As various people including the leading character sits on the bus in Robert Bresson’s penultimate film, they discuss the problems of the world and wonder who is responsible. “The devil, probably” someone says. If this is so, how should one live in the world, and should one live at all? Bresson’s central character chooses not to do so, as he arranges for a friend to kill him, but he may bring to mind a comment made about Kafka: that he was afraid of everything but death, except maybe afraid isn’t quite the word. The character here is disgusted with everything but death, as though echoing the Pascalian idea that the self is hateful. This hatefulness is couched here in relation to the horrors of a world increasingly polluted by industrial living, so while Pascal’s seventeenth century claim is framed within a completely different, pre-industrial environment, Bresson asks how is the self hateful in the late twentieth century.
A 20th century thinker in the Pascalian tradition, Emmanuel Levinas, asks in an essay in Entre Nous, ‘Nonintentional Consciousness’, how is one to answer to one’s right to be, and we may wonder whether the justification becomes ever more hollow the more damage that is done to the planet in man’s name. It is one thing to be religiously inclined and suffer for the sins of the world, but what happens when your presence contributes to global warming, the depletion of the ozone layer and oil spillages? The manner in which Levinas looks at the problem in relation to Pascal is to say, is “my ‘being in the world’ or ‘my place in the sun’, my home – are they not a usurpation of places that belong to the other man who has already been oppressed by me?” To succeed in the world requires another’s failure; so is it better to be the failure to allow for the other man’s success; and should the other man also be a failure to allow me to succeed? This is a paradoxical psychology, perhaps, but one that predicates our existence not on selfishness but on selflessness. However, this hardly seems possible in a world given over to the self, and not the selfless, and where as a consequence, we ignore, Levinas says, “fear for all the violence and murder my existing, despite its intentional and conscious innocence, can bring about.” This ought to become all the more problematic though in a world where we are not only destroying each other but also the planet.
It is as though out of such a problematic Bresson has worked in a few complications of his own. First through making that intentional and conscious innocence all the more difficult to attain in the face of environmental disaster that is humanly created, and secondly by a fascination with a character who takes more than he gives, and whose gestures seem almost to belong to another persona altogether. As we’re introduced to the life of a hippy figure who sleeps around, casually insults people and thinks nothing of careering about in friends’ open top sports’ cars, Bresson creates what we could call an extrinsic martyr, a figure for whom the martyrdom doesn’t seem an essential component of character. If one thinks of the presentation of Jesus on screen, in King of Kings, Jesus of Nazareth, The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ (Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew is another matter), Jesus is an embodied martyr, someone for whom the deeds and the thoughts are closely integrated. The problem is one of grounded selflessness, with Jesus possessing a philosophy that allows him the confidence to assert his beliefs, and also possesses the capacity for miracles.
The central character in Bresson’s film lacks this embodiment, and the director extends this absence by using a model rather than an actor. In his work, in A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, Mouchette, Lancelot du Lac, Bresson casts non-professionals, and expects them to deliver line readings that are stilted, and to move within the frame with no sense of motivation behind their behaviour. Bresson doesn’t shoot the performance; he edits it. As he says in his short book Notes on the Cinematographer, “Model. Has become automatic, protected against any thought,” and that “nothing is durable but what is caught up in rhythms. Bend content to form and sense to rhythms.” The actor offers not a concrete performance but serves an abstract purpose, as Bresson tries to avoid the resolute, the narratively solvable. “They want to find the solution where all is enigma only”. How to find, if you like, the enigma and not the solution, how to shift the question away from embodied martyrdom in a rational world of Christianity, no matter the miracles, to an enigmatic world where one doesn’t say God, definitely, but the devil, probably?
There are at least three ways in which we can illustrate the shift from the biblically assertive to the devilishly fretful, and we’ve already touched upon two of them. The first is in opening up the Pascalian question of human wretchedness and to open it up farther into the world of environmental catastrophe. The second is to remove immediate human agency for that catastrophe by working with performances that lack the usual behaviour, psychology and motive of film characters. Thirdly, we notice Bresson finds a visual form to register the problem without arriving at an aesthetic that would at least cinematically readily resolve it.
