The Devil, Probably
The following is the text of a talk on Robert Bresson given
by Richard Hell preceding a screening of The Devil, Probably
on November 9, 2002 at the YWCA Cine-Club, NYC.
It is reproduced by robert-bresson.com with the kind
permission of the author, who retains copyright.
This article was
first published on the author's own website, richardhell.com.
Photo credit: Anthology Film Archives.
Note that opinions expressed herein are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent the views of
Note that we also have on site a
short report by Richard of his November 7, 2003 presentation
of the film at the International House, Philadelphia.
not enough time. There's not enough time. I
remember when I was a kid in my early twenties and I was
publishing books—I mean as a small publisher, not only a
writer—I was doing a book of Patti Smith's. We were
calling it Merde—and she drew some pictures, made
some graphics for it and one of them was just the words
"There's not enuf time" (she first wrote "enough" and
changed it to "enuf" which was better), and I thought that
was so glamorous, because for me there was way too much
time, way way too much time. Which brings me to The
Devil Probably doesn't it because the devil makes play
(wait no it's "work") for idle hands.
But what I was really thinking when I said there's not
enough time was that when I consider how I'd like to speak
of Robert Bresson, there's not enough time to sort it out.
I don't have enough time to be brief! Because it's true I'm
not who I was when I was 20 or 25 and I have come to the
kind of existence where there's not enough time and I am
ultimately glad of that, even if it brings an awareness that
I can't do justice to Robert Bresson.
But what brings me to this movie this afternoon is the
recognition in it of that kid who I was in the 1970's.
Doubtless it's presumptuous and ignorant for me to come to
the movie in such a self-centered way, but I think it's no
worse than coming to it by way of picking pockets. It's a
strange path I have had to take to come to Bresson.
So I want to talk a little about how this particular movie
affected and affects me. As I say, I came to Bresson late.
I don't know why. I've always loved movies and I thought I
had fairly sophisticated taste and knowledge. It's true
that Bresson goes against everything we're conditioned to
appreciate in movies by Hollywood and modern life, but then
so does Godard whom I've loved since I first saw his movies
in my teens. But then Godard did start out riffing on his
love for Hollywood genre movies, so he did kind of take you
on this educational ride, whereas Bresson is astonishing for
his utterly uncompromising fidelity to filmic values that
forego all audience manipulation, all pandering for any
cheap thrills. For instance, as Susan Sontag pointed out,
there's no conventional suspense in his movies. His movie
about a prisoner trying to get away actually reveals its
denouement in it's title:
[Un condamné à mort s'est échappé]
[literal translation:] A Man Condemned to
Death Escapes ([English release title:] A Man
Escaped). In fact it's funny, when we posted at my
website in advance of this screening a little account of the
story of The Devil, Probably I took the trouble to
make the ending of it into a hyperlink that the reader would
have to choose so that I wouldn't be giving away the ending
unless the reader wanted to know. But of course later when
I was looking at the movie again I saw that practically the
first shot of the movie is a newspaper headline shouting out
the movie's ending.
Also there's no humor in Bresson. Well, it is pretty much
impossible for anything really good not to be a little
funny, but there's as little humor as you can imagine.
Dostoevsky seems to have been an artistic brother for him,
at least in terms of themes—Pickpocket and Une
Femme Douce and Four Nights of a Dreamer are
all derived to degrees from Dostoevsky—and maybe the
incidental humor in Bresson happens the way it does in
Dostoevsky, rooted in grotesque pathos. Nobody ever even
smiles in a Bresson movie. I didn't do an absolutely
thorough examination, but the only moment I noticed in
The Devil Probably where there was a hint of
upturned lips on a character was during the most disturbing
scene of the movie and happened when the main character
Charles realizes the bus he's on is out of control.
I also detected exactly one joke. When Charles is in a
psychiatrist's office—where he's gone at the
insistence of his girlfriend who's worried about his
suicidal tendencies—he relates a dream of being dead
but of still being hit and trampled by his killers, and the
shrink, who looks like a rabid raccoon, asks him, "Do you
see yourself as being a martyr [pronounced in French: uh
mar-teer]?" And Charles replies, "Only an amateur
[ama TER]... When I wanted to drown myself or pull
the trigger, I realized it wasn't all that easy." Pun!
It's also kind of funny that later on in that psychiatrist
scene when Charles in his endearingly sincere way describes
again his problem with actually being able to carry out the
deed (of suicide) the psychiatrist—in what doesn't seem
like some kind of reverse-psychology but actually just out
of fatuous self-important pride-in-erudition—points out
"That's why the ancient Romans entrusted a servant or friend
with the task." Which of course is exactly what Charles needs to hear,
as the movie moves to a close...
