The Devil Probably (1977)

We all know how this will end. Hurricane Sandy hit the richest parts of the Northeast, and the word “global warming” rarely, if ever, came up. Americans will continue to drive their SUVs, even if they have to walk knee deep in flood water through their driveways to get behind the wheel. If given the choice between a socialist economy that provides for us all even as it saves the planet or a small chance to get our kids into Harvard and onto Wall Street, most of us would pick the latter. We will go down fighting for the meritocracy, for upward mobility, for capitalism, even when it’s clear it will destroy us all. So what’s driving us? What compulsion is pushing us towards our extinction event?

The Devil Probably.

The Devil Probably, which might best be described as Larry Clark’s Kids meets Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth,  is set in Paris in the aftermath of the failed revolution of May 1968. Charles, Alberte, Edwige, and Michel are four young men and women in their early 20s, recent university students who form a small intellectual community. Charles, who we learn at the very beginning, was found shot dead in the Père Lachaise Cemetery — one newspaper says he committed suicide, the other that he was murdered —- is the dominant member of the clique, the son of a wealthy real estate developer, and, we are told, the most brilliant student. Albert and Edgwige are two young women competing for his attention. Michel, his friend, who’s less beautiful and more traditionally masculine, is an environmental activist and published writer. It’s through Michel’s work that Bresson introduces us to the idea of sin as environmental destruction.

While the Devil Probably was released in 1977, the series of images that Bresson films, clear cutting, baby seals being clubbed, toxic sludge being poured into the ocean, nuclear testing, are startlingly familiar. Add a polar bear stranded on broken piece of the Arctic ice cap and they could have been released yesterday. Have we really let this go on for upwards of 35 years without doing anything to stop it?

Charles, in addition to being the clique’s leader, is also the one most filled with despair.

While Michel says that even if the world is going to hell he’d still want to live, Charles wants no part of society at all. To act politically, to do anything to help, to do anything at all, is to become part of a society he despises. We begin to see the reason for the film’s opening images. Charles will commit suicide. In a clever bit of societal juxtaposition, Bresson gives Charles two enablers, a psychotherapist and a heroin addict. Both are essential for the film’s resolution. After Alberte, Edgwige, and Michel realize that he is suicidal, they direct him to Dr. Mime, who quickly reveals himself to be a fool more interested in money, and an incompetent. Charles confesses that he is, indeed, suicidal, but that he’s being held back by the idea that he’ll hesitate at the last moment. That’s why ancient Romans had a loyal servant do it for them, Dr. Mime tells him, putting the final piece of the puzzle in place. That loyal servant is Valentin, a junkie Edgwige and Alberte have been putting up at their apartment. Valentin, like society as a whole, acts only under compulsion, in his case, an addiction to drugs. Charles offers to pay him in exchange for shooting him dead, a task he quickly accepts and carries out with surprising efficiency. In the very last scene, they travel to Pere Lachaise Cemetery, where Valentin shoots Charles twice in the head, takes the promised money, places the gun in Charles’ hand, and runs off. The mystery, thus, has been solved. It’s both a suicide and a murder.

“Shot? so quick, so clean an ending?
Oh that was right, lad, that was brave:
Yours was not an ill for mending,
‘Twas best to take it to the grave.”

History has vindicated not only Bresson’s insight into the process by which capitalism destroys the environment. It’s vindicated Charles’ decision to kill himself. Little has changed for the better since 1977, and most things for the worst. By checking out at such an early age, Charles has stepped outside of a world run by the devil, his choice to destroy himself the perfect act of rebellion, his victory over the powers of darkness. The Devil Probably is, perhaps, the most open, unapologetic case for suicide since A.E. Houseman.

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