Robert Bresson’s The Devil, Probably

The ancient Greek word daimon denotes multiple relations, forces and effects. In Homer’s Iliad, the daimon is an inscrutable power that motivates a soldier’s courage on the battlefield; in contrast, Socrates describes his daimon as the voice that possesses him to withdraw to a place of non-knowledge. When Socrates asks the female priestess Diotima what love is, she replies that love is not a mortal – rather, it exists between the mortal and the immortal. Socrates asks her to explain, and she says Love is “...a great spirit [daimon], Socrates: for the whole of the spiritual is between divine and mortal.” Pressing her further, she elaborates with a general description of the daimon:

“‘[The daimon interprets and transports] human things to the gods and divine things to men; entreaties and sacrifices from below, and ordinances and requitals from above: being midway between, it makes each to supplement the other, so that the whole is combined in one. Through it are conveyed all divination and priestcraft concerning sacrifice and ritual." [Republic, 202e]

Communication and transportation are intimately linked in Diotima’s explanation of the Love daimon. Whether bringing forth or holding away, the daimon is a vehicle for signification between the world of the mortal and the immortal, Being’s merging part between the finite and the infinite. The daimonic is then, in a sense, continuity.

Robert Bresson’s penultimate film The Devil, Probably (1977) tells the story of a teenager named Charles living in Paris in the wake of the social upheaval of ’68. Intelligent and highly sensitive, he is confounded by ecological catastrophe and politically bankrupt activism. To avoid making himself useful in a world he despises, Charles chooses to pursue nothingness and apolitical pleasure. Experimenting with the limits of intimacy, he involves himself in a complicated love triangle amongst his closest friends. He tests his mortality, attempting and eventually committing suicide. The prevailing reaction to the film is captured perfectly by critic Michael Dempsey: “an intolerable vision of total despair . . . a shriek of desolation at what [Bresson] views as humanity’s lemming-like rush towards destruction”. The film, and the other late color films of Bresson – Une Femme Douce (1969), Quatre nuits d’un rêveur (1971), Lancelot du Lac (1974), L’argent (1983) – are often seen as bleaker than Bresson’s early films, presenting doomed worlds forsaken by God, ruled by cold, machine-like determinism. The Devil, Probably was the first film by Bresson I saw, and when the film ended I remembered little of it. Nothing had made itself conspicuous to me, like walking through a crowd, or past something without a second glance. It was as if I had seen nothing.

In a way, the film seems to ask little more of the viewer than sensitive attention to persistent images of absence. The opening credits roll over a static, nearly pitch black shot of the Seine. After a moment, we hear a large boat, either a bateau mouche or a shipping freighter, before we see it passing. It gradually comes into visibility between the arches of the bridge, then disappears into the shadows. This first image is a synecdoche for the film’s enframed movements between concealment and unconcealment. Much of the action takes place off-screen, and what is shown is related in indeterminate ellipses. Gilles Deleuze once remarked that there are rarely entire spaces shown in Bresson’s films, and that shot-by-shot Bresson’s spaces are disconnected without predetermined relationships. Deleuze observes that it is always the hand that connects these spaces. Yet the most prominent sound in The Devil, Probably is of footsteps. Characters spend as much time walking, arriving and departing from the frame, as they do speaking and acting in the frame. On the one hand, the sound of footsteps obviously correspond with the movements of the people on screen. The footstep and its reverberation concretizes the relationship between foot and ground, and extends our sense of a virtual space. However, unlike the hand, expressive in spite of its silence as it grasps or touches, the footstep draws attention to something which is not a part of the person onscreen – their shoes.

Early in the film, a junkie indicates the sole of his shoe: “You see, sometimes you walk on the right and sometimes on the left”. He then proceeds to inspect the soles of the shoes of those gathered around him on the riverbanks, assessing whether they walk correctly or not, reading the signs worn into their soles. The Devil, Probably emphasizes the shoe amongst other modes of transportation – elevators, staircases, a white Triumph convertible, city buses. As mechanical methods of displacement, they all communicate differently: the blinking of an elevator call button, footsteps on a staircase, the sounds of traffic. These methods of conveyance form a network of relays, structuring narrative time and space. The relationship between the concomitant developments of the moving image and technologies of transportation has been thematized in film since George Méliès’ Voyage dans la Lune (1902). In the beginning of his 1948 lecture series “Insight Into That Which Is”, Martin Heidegger places the technology of film alongside the airplane, arguing that they equally affect space and time.