Nearly all movies made are not only essentially filmed
theater, but are confections entirely intended to elicit
audience saliva, to give them reflexive thrills, to play to
their weaknesses. They're fast food and candy. I'm not
saying I don't like such movies: there are lots of them that
not only give me pleasure but that I respect. For instance
in the midst of my thinking about Bresson in the last couple
of weeks, I was invited to a screening of a movie by Doris
Wishman. She was a woman who made soft-core porn movies,
mostly in the '60s and '70s though the one I saw was from
the '80s. It was called Let Me Die a Woman and was
a "shockumentary" type sexploitation flick about
transexuality and it was completely fantastic—and I don't
mean that from any kind of so-called irony or
double-standard—and it was great to see while I was
thinking so strenuously about Bresson because it was for all
practical purposes as satisfying as him, as different as its
origins were. It was a great demonstration and reminder
that good will and a purity of spirit even when fully
devoted to the pleasing of an audience can result in a very
great movie. [Mention Hitchcock...?] (Though I don't
hesitate to say I hate Steven Spielberg, I hate David
But Bresson is in a class of his own—the film lover's
filmmaker and the filmmaker's filmmaker—for his heroic
insistence on fidelity to the soul and truth of film as
moving pictures in sequence with sound, rather than mere
filmed theater (Filmed theater being acting—people adopting
facial expressions as signals of emotions—for instance.
But beyond that even, Bresson doesn't want a piece of film
to have any significance apart from its relationship with
another piece of film. He really means that and it's
radical—if you isolate a shot of his there's hardly ever
any narrative information in it, if he has to tell you
something happened for narrative purposes he's likely just
to have someone in the film say it happened.). Doubtless
this is partly why it took me so long to find him: his films
at first glance and in comparison to what we're barraged
with in the way of audio-video can seem straight and
colorless and impossibly elliptical. There are no special
effects; in fact he uses only one lens even (a fifty
millimeter, the single lens that most closely approximates
the view of the human eye); he uses music only very
sparingly, and by the last few films (such as the one we're
seeing today) didn't use any music that didn't originate in
the action on screen; and most notoriously he never uses
actors, but instead non-actors that he refers to as models,
none of whom he ever used more than once, and whom he
rehearsed relentlessly to get all taint of expression out of
their speech and faces. In fact he tends not to show any
extreme moments, anything "dramatic" at all (for instance
the way he handles the bus crash scene I referred to, which
is partly what's so disturbing about it). He leaves out
precisely everything that Hollywood builds movies around.
He likes to shoot people's feet, he likes hands on
doorknobs, he likes windows and doorways and street noises.
Above all it seems to me his movies are like life. Not very
much happens in life. But in life, as in Bresson's movies
that not very much that is happening is very important, in
fact it's God, and after you watch Bresson for a while it's
almost unbearably charged and beautiful.
Speaking of God, you have to when talking about Bresson.
His movies feel spiritual, in the least cornball way
possible. My personal definition of God is "the way things
are" and that's what it seems to me Bresson's movies are
about, as is just about all interesting art one way or
another. But once you start learning about Bresson, you
discover that he's a Catholic and much is made of his
beliefs in that line. Of course most French people are
Catholics and it's said that once they get you for your
first few years they have you forever. Rimbaud used to
write "God is shit" on park benches. Truffaut saw Hitchcock
as a Catholic filmmaker. But apparently for at least a
significant part of his life Bresson was what is called a
Jansenist. I know hardly anything about Catholicism though
I've been doing a little research. There are two things
I've found mentioned most often about Jansenism. One is the
belief that all of life is predestined, and the other is
that it's possible to achieve grace but the attainment of
it, the gift of it, is gratuitous—grace doesn't necessarily
go to the so-called "good." Personally, as perverse as
Catholicism has always seemed to me, at this stage of my
life I don't find those beliefs strange at all. Naturally
Bresson resisted being classed as a Catholic artist in a way
that pretended to explain his movies. There's an interview
with Paul Schrader where Bresson gets very impatient with
Calvinist Schrader's presumptions about him. But Bresson
doesn't make a secret of his belief that life is made of
predestination and chance. At first glance to many this
will seem impossibly strange, but I think it can also be
seen as something simple and clear and ordinary, namely a
kind of humility and mercy, a kind of forgiveness and
compassion, and also as even obviously true. Look at
history. Has all the talk, or rather all the doctrine,
changed anything? No, people are who they are and things
happen as they must. It's nobody's fault and it doesn't
change. It's nobody's fault. It's God. Or the devil,
probably. It's just how things are.
Another quick thing about religion and about Bresson's
uncompromising casting of his movies. I think it's
interesting that even though Bresson utterly opposes false
Hollywood values, his "models" are really good looking.
