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photography and film – facts, ideas, values

FILM FRENCH BRESSON The Devil, Probably {Le Diable Probablément} (1977)


 

 

 

“The movements of the soul were born with same progression as those of the body.”
Montaigne*

 

 

The region 2 Artificial Eye DVD has a filmography but no extras.

This is my second Bresson. Though I’ve watched The Pickpocket on YouTube. I’ll probably get the lot for my collection, but Bresson’s use of amateur actors is still unsettling. Who hasn’t watched a Bresson imagining the parts done by professionals and been distracted from the film in the process? Having commented on his style after watching Au Hazard Balthazar, I feel a strong urge to do so for this film, in other words. And to make some progress in understanding Bresson’s purpose and meaning.

This time the word tableau(x) came to mind (if that is the right word…).  Yes:  tableaux vivant, which is sufficient to suggest where Bresson is coming from. He was a painter before becoming a photographer before becoming a film-maker. It is also interesting to learn how many other film-makers use/d tableaux vivant.

Maybe Bresson thought he could somehow ‘translate’ still tableaux into a moving ones. If so, I don’t think it always works because – as if a sort of phenomenological epoché** was required – the viewer is being asked to put away much of what exists in the real world. People cough, splutter, grimace, scratch, gulp, check on what others are looking at and saying, relive recent events by relating them to others.

Bresson’s characters are made to look into the middle distance even when talking to someone quite close-up.

The hardest thing to take in a Bresson film as a viewing experience is the artifice in the acting. But then again plays are often highly stylised and we don’t seem to mind that. Maybe it is all about what we expect and don’t expect about film, that cuts across Bresson’s purpose in many of his films. For me it does in Balthazar and The Devil, though not in The Pickpocket [YouTube ].

A problem – if one can call it one – is the intellectual pre-requisites these films seen to require, particularly the theology. Not dissimilar to needing a degree in art history in order to get the full benefit from looking at renaissance paintings. Maybe that’s just called having a proper education! Or is this leading inexorably to “some films are for a narrow elite” ?

Even a poor man’s guide through the wiki links shows that Jansenists were Augustinian, and Augustine didn’t believe an individual has the ability to chose to be good, so obtaining salvation without God’s assistance. I suspect – though what do I know? – Bresson is in the territory of the City of Man and the City of God. He places a character in the City of God in a film that is clearly in the City of Man.

The heresy of Jansenism, meaning here its denial of Catholic doctrine, is that it denies the role of free will in the acceptance and use of grace—that God’s role in the infusion of grace is such that it cannot be resisted and does not require human assent. The Catholic teaching is that "God’s free initiative demands man’s free response" (CCC 2002)[3]—that is, the gift of grace can be resisted, and requires human assent.

That came from wiki:Jansenism.

Eric Mahleb’s post The Absolute Realism of Robert Bresson, is a good stopping off point here, such as:

By his own admittance, Bresson never attempted to make realistic films (‘I wish and make myself as realistic as possible, using only raw material taken from real life. But I aim at a final realism which is not realism’). His aim was to reach a certain truth, a state existing beyond the simply visible and accessible. But in the process of aiming for this truth, Bresson necessarily proclaimed an interest in the real. This desire for reality did not constitute an end in itself, only the means by which to achieve this greater goal of truth.

Mahleb goes on to discuss whether Bresson was a Jansenist: he quotes Susan Sontag: “…all of Bresson’s films have a common theme: ‘the meaning of confinement and liberty’ “.

The last part of Mahleb’s paragraph containing the Sontag quote says:

Certainly, his films are very much about seeking freedom from our bodies, bodies that constrain and restrict us in an earthly way, bodies that are subjected, poisoned and influenced by the diseases of society. Deterministic and fatalistic, Bresson’s characters have little to hope for in life except to reach Grace and the salvation it brings. Yet, it would be misleading to interpret this determinism (if one can truly talk of determinism in the context of Bresson) as necessarily pessimistic since Grace represents the ultimate, the absolute state to be reached, and thus, a positive deliverance from a society morally corrupt. Bresson does offer a way out, a dialectical escape from negativity. While the subject matters of the films may leave one with a sense of gloom upon their initial viewing, the feeling of hope and joy that underlies most of his work should more than compensate for it, as long as one is able to reach and see beyond the initial layer of ‘surface’ negativity. For instance, suicide, which occurs in several of the films, should not be looked upon as a cowardly act that ends a life but rather as an acceptable means of deliverance that enables one to reach a state of betterment. Upon watching Mouchette, we are left with no choice but to accept Mouchette’s decision to end her life as the only logical step, one that provides us with a feeling of understanding and almost complicity.

I find that very useful. Charles too in The Devil, Probably, “commits suicide”. The best touch in the film is right at the end: his friend shoots him in the back with the pistol that Charles has given him, just as Charles is about to explain exactly when he wants it to happen. He is shot in mid – sentence. We never learn what he finally wants.

 

Ronald Bergan, author of Sergei Eisenstein: A Life in Conflict, wrote a fascinating article in The Telegraph (13 August 1999), The filmmaker’s filmmaker, in which he quotes Bresson :

An actor, even a talented actor, gives us too simple an image of a human being, and therefore a false image.

Bresson seems to have this the wrong way round. Great actors always put something extra into film which brings it to life, even if we sometimes recognise they are too good to be true. Art needing artifice? For the ethologists among you, an actor can almost act as a supernormal  stimulus.

 

image

 

And yet one sees what Bresson means. The robotic, two-dimensionality of the amateur acting simplifies the process, so that we watch (attend to) particular features of a story in a certain way dictated by the director. But as I watch Bresson I feel he does not really add anything by taking away as often as he thinks, as he must have felt so strongly he did.