Milan Kundera once proposed that Goethe might have been the last person to possess the capacity to understand the world in all its epistemological manifestations: to understand Maths, science, art and literature, engineering and medicine. A similar claim could perhaps be made in the context of ethos: that a man might feel he was capable of comprehending the poverty of his surroundings and be able to take direct responsibility for alleviating it. In such responsibility lies guilt and action; and that if one doesn’t act guilt increases; if one does it decreases. But if the world becomes so abstracted that everything one eats, drinks, wears and watches leaves one feeling unlocatably exploitative, the ethical problem meets with the epistemological one: man is no longer merely wretched; he can’t even quite understand how and why he is wretched. In such an instance it is understandable that one feels as despairing as the person who sees poverty everywhere, and yet quite literally doesn’t quite see it. Indeed one may even need to help destroy the environment to witness it: to travel to parts of the globe where third world exploitation allows man a first world lifestyle.
Bresson captures this paradox of perception and feeling by creating a character, Charles, whose problem with the world isn’t quite integrated into his behaviour in the milieu. In one scene we see him getting a lift in a white convertible to an apartment by one lover with another lover in the backseat, the one with whom he then goes up to the apartment and to whom he makes love. His flitting between the two women causes not only them pain, but others also, to those who are in love with the women. Yet his assisted suicide has very little to do it would seem with guilt towards the emotional complications he creates, and he says as much quite late in the film when discussing his feelings to an analyst he visits after Charles gets accused of stealing from a church collection. “I just want to be myself” Charles says, and proves it less in what he says, as he insists he hates the manner in which he is supposed to conform to the wants and desires of consumer society, than in getting up and going over to the fireplace and playing with a paperweight. This is basically object violation, where someone handles the property of others as if it is one’s own. Where theft is an appropriation of something that belongs to someone else, the casual playing with another’s possessions in their environment can carry a greater sense of disdain. The thief at least respects the items he steals; the person who treats them as if they were his own before putting them back seems to be undermining them. Yet this is exactly what the central character does whether it is with the women he sleeps with, the car he rides around in, the flats he stays in or even in relation to a church he watches a friend steal from. All contribute to the disdainful.
Yet while Charles may wish to be himself, we might note that Bresson frames him not with agency but devoid of it. Charles is assertive but not purposeful, with Bresson capturing this fascination he often has with wilfulness over purposefulness. It would make sense that Bresson’s take in The Trial of Joan of Arc would concern the trial and not the martyr’s earlier feats in battle. This is exemplified here, as in much of Bresson’s work, in the framing, where he often opens a shot without a human being in it. He frequently holds on door handles, the handle of a lift or a banister in a stairwell, awaiting the human whose agency cannot be given. Here the second problem we talked of earlier – the removal of immediate human agency – addresses the third: how to create characters without existential vigour, and how then to film the subsequent absence? If we have characters moving through space without strong gestures, and then have these spaces filmed in a manner that indicates the person is not central to them but peripheral, then an aesthetic of wretchedness can be created.
It might be useful here to sketch in a brief history of the passive in cinema and to see how Bresson achieves the wretched in a manner very different from the passivity we find in neo-realism or even in Antonioni’s work. Central to neo-realist cinema was the awareness that the social environment impacted strongly on the characters’ lives, and that any self-motivated action was contextualised by the social milieu. In Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D., director Vittorio de Sica and scriptwriter Cesar Zavattini want agency countered by milieu, so that we can have a character active within the frame but weak next to the milieu of which he is a part. The shot contains the character that will move freely within the frame, but the frame will encapsulate far more than the movement of the character. Neo-realism showed the need for self-assertion, with the central character’s search for the stolen bike in Bicycle Thieves so he can work, and the titular character’s wish to continue living in the apartment he is getting evicted from in Umberto D.. Neo realism thus often explores one’s attempts to impact upon the world, but shows that the world is cruel and harsh and will often better one’s attempts. In Antonioni’s work, in The Eclipse or The Red Desert, the milieu outstrips the characters in quite different ways. The problem is not of poor people in bad situations, but comfortable people in confused ones, existing in a fast-moving world that the characters cannot quite comprehend: the stock exchange in The Eclipse and industrialisation in The Red Desert. If in neo-realism the characters are often defeated by the milieu; in Antonioni’s films they are frequently neurotically sensitised to it.
