There’s something deeply disturbing about the hopelessness one encounters in Robert Bresson’s 1977 film Le Diable Probablement about a youth who’s attempting to find meaning or significance in the world around him. Ultimately, he fails to find anything at all illuminating about the society around him – a social commentary that was as poignant in the 70’s as it is now. I was fascinated to note the parallels between youth culture then: innately suspicious of authority and the seemingly self-destructive nature of ‘civilization’, and youth culture today which is colored by a similar distrust of appearances.
The movie opens by introducing us to Charles, who’s embittered by the philosophically stagnant culture he finds himself growing up in. In a desperate attempt to locate some sort of redemptive outlet for his intellectual and physical endeavours he staggers from discipline to discipline. In religion he finds little to hold his attention, political rallies seem somehow fake or insincere, and psychoanalysis and psychology, while allowing him to confront his predicament in a tragically honest way, can’t inspire him. In the same vein, he moves from relationship to relationship, perhaps enjoying the physical moment, but is then left even more depressed by the knowledge of its superficiality and transience.
Bresson paints Charles (Antoine Monnier) as a self-proclaimed Übermensch, one who is so stricken by his own objective reality and its pointlessness that for the entire movie he is plagued by an underwhelming desire to take matters into his own hands. There’s a lot to love about Bresson’s filmmaking: the starkness and austerity that reflects the theme of Le Diable Probablement immediately puts the viewer on edge – we are all too aware of something being off-kilter, but our inability to localize it is only reflected in Charles’ selfsame predicament.
Likewise, the deadpan style of acting and the very long, often drawn out shots, seem to suggest an approach that is usually avoided by directors – that of holding a microscope on a character, regardless of how uncomfortable it makes your audience feel, for as long as it takes to delve into their psychological processes. In many ways it reminds me of some ancient as well as contemporary Japanese cinema – an ability to be still with your surroundings, and for even the most mundane of details in the environment to contribute to the narrative and idea behind a story. The problem is, while Japanese cinema succeeds in utilizing the environment as a character, Bresson’s film attempts the same task by relying strictly on the human characters.
While I can barely fault Bresson from a technical standpoint, there is something vexing about his portrayal of Charles: an unbelievability. Charles decides that suicide is the only formidable solution to his disgust and pays one of his heroin-addicted friends to do the deed instead. The problem isn’t so much with his decision, but with what leads him to that decision: he spends hardly any time really exploring the fields of politics, science, or religion he hopes will save him. At most he gives them a cursory experience, and then discounts them.
In terms of his relationships with other people he sometimes comes off as a borderline sociopath. It’s not that he has a particular contempt for anyone, but he treats everyone with a kind of detached coldness, an aloofness that stems from him feeling that he is somehow more advanced in his predilections. It’s this arrogance that ends up casting him in such a profoundly unlikeable light – and ultimately when the anti-climatic climax finally ensues, as the audience we are left stranded. The foreshadowing is present from the first few minutes, but it almost prepares us too well – do we feel anything for Charles, except pity?
He seems to obsess about key things that he thinks are important, but in doing so he seems to renounce anything else that might save him or change his mind. It is a scathing portrayal of a nihilistic culture, one which we seem to be growing into now with economic recessions, militant uprisings, and political upheaval, but I feel like those things act as precursors to inspiration and change. In Bresson’s film, the social commentary is present, but often times we wonder if it hasn’t withdrawn into itself, become somehow a victim of its own tunnel vision.
It’s hard to say. And perhaps I’ve read into it too much. Still, it’s hard to deny the emotional effect of the film, both in terms of a knee-jerk reaction to suicide and Western decline, and in terms of an overarching angst that once gripped – and perhaps still does – the youth of society.