To me Bresson is coming from an art aesthetic – as well as the ascetic – which he felt convinced would work in film. Though happy to watch his films because I accept his method, and want to understand his message, it never makes for comfortable viewing. It is possible to get the point of what he does without coming away with a sense of commitment: but that sense is what makes something a work of art. Who wants an exercise in film? And yet. Film is a broad spectrum. Indulging in an analogy: in the electromagnetic spectrum the human visual sector is very small. Bresson seems almost to be overlapping into the UV or infrared.

 

image

 

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By some fluke, having two monitors and a good speaker system, there was during one viewing, a serendipitous, wildly just right juxtaposition of a FaceBookers video soundtrack running on one screen in synch with the final scene in The Devil, Probably on the other, in which Charles leads his friend to the cemetery he has chosen to die in. (In some Bresson films, there seems no point in worrying about plot spoilers, which says a lot about the style: documentary and yet not documentary; always an essay about film.) Putting a selection of popular music to the film as happened here by chance (a  5-minute short/music video by Mohamed Al Ajami accessible in FaceBook) would radically transform even what many watchers or re-watchers of Bresson are calling outdated, and without a single visual edit. Not Bresson, but interesting. It shows how the relative quiet in Bresson shows up the starkness of the amateur acting. Music, louder music, whether meant to be responded to the characters or diegetic, seems to take away some of this, and yet not detract from the story. Just make it more bearable.

Bresson can never be out of date despite this remark because he deals in universal themes.

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Bergan begins his piece with:

Robert Bresson is among the few film directors who have an adjective named after them. Like Capraesque and Hitchcockian, a whole world is immediately conjured up by the epithet Bressonian.

which is true.

He continues:

One definition of Bressonian reads: "Derived from the films of French director Robert Bresson, to describe a pristine, formal photographic style of cinema in which expressionless, non-professional actors personify the Catholic themes of transgression, redemption and grace. "

Samuel Cooper in his blog, Boredom is Always Counter-revolutionary, writes of The Devil, Probably (8 February 2010)

Rewatching Robert Bresson’s Le Diable, Probablement (The Devil, Probably 1977) recently, it struck me that this is a film out of time; or, more precisely, a vision that is neither today’s prehistory nor a premonition of tomorrow. By which I do not mean so much that it is either ahead of its time or behind the times. Instead, having chosen to distance themselves from an immediate engagement with the corporeal present, the film’s characters are suspended between the past and the future. They reject the status quo, but also they reject any alternative or any action against the status quo, resulting in an unhappy limbo of nihilistic conservatism.

Metapsychology online review.

Richard Hell gave a pre-screening talk on 9 November, 2002, at the YMCA Cine-Club, NYC.

In it he says:

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 sh–" 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.

Here is the pdf of the Interview Bresson gave to Paul Schrader in 1977:
Robert Bresson, Possibly. Schrader had written a book, Transcendental Style in Film. In 1972 Bresson wrote to Schader after reading it. The interview followed and was published in Film Comment.

* This a two-part interview with Tim Cawkwell, who wrote a book called The Filmgoer’s Guide to God. Tim Cawkwell’s Cinema is his own website for essays on a variety of films and directors. The interview is long and in two parts.

In part 2 they get on to Bresson proper. But it is worth reading the whole thing from the beginning.

One quote just to whet the appetite of those like me who ‘need to know’:

One of the most arresting things for me that Bresson said is in that famous Godard/Delahaye interview: He’s asked if he’s a Jansenist and he replies “Janséniste, alors, dans le sens de dépouillement…”, i.e. in the sense of “privation”. I think he means because he’s austere and not florid, not flamboyant. He’s a Jansenist in the sense that he has an austere, stark, subtractive style. If he wants to show someone opening a door, he shows a hand on the door handle. He doesn’t show the whole figure, or the whole door.
But immediately following that Bresson says Pascal is so "important for me". So he’s not really a Jansenist here. It’s Pascal who’s important for him. Then he adds “but he’s important for everybody” and you think, “Yes but how many people have read Pascal?”

The whole of the rest of part 2, at least a 1000 words, deals with Bresson, Jansenism, and Pascal. Which leads right back to what I said at the beginning of this post: a hunch from scant information that it was St. Augustine’s theology.

Cawkwell then goes on:

Pascal argues in favour of the theology of St Augustine. He rejects two groups, the Molinists — whom no-one’s ever heard of — who were followers of Cardinal Luis de Molina (1535-1600) and who argued that God has a conditional will to save all men generally. Pascal didn’t like this because it excludes God from free will. It makes it sound like all that humans have to do is to be good and deny evil and they’re saved, so why bother with God. And at the other extreme is Calvinism. In creating men and women, God made them by an absolute will without prediction of their merit. God sent Jesus to redeem those he wished to save and to give them his grace and salvation. And God deprives of grace all those he’s resolved to damn. Pascal calls this ’insupportable’ and he’s absolutely right. It’s dreadful. You couldn’t possibly go through the world thinking “I’m going to Hell, and there’s nothing I can do about it”.
Pascal follows the Augustinian position. Cutting a long story rather too short, he interprets this as God willing absolutely to save some people and willing conditionally to damn others; that salvation comes from the will of God and damnation from the will of man.

The rest of part 2 deals in detail both with the theology and an analysis of Bresson’s various films.

 

** page 45 of  Husserl’s Phenomenology by Dan Zahavi

explains epoché :

 

SNIP epoche explained


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February 11, 2010 - Posted by | art, film directors, film narrative, film theory, film [its techniques], Robert Bresson, Ronald Bergan |

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