Yet their very sensitisation is still more obviously theirs than the Bressonian figure who seems to be visited upon, as though the character is not of the world but strangely lent to it. By God, perhaps, or the devil probably. Whether it is the central character in Pickpocket wondering by what strange route he has found Jeanne at the end of the film, titular character Mouchette’s suicide, or Charles’ death here, character complexity gives way to a sort of visitation, a sense that the characters are not motivated in psychological terms, but overcome in ontological terms.
To explain more clearly it might be useful to look again at the scene where Charles visits the psychiatrist, and compare it to an early scene from The Eclipse, and also a sequence in Eric Rohmer’s La Collectionneuse. In Antonioni’s film the central character played by Monica Vitti decides to leave her partner, and their apartment. As she tries to explain her feelings she toys with the objects in the flat in a manner superficially similar to Charles, but while she might say more or less what Charles says when he says he wants to be himself, she does so in a way that while showing a high degree of indecision, still registers as behaviourally plausible. When Charles picks up the paperweight it might seem ostensibly bad acting: a moment where the actor doesn’t quite know what to do with himself so picks up a prop to hand even if it violates the social norms. It loses its coordinates with psychological plausibility, and one can choose to insist on its ineptitude, or to muse over its distinctiveness. “To scrape oneself clean of matter and realism, to emerge from vulgar imitation of nature,” Bresson says in Notes on the Cinematographer, as if he wanted never to view character from existence, but from transcendence, from a position beyond the everyday. To remove the gesture from the psychological is one of the ways in which to do so.
In La Collectioneuse there is a moment where the central character explains his position on life, the honour of not working, the importance of getting up when he likes and going to bed when he wishes. He offers his comments with much of the disdain present in Charles’s remarks, but they still seem much more psychologically grounded. Rohmer may have said that there are no more religiously inclined filmmakers than he, but he seems finally more interested in immanence than the transcendent: in showing the pleasures of life and the spiritual possibilities that come from being in the world. Suicide is generally irrelevant to Rohmer’s work where it is central to Bresson’s: Mouchette, A Gentle Creature, The Diary of a Country Priest and The Devil, Probably are all films concerned with the suicidal option, with the idea of escaping from the world, not immanently existing within it. Charles neither enjoys nature nor quite aggressively counters those who want to destroy the natural environment. In one scene in the forest, Charles sits in the car covering his ears, as the trees are being cut down. In another he watches a film where the environment is being destroyed, but again hardly becomes an activist. He moves towards not activism but pacifism, and ultimately to his own demise.
Numerous writers on Bresson have retreated from the ontological, concerning the question of being, and concentrated on the formal; others, if concerned with the spiritual at all, have tried to find the spiritual through the formal, with David Bordwell an example of the former, and Paul Schrader and Susan Sontag offering the latter. In Narrative in the Fiction Film Bordwell reckons Bresson’s films are examples of parametric narration, where the content gives way to the form, where realistic representation retreats as formal significance takes over. “No Metro platforms ever sounded so quiet; in these bank lobbies and train stations you can hear every rustle of banknotes, each footfall. The figures’ behaviour is equally stylized.” “Bresson’s use of the everyday is not derived from a concern for “real life”, Schrader says in Transcendental Style in Film, “but from an opposition to the contrived, dramatic events which pass for real life in movies.” Sontag in Against Interpretation believes “the subject of a film is only a pretext. Form much more than content touches a viewer and elevates him.”
Yet are we not arguing the opposite, saying that Bresson’s The Devil, Probably can be understood best not through thinking chiefly of its form, nor of its content, but through the spiritual problem it addresses? If the question becomes how to film wretchedness, and a wretchedness that is not individually neurotic (as in Antonioni) or socially dictated (as in neo-realism), then will a radical form issue from the question? We’re saying that Bresson’s form comes out of the sort of questions asked in a philosophical manner by Pascal and Levinas, and yet this isn’t quite the same thing as saying Bresson is doing philosophy, illustrating a problem. It is more that if one tries to answer the question with too much concern for form, or for the spiritual release that comes out of that form, there is a sense that the meaning of the film hasn’t quite been addressed. It is readily conceivable that someone feels nothing remotely spiritual in watching the film, and entirely possible that one will see that Bresson has avoided numerous conventions, yet still feel utterly unsatisfied. It would be too easy to say out of this dissatisfaction, and this spiritual non-event, that it reflects the paucity of the viewer’s own soul. Instead all one can do is try to understand the problem Bresson addresses, and whether his films offer an epiphany or not is another matter. When Sontag says “for Bresson, art is the discovery of what is necessary”, we may wonder what demands this parsimonious specificity. If one thinks of the film as a problem it sets out to address then we needn’t beg too many questions. Everything in The Devil, Probably goes into enquiring about the problem of wretchedness in contemporary life, and consequently the character’s disdain for living that can lead to his demise, makes us aware that his sense of purpose is secondary to the damage he can do by his presence on the planet.