When I first considered this, my reasoning went, a little
pettily, ah-ha—so he isn't perfectly pure—he still can't
resist attractive people as his "stars" even if they aren't
pre-established-commercial-draw type stars; and then, but
that's not necessarily "corrupt" in any way—he naturally
wants the people who inhabit his stories to be people we
care to look at; and then finally I came to the sense that
what his models' appearances have in common is the same
quality of the models used in medieval and renaissance
religious paintings, paintings of saints and martyrs—the
faces are hardly ever merely beautiful, the insipid beauty
of the fashion model or porn-star type, they're oddly
beautiful, they're emphatically but eccentrically beautiful
(like Dominique Sanda--of Un Femme Douce--and Anne
Wiazemsky, costar of Au hasard, Balthazar), but
above all they feel soulful, they read as having an inner
life, a depth, even when inhabiting the most deprived of
characters like Mouchette. [Sidebar: Many of the
leads in his movies—there were thirteen features and
Devil was the 12th—never worked in any other
films, but Dominique Sanda for Bertolucci [etc.], and Anne
Wiazemsky going on to Godard, whom she marries too [etc.],
and the odd trivia that Wiazemsky was the granddaughter of
Francois Mauriac, and Antoine Monnier who plays Charles in
today's movie the great-grandson of Matisse...].
But on to The Devil Probably... I wanted to
introduce this particular Bresson movie for very personal
reasons. I hope you will bear with me in this. I didn't
see this movie until 1999, but it was made in 1977.
Bresson's birthdate is half the time listed as 1901 and half
the time 1907, so anyway he was at least seventy when he
made the film. I was in my twenties in the 1970s and I was
writing poems and fiction but mostly writing and playing and
recording music, songs. My first album was also released in
1977 and it was called Blank Generation after the
song on it of that title. That album and the things I was
doing became classed as "punk" along with a lot of other
musicians and music that surfaced around then. Frankly
though I'd always felt that that album of mine, which I
really see as consistent with the other things I was doing
at the time including my "novellina" The Voidoid
and the book of poems I wrote in collaboration with my then
friend Tom Verlaine that we called Wanna Go Out? by
Theresa Stern as well as the many interviews I did [not to
mention such things as the t-shirt I made which read "please
kill me" on the front], were all kind of failed in a
significant way, even though they got a considerable amount
of attention and even respect. I felt like they were failed
because I never got any indication that they were actually
received, were "read," were interpreted in the way they were
intended. That the overall view of things I was trying to
convey, the condition I was trying to express, was never
successfully communicated. I didn't really get any
indication from the reception my activities got that I was
getting through. I remember for instance an interview I did
with one of the people who was most sympathetic to what I
was doing and saying, Lester Bangs, and I spent the
interview trying very hard to elaborate (because he asked me
to) on my take on things in songs like "Blank Generation"
and "Love Comes in Spurts" and "Who Says (It's Good to be
Alive) ?"—songs which he was crazy about, but about which
he could only willfully half-hear what I was saying in
defense of their message of doubt and hopelessness because
he thought there was something immoral in that
hopelessness... I tried to explain to him, I wasn't
choosing doubt and suspicion and despair, I was
taken there by reality. I wasn't affirming it, I was just
trying to see clearly. But he couldn't hear that, in my
opinion because he was scared of it in himself, but for
whatever reason he could only reject my position as being
infantile and immoral. And basically he was the only person
I was aware of who'd even fully acknowledge these messages
that all my work tried to manifest. Everybody else who
spoke of it at all just called me solipsistic and nihilist
and dismissed it as beneath consideration.
And then, after falling in love with Bresson, I come to this
particular movie and for the first time find someone,
twenty-five years later (when I encountered the movie), but
of course independently of any knowledge of me or my local
world but in the same period (circa 1977) when I was
experiencing these things—and he's perfectly comprehending
them and presenting them with the greatest delicacy,
respect, and highest artistry. So it wasn't all a dream!
How amazing. I existed and Robert Bresson said it matters
and is interesting. I not only was but I was worthy of the
most careful consideration. To tell you the truth I knew
this, but still it is most gratifying to hear it from
Bresson. It is so cool to be verified by the filmmaker whom
one already loved above all others! So maybe you'll laugh
at me, but I'm confident of it and I don't care.
I have to admit I have no idea what the significance of the
line in the movie that gives it its title is supposed to be.
It occurs during that bus scene which I mentioned as being
the most disturbing and ominous of the film. I don't know
because I have no idea where Bresson is coming from when he
brings up "the devil." In the scene, which is full of
mirrors and push-buttons and levers and the tops of heads
and people's separated midsections, Charles says to his
travelling companion, "Governments are shortsighted," and
suddenly everybody in the bus is chipping in. One says not
to blame governments, "it's the masses who determine
events... Obscure forces whose laws are unfathomable." A
woman adds, "Yes something is driving us against our will."
