their author’s suddenly minted classics. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bresson’s filmography has been subjected to precisely this sort of narrow cherry-picking, and it’s kept late masterpieces like his The Devil, Probably, from 1977, off the public radar and out of the popular critical discourse altogether. And, as usual, we’re here to tell you that this is a real shame, because The Devil, Probably is one of Bresson’s deepest, most compelling dramas, worth remembering for far more than its controversial subject matter.

Jordan Cronk: You took the words right out of my mouth, Calum. The first thing I wanted to mention going into this was how interesting it is to think that Bresson’s achievements were at one time not only under-recognized but severely misjudged by the larger critical establishment. Back in 1998, when the critic and curator James Quandt put together one of the only complete North American retrospectives of Bresson’s features (a feat he’s duplicated this year; the series is touring North America as we type), he wasn’t nearly the revered auteur he is today.

Bresson has long been accepted by the French critical guard and more forward thinking American critics such as Andrew Sarris, J. Hoberman, and Jonathan Rosenbaum, but through the increased distribution of many of his film’s prints, along with the advent of DVD, Bresson’s reputation has risen considerably over the last decade-plus. For our generation, this can be a weird concept to try and wrap our minds around, but often times the most unique and important advancements in art can be the most difficult to come to terms with. An interesting anecdote was relayed in a similar discussion between Rosenbaum and Kent Jones in a recent edition of IndieWire’s ‘Critical Consensus’ column, wherein the former described Bresson’s reputation at NYU in the early-60s as “a joke, even to some extent by his admirers.”

With that all being said, The Devil, Probably has never at any point been considered amongst Bresson’s greatest works. It’s true that the film’s stock has seen a decisive turn toward the positive in the last few years, but it’s confrontational subject matter along with its position within Bresson’s catalogue—between two other “major” works, Lancelot du lac and his final film, L’argent—have seemed to work toward sidelining serious discussion, when it’s this film in particular that warrants in depth and well considered critique, whether positive or negative. I suppose in some sense I can understand why some have been unable to engage with the film.

This is, along with L’argent, Bresson’s most thematically difficult and uncompromising work, and when coupled with the director’s severely uninflected, formally stripped aesthetic approach, it can leave one not only with typical impressions of the director’s work such as dry, obtuse, or pedantic, but worse as disengaged, unintelligible, or even hollow. Funny then, that we would agree that this is one of Bresson’s most compelling films, rich with ambiguity, certainly, but provocative, bleak, and ultimately, I think, empathetic. Bresson’s films were never known to be anything but stern and unsparing in execution—whether confronting religious, criminal, or historical subject matter—but even by his standards, The Devil, Probably is rather distressing. What do you make of the film’s larger reputation, Calum, and do you think advocating for a film such as this is losing proposition with so many other Bresson films more readily available and critically established?

Marsh: I think its reputation needs to be reconsidered, in the very least, because I worry that it’s an easy film to dismiss. I’ve made the same argument about the later works of Jean-Luc Godard, which are also regrettably absent from conversations about his strongest work: I think there is a sense in which older films are more easily forgiven for what might be perceived as flaws or barriers to entry, and even if this is largely an unconscious process it’s still one with very real, material effects. In the case of Godard, his 60s films are more readily embraced for what you might call their anthropological qualities—they act now as a portrait of a particular culture at a specific time and place, all of it now lost to history—even if the formal strategies of the film are conspicuously oblique. I think that helps account for why his ‘80s and ‘90s films lack that kind of immediate cultural cache—for very superficial reasons, they just don’t resonate with people in the same way.

All of this applies to Bresson, too, whose career encompasses both the older, more apparently “classical” period of the ‘40s and ‘50s straight through to the ‘70s and, with L’argent, even the early ‘80s. So while Pickpocket and The Devil, Probably share many of their most defining formal characteristics—affectless acting, disorienting close-ups, minimal exposition—the former is more easily digested because it can be framed and approached as a snapshot of the late 1950s. I don’t think people are consciously approaching his earlier works this way, of course—and I doubt anyone would admit to preferring that period to the later period on cultural-historical grounds alone—but it’s phenomenon occurring tacitly, and the influence of that thinking is observable everywhere.

That’s the best explanation I’ve been able to come up with for the lack of attention being paid to later works like The Devil, Probably, and we can see how it might apply to many more of the directors we’ve discussed in this column. How else could a film this masterful be neglected so resolutely? As is so often the case with the films we talk about in these pages, The Devil, Probably still isn’t available on Region 1 DVD, and the only Region 2 DVD I know of is completely out of print. Perhaps the Bresson retrospective that’s been touring recently will incite some new interest in the film, but it’s just as likely that it will continue to languish in comparative obscurity (I’d be interested to see what it’s ticket sales look like next to those for Bresson’s more canonical works screening as part of the same series).

So then, Jordan, what about this film appeals to you so much?

