Category Archives: Robert Bresson

A Man Escaped (1956)

In 1940, a 24-year-old former school teacher named Andre Devigny, after having served in the French army as a light tank officer, joined the resistance in Lyon under the code name Valentin. For the next two years, he worked with British Special Operations Executive. He conducted sabotage against German military installations, and helped refugees escape to Switzerland. In 1943, he was betrayed to the Gestapo. The Montluc Prison, where he was tortured by Klaus Barbie himself, was not only considered escape-proof. It was certain death. Almost all of the 10,000 Frenchman warehoused at the infamous fortress in Lyon awaiting execution were either shot or sent to death camps in Eastern Europe. Andre Devigny escaped, rejoined the resistance, and went onto a long and distinguished career in the French military.

Robert Bresson was no stranger to Nazi prisons, having spent a year in a prisoner of war camp after the surrender of France in 1940. In the mid-1950s, he and Andre Devigny began to collaborate on a film version of Devigny’s memoir. The result was A Man Escaped, not only considered one of Bresson’s best films, but perhaps the greatest film ever made about the French Resistance. More importantly, it’s the distillation of Bresson’s method down to its essence. The use of non-actors, the austere, restrained emotion, the exclusive reliance on a 50mm lens, the religious and moral themes, if you had to watch only one film by Robert Bresson, this would probably be it.

A Man Escaped begins with Fontaine, a very thinly fictionalized version of Devigny, being transported to Montluc. Since the Gestapo haven’t gotten around to handcuffing him, he waits for his chance to escape, watching the road with an obsessive attention to detail that would later become so important to his survival. After his first attempt fails — there’s another car following the one transporting the prisoners — he’s taken to a Montluc torture chamber, beaten, then assigned to a room on the first floor. Devigny was the kind of a valuable asset who would be extensively interrogated before being shot. But Fontaine, his fictionalized counterpart, is still a little confused about why they didn’t execute him right away. He’s bloody, but not permanently damaged. He’s also a resourceful man who immediately begins to think about how he can get word to the outside that he’s been captured. He climbs up on a ledge and looks out the window. Below, he sees three Frenchman walking slowly and deliberately back and forth across a courtyard. One of them agrees to get him a pencil and paper, as well as a safety pin he can use to pick his handcuffs. He’ll smuggle a letter out to Fontaine’s mother.

Anybody who’s seen Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows knows exactly what kind of risk Fontaine is taking by giving the name of his mother to a stranger. It means his whole family could be taken out and shot, or transported to a death camp in Eastern Europe. The Gestapo did, in fact, take revenge on Andre Devigny after his escape by executing two of his cousins. But Terry, the man walking in the courtyard is trustworthy. Fontaine gets word to his mother that the radio that formerly belonged to the resistance has now fallen into the hands of the Gestapo, and, quite possibly, saves lives. The ability to size up a stranger, the willingness to take risks, an attention to detail, skill in improvisation are qualities common to good military leaders. Terry and Fontaine have immediately recognized each other as fellow soldiers in the resistance — What place more honorable in occupied France than a Gestapo prison? — against the German occupation.

Bresson explores the themes of solidarity and resistance in more detail after Fontaine is transferred to a room on the third floor of the prison. He knocks on the wall, but gets no response. Earlier, he had been able to make contact with his neighbor on the first floor by tapping out Morse code. He assumes the cell is unoccupied. We will eventually learn that Blanchet, the man in the next cell, had been contemplating suicide, and that Fontaine’s tapping had saved his life. We will also learn that Blanchet, and his despair, are, quite possibly, an impediment to Fontaine’s escape. To raise Blanchet’s spirits is not only an act of solidarity, but an act of self-preservation. Libertarians wouldn’t last long in the French Resistance. Montluc is a torture chamber run by the Gestapo, not a prisoner of war camp run by the German military — who quite possibly would have seen a French army officer as someone deserving of some respect — and no contact between prisoners is permitted. But there’s one exception. The prisoners, who shit and piss in a bucket in their cells, are required, once a day, to dump their waste in the courtyard. Fontaine establishes a relationship with Orsini, another prisoner who will also try to escape, and “The Pastor,” an evangelical Christian who wants a Bible, but has to make do with a pencil Fontaine gives him.