Someone else: "Yes you have to go along with it," and people
continue until someone asks, "So who is it that makes a
mockery of humanity? Who's leading us by the nose?" And the
first guy who spoke goes, "The devil probably," and the bus
crashes and the soundtrack degenerates into horrible honking
horns... It's amazing the way everything about the scene
builds to a crescendo of ghastliness.
There are many such scenes in the film. In fact sometimes
looking at the movie I get a feeling of the world as a
horrible prison, or some kind of Gnostic-type third rate
universe made by degenerate gods. The continuous sharp
clicking of the footsteps and the noise of traffic, the
evident poisoning of the world by money mad humans,
everyone's inability to help each other in any way, the
tedious deliberation with which every motion is made...
But at the same time it's all breathtakingly beautiful. The
movie of Bresson. Though my description of The Devil
Probably may make it sound extreme and
sensationalistic—what with suicide and predestination and
political horrors, etc.—the notable thing really about it
and all other Bresson films is its absolute simplicity and
its commitment to ordinary moments of everyday life. It's
just an everyday life that is lived with open eyes and with
a desire to know reality. Bresson was a painter before he
made movies and though he described true filmmaking as
"writing"—just as he reconceived the people of his films as
models, rather than actors, he reconceived cinema as
"cinematography," his term used not in the familiar meaning
in English of "camera-wielding" (the job of the "camera man"
on a movie), but in his own sense of "writing with a
motion-picture camera"—along with this, he also referred to
himself as a painter all along, with a painter's eyes and
sensitivities. (In fact in a late '60s interview with
Godard where the origin of Bresson's Au hasard,
Balthazar comes up, he says, "The idea came perhaps
visually. For I am a painter. The head of a donkey seems
to me something admirable. Visual art, no doubt. Then all
at once, I believed I saw the film." [Quandt, 1998, p 478]) And Bresson's
filmmaking gives a dignity and tremendous power to ordinary
life, the truth of life that hardly any other films
acknowledge at all. Other films don't trust life or people,
they have to give a false drama to everything, make a
spectacle of pointless dishonest overstimulation. In
Bresson, the quiet becomes excruciatingly rich. I think
finally the reason the films have the spiritual feeling they
do is precisely because their whole purpose is to try to
avoid lying—to try to avoid being misled and to try not to
mislead anyone—but rather to just see and listen and
reflect. It is such an achievement to notice and consider,
it actually becomes way more intense than Star Wars
shootouts or whatever.
Believe it or not there is so much more I could say and I
would like to and even intended to say about Bresson, but I
should just let him speak for himself. Let me just point
out that apart from the movies there are two wonderful books
you should get if you are interested in him. The first is
his Notes on Cinematography which is a series of
short notes which more or less encapsulate his intentions
and ideas as a filmmaker; and then this real good recent
anthology of writings about him and interviews with him,
called Robert Bresson edited by James Quandt
(Toronto: Cinemateque Ontario, 1998).
The above article is
© 2002-2003 Richard Meyers – it
may not be reproduced without the express permission of the author.
"For myself, there is something which makes suicide possible—not even possible but
absolutely necessary: it is the vision of the void, the feeling of void which is impossible to bear."
—Bresson [Quandt, 1998, p 489]
From The Devil, Probably:
Young Man: In losing my life, here's what I'd lose! [He takes out a piece of paper from his pocket and begins to read from it] Family planning. Package holidays, cultural, sporting, linguistic. The cultivated man's library. All sports. How to adopt a child. Parent-Teachers Association. Education. Schooling: 0 to 7 years, 7 to 14 years, 14 to 17 years. Preparation for marriage. Military duties. Europe. Decorations (honorary insignia). The single woman. Sickness: paid. Sickness: unpaid. The successful man. Tax benefits for the elderly. Local rates. Rent-purchase. Radio and television rentals. Credit cards. Home repairs. Index-linking. VAT and the consumer... [He crumples the paper up and throws it with disgust into the fireplace.]
Psychiatrist: Loss of appetite often accompanies severe depression.
Young Man: I'm not depressed. I just want the right to be myself. Not to be forced to give up wanting more . . . to replace true desires with false ones based on statistics...
[The pyschiatrist starts on his diagnosis of the young man's condition.]
Psychiatrist: . . . would impede your psychological development and would explain the root of your disgust and your wish to die.
Young Man: But I don't want to die!
Psychiatrist: Of course you do!
Young Man: I hate life. But I hate death, too. I find it appalling.
[The young man further contends:]
". . . if I commit suicide . . . I can't think I'll be condemned for not comprehending the incomprehensible."
Quandt, James (ed.), Robert Bresson,
Cinematheque Ontario Monographs, No. 2.
Indiana University Press, 1998; 624 pp. ISBN 0-9682969-1-2.