All distances in space and time are shrinking. Places that a person previously reached after weeks and months on the road are now reached by airplane overnight. . . . The germination and flourishing of plants that remained concealed through the seasons, film now exhibits publicly in a single minute. Film shows the distant cities of the most ancient cultures as if they stood at this very moment amidst today’s street traffic. Beyond this, film further attests to what it shows by simultaneously displaying the recording apparatus itself at work along with the humans who serve it. (3)

Early in The Devil, Probably, Charles’s closest friend Michel attends a meeting of an ecological activist group. They project 16mm footage of the clash between industry and Earth. Bresson shows us the graphic newsreel footage they watch: oil tankers effluent spilling into the ocean, deformed victims of radioactive poisoning in Japan, a baby seal getting bludgeoned to death in the Arctic. As Michel and the other activists read facts and figures, their impromptu voiceover participates in the creation of an illusion. When we watch this explicit, pornographic footage of catastrophe, it feels close to us – it touches us, the image’s violence short-circuits a physiological reaction. The danger is thinking that the strength of this reaction corresponds to understanding or knowledge. In Heidegger’s terms, the danger of the distanceless-ness effected by the moving image is in its concealment of the essential conditions of distance and nearness themselves. What is furthest away feels closest, obscuring what is near.

What is ontological cinema? This is a difficult question, often confused with a similar question – what is the ontology of film? When Stanley Cavell asks in The World Viewed what the beauty of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) is in service of, he addresses the former in light of the latter. Cavell proposes that Days of Heaven is a realization in cinema of some particularly poetic passages of Heidegger, which he quotes:

The first service man can render is to give thought to the Being of beings. . . . The word [being] says: presence of what is present. . . . The presence we described gathers itself in the continuance which causes a mountain, a sea, a house to endure and, by that duration, to lie before us among other things that are present. . . . The greeks experience such duration as a luminous appearance in the sense of illumined, radiant self-manifestation. (Heidegger in Cavell, xv)

Malick translates the images of these ideas into a perpetual magic hour, where work and days pass in harmony, then discord, between Earth and sky. Given Malick’s prior translation of Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons into English, this seems to be a relatively neat answer to the first question. “What is ontological cinema?” – it is, perhaps, a philosophically informed cinema which projects the radiance of Being, that captures in time the interplay of Being’s concealment and unconcealment. But, there was always something about Days of Heaven’s “successions of beauty” (Cavell, xv) that seemed hollow. To me, Malick’s recent work (the CGI sequences in The Tree of Life come to mind) exposes a latent fixation upon the photogenic and grandiose. What Malick seems to have forgotten in his later films is how to pose the question of what an ontologically minded cinema is capable of, which is precisely not the translation, literally, of particularly poetic images from philosophical writing particularly concerned with ontology. This image-language is incommensurable with what Bresson calls cinematography, a writing with images and sound in time.

For Bresson, cinema’s technological conditions open up the possibility of a different kind of performance. Bresson used the term model to refer to the non-actors who performed in his films. Like graphemes, his models express little on their own – they were trained in exercises to both move and speak expressionlessly, in an attempt of a total suppression of intention. In his collected Notes on the Cinematographer, Bresson describes the actor’s inadequacy as such – “Actors – movement from the interior to the exterior. Models – movement from the exterior to the interior... ACTORS: Seeming. MODELS: Being” (14). Instead of theatrical simulation, the human on film (like all objects on film) must be edited together for continuity. The communication of story and emotion on film comes more from the splicing of disparate parts than the dramatic strength of projected emotion. Later, Bresson uses the metaphor of physical distance to assert that the “nearer [actors] approach with their expressiveness, the further away they get” (65). This rejection of the theatrical in film echoes Heidegger’s description of contemporary psychology as “the beginnings of the leveling down of the mental-spiritual into something that is accessible to everyone at all times and thus, at base, already distanceless” (24, my emphasis). These aforementioned technological conditions of modernism generate information about the subject that is readily accessible, obscuring the possibility of a more profound understanding of action, intention and motivation. For Bresson, the suppression of the theatrical in the model is not only a way to faithfully render the distance we encounter from others, but also the distance from our own intentions we encounter amongst the automatisms of everyday life. Bresson’s philosophy of anti-theatricality is a radical faith in the syntactic power of cinema toanimate objects.

Towards the middle of The Devil, Probably, Charles and his activist friend Michel are riding a city bus and talking. “All you have to do to reassure people is deny the facts.” – “What facts? This is supernatural. Nothing is clear.” The mechanisms of the bus are shown. A passenger pushes the stop button, the sign is illuminated, the driver stops the bus, the ticket taker machine takes a ticket. Slowly others who overhear Charles and Michel’s conversation begin to participate “The masses determine events, obscure forces whose laws are unfathomable” – “Who is it that is making a mockery of humanity?” An anonymous passenger asks nobody in particular, “Who’s got us by the nose?”, and another replies “The devil, probably!” – the driver, who has been paying attention to the conversation, looks back at the road and suddenly the bus screeches to a halt – it’s crashed. The bus driver gets out to check on the damage, and the camera stays on the bus door open to the street. Outside of the frame, we hear one car honking, then another, until a dissonant choir of horns join together in a traffic jam. In this moment of distraction, error brings the sounds of the outside through a door left open in error; a breath of presence or an unanswered question.