In an interview in Projections 9, Bresson says that he made The Devil, Probably against the indifference people have towards the world at large, and that “at the time [of The Devil Probably], someone told me about a boy who had burnt himself alive in his school playground, somewhere in the north of France.” The boy had written a diary, and Bresson wanted to find out “what had gone on inside the head of this boy who didn’t express his thoughts very clearly but who had got into a panic about what we were doing to the world.” Now numerous critics talk of Bresson’s works as prison films (Mark Cousins in Widescreen for example), but where the prison is often figurative and theological rather than actual, no matter the numerous prison scenes in his oeuvre: A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, The Trial of Joan of Arc, L’Argent. But characters are imprisoned within Bresson’s perspective on the world, with any notion of freedom and will irrelevant next to broader forces. For some (like Schrader and Sontag) this leads inevitably to notions of pre-destination and free will, and Bresson couches this problem very interestingly by wondering how much freedom we possess in our lives and how we can utilise it. Freedom has usually been a pressing question for Bresson but never as a given, or a right, since after all how much agency do we possess to practice freedom in the first place? Freedom can only be the radical choice exemplified, a visitation more than a decision. This is partly why the body language is stiff, the gestures limited, the sense that any event, from a picnic here on the Seine to a meal in someone’s house, feels only partially dramatized.
In the scene where a character suggest it is the devil, probably, who is making us act the way we do, as people on the bus discuss what unseen forces are driving man, moments afterwards the bus driver turns round and looks at those conversing, and then in losing his concentration crashes into another vehicle? The scene ends with the sounds of cars tooting their horns, as Bresson chooses not to show us the damage to the bus that the driver has gone out to look at, but holds as so often on a door: the doors of the bus. On the soundtrack we hear the constant tooting of cars presumably caught in the traffic jam the crash has created. Afterwards Bresson cuts to a sign saying bathing is forbidden, and to the countryside where Charles and his friend witness the trees being felled. The combination of the irrelevant (holding on the door of the bus instead of following the concerned driver and the irritated tooting their horns) and the non sequitur of cutting from the scene to the woods, contains a consistency of enquiry. We feel the weight of the question, the problem of too many people and too much chaos, not the dramatic development.
Few filmmakers have pushed further into this problematic of despair without falling either into the psychological problem or the environmental problem; without arriving at ennui or activism. Bresson was never quite the preconceived formalist critics would often claim he happened to be, saying in Projections 9, “oddly enough, some of my films look very meticulously pre-produced but weren’t at all in fact”. It is perhaps the singularity of vision – the pressing need to address the question of the wretched and the attempt at grace within it; at realizing, as Pascal once said, that man, unlike a tree, knows that he wretched, and is willing occasionally to act upon this awareness – that is central here.
Out of this question comes certain formal necessities. One needs not actors with motivation, but models with a sense of a more general purposelessness. Instead of narrative progression there is instead a sense that any action is irrelevant next to a broader containment, and so Bresson cuts in such a way that the meaning between shots is strangely curtailed, evident in Charles’ arrest for stealing, and the consequent visit to the psychoanalyst. Narrative cause and effect generally creates momentum; Bresson’s ellipses generate logical gaps that slow the film down. Finally the framing can never be anthropocentric, but instead what we might call the ‘cosmocentric’, always generating perspective beyond character and not from character. Where Rohmer’s films are still the sum total of character point of view, and where this point of view is often vital (the misreadings of behaviour in My Night at Maud’s, the subtlety of perspective in Claire’s Knee as the central character loads the touch of the titular characters’ knee with significance, the snatched erroneous sighting in Pauline at the Beach), Bresson’s is removed from the social gaze. Whether this adds up to an epiphanic cinema is another issue, but that might be the very point. “Shudderings of images awakening”, Bresson proposed, but he would hardly claim that this shuddering would be as probable as a film engineered to do exactly that.