Cronk: Well, perhaps ironically, one of the specific characteristics that appeals to me about the film is one which you attributed to both Bresson and Godard’s early work, and that’s it’s evocation of a certain era in European culture. Despite not explicitly being about the May 1968 generation of disillusioned French youth, The Devil, Probably seems to have been birthed from a similar sense of political anger, one that feels unique to this period of time. In that sense it files nicely alongside some of Godard’s most neglected films from the tail end of his first wave such as Le chinoise, but coming as it did well after this disenfranchisement turned largely to resignation, it’s curious that it stands as one of the few Bresson films to engage with fundamentally modern, sociological concerns of a younger generation.

You could say we’re once again in Zabriskie Point territory here, yet Bresson’s film is rooted in actual experience and the bleak outlook of the narrative forgoes the sensual and hallucinatory aspects of Antonioni’s subject and instead cuts to the core of the human condition. There are sequences of drug use, environmental atrocities, and suicide documented here, but the manner in which it’s presented is less incensed then it is concerned—concerned, perhaps, that there really is no hope, and that society does eventually eat its young.

But besides all the heavy stuff, what I admire above all else is the film’s style. Bresson had been paring his aesthetic down with every passing film, to the point where his last few films are so austere that they can be difficult to follow despite being arguably nothing but a series of vital moments. I can’t think of another filmmaker so curiously uninterested in his actor’s faces, instead framing his characters’ extremities in close-up and following their movements in a stage-like manner. The films would therefore seem to unconsciously pattern their character’s robotic mannerisms, yet thanks to Bresson’s hard cuts and disorienting montage, these works are amongst the cinema’s most unassumingly dynamic.

The pairing of this subject with Bresson’s style would seem almost too complementary, as if they could somehow cancel each other out, but it lends the film a blunt edge that no matter what one’s impression is of the material, is sure to leave an impression. I know it’s a slippery slope to reduce Bresson’s work into a single stylistic whole, particularly when considering the breadth if his subject matter, but do these late works register in a similar manner with you, Calum, or do feel as if Bresson’s aesthetic at this point in his career could have just as easily complimented more digestible material, as it had in the past?

Marsh: No, I think you’re right: I think the style gels nicely with the film’s thematic (and I suppose also ideological) interests. In fact, it could be argued that the film’s cynicism only flourishes as it does because it’s in a sense “controlled” by its formal limitations. What I mean is that Bresson never sentimentalizes his subject’s suffering, and because the sadness of youth isn’t romanticized at all (as it is in many thematically similar films) it feels like genuine pain rather than a more palatable melancholy. And I think that’s an important part of why this film resonates with me so intensely. Even though it initially seems distant and emotionally remote, the conviction with which it expresses its world view eventually overwhelms you.

Oh, and as far as its formal qualities go, I think you’re right that it’s “unassumingly dynamic”. It’s strange, because while Bresson clearly leans toward asceticism, his aesthetic isn’t technically “minimal” or uninflected in the traditional sense—his films, and this one in particular, are actually quite stylized in their own way. His method of highlighting limbs, isolating them from the face and from the rest of the body, is one of his more notable visual motifs, but the dynamism runs even deeper. There’s a scene in this film that takes place on a city bus, and Bresson composes it like it’s a miniature city symphony. It’s hard to call stuff like that “minimalism”.

Cronk: True. And it’s perhaps reductions such as this—you can also throw transcendentalism into the mix of critical crutches—that cause many to assume that there isn’t a whole lot to explore in Bresson’s work beyond the canonized few. As I’ve mentioned with a number of other filmmakers we’ve spotlighted, I once again find these late works more fascinating than what came before—and for a variety of reasons but mostly because of their presumed disconnect from what proceeded, when in fact they are nothing less than refinements but often times also expansions of the inherent qualities of their director’s stylistic propensities.

And we haven’t even mentioned the actors in the film, which is understandable, as Bresson reduced his performers to what he liked to call “models.” But it’s worth noting that The Devil, Probably features some of the more memorable characters in late Bresson. In fact, Antoine Monnier’s Charles is one of the more vivid Bresson creations, symbolic in a sense that is recognizable and applicable to most of Bresson’s main characters, but very identifiable on a human level as well. The concerns of his character and the young contingent presented in the film aren’t markedly different from what a new generation is currently rallying against throughout North America.

You could say, then, that The Devil, Probably, despite being a time capsule in a sense and a very specific indictment of French politics, is the most applicable Bresson film for our current landscape. Out of the twenty films we’ve spotlighted in this series so far, it’s perhaps the most worthy of rediscovery, if only to highlight the commonalities between cultures and the restless adolescence society inevitably spawns. It’s a tough, uncompromising work, but it’s sympathies cross cultural and historical barriers. It feels due for wider recognition, surely, but it unlike most films we’ve covered, it feels like it has the power to provoke change and alter beliefs. One can only hope that one day we’ll catch up with not only its formal qualities, but also its prescient scope. [PM]

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