“Write and stay sane,” Fontaine says.

“God will provide,” the pastor tells him.

“God will provide,” Fontaine says, “but only for those who help him.”

Back in his cell, Fontaine’s obsessive attention to detail shows him the way out. Staring at the door, he realizes the joints between the boards are made of flimsy wood that can be whittled away by an iron spoon that he fashions into a crude chisel. The doomed escape attempt by Orsini puts the next piece of the puzzle in place. Orsini, on the way to his execution, tells Fontaine what kind of tools he’ll need to escape, rope, which he makes out of bedsheets, and grappling hooks, which he fashions out of the metal from a duct in his cell.

If I have one criticism of A Man Escaped, an almost perfect film, it’s this. Fontaine has too much time to himself. Where are the interrogations? Where is the systematic dehumanization? Bresson imagines Montluc almost as much as a monastery as a Nazi prison. Fontaine’s work on his cell door, his meticulous construction of a rope and grappling hooks, his meetings with his fellow detainees in the courtyard become a sort of monastic routine, the preparations for his escape a form of prayer. If you want to see what real Nazis look like and what happens to real prisoners detained by secret police, follow up A Man Escaped with A Dry White Season, Euzhan Palcy’s 1989 film about apartheid South Africa. But that’s a different film and Bresson is exploring a different theme, not the oppression of a colonized people by a “master race,” but freedom, despair, and the resurrection of a dead man through self-discipline and solidarity.

A Man Escaped is also a sustained meditation on the artistic process itself, on disciplined self-expression. Bresson’s creation is his film, his tools a camera, actors, a screenplay, a location, light, and shadow. Fontaine’s creation is his path to freedom, and life. After Fontaine is given a cell mate, a 16-year-old boy named François Jost who had enlisted in the German Army, his fellow detainees suspect a plot. Is Jost a spy? They begin to rush their comrade. “If you’re going to do it,” the pastor tells him, “do it now.” But Fontaine knows from Orsini’s doomed attempt to escape that going through with a plan before that plan is finished can mean being tripped up by some unforeseen detail as surely as waiting too long can lead to being discovered. Like a good novelist, painter, or composer, Fontaine must strike a balance between doing it half-assed, and getting consumed by a work you never complete. Jost, who Fontaine must either bring along or kill, complicates matters. Even after he decides he can trust Jost, Fontaine still has to deal with a careless, impulsive, ignorant 16-year-old boy. Jost is not Terry from the courtyard, a fellow veteran of the resistance with whom he can communicate with by a nod or a few words. Fontaine not only has to create his path to freedom, he has to explain it. He becomes critic as well as artist, missionary as well as monastic.

Jost is a happy addition, not only for Fontaine’s escape — they both discover that scaling one of the prison walls can’t be done without two men — but for Bresson’s film. Some of the strongest scenes of A Man Escaped take place between the teenage, would-be collaborator and the French patriot. Fontaine’s insistence to Jost that the Germans will lose the war is curt, direct, matter of fact, and with an air of menace. He knows that Nazism will eventually go down, and warns Jost not to be caught on the wrong side of the liberation. The young man, who might have wavered before getting to Montluc, now has the strong father figure he needs, and he proves to be a worthy companion. After killing a Nazi guard, they make it over the three walls, and down to the street. The very last scene of A Man Escaped has Jost and Fontaine walking off to freedom, and to rejoin the resistance. We hear the Kyrie from Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor. Fontaine has been brought back to life by his own will as surely as Lazarus had been brought back to life by the divine will of Jesus. Robert Bresson, in turn, has exorcized the demons that were undoubtedly still with him after his time in a German POW camp. An extended meditation on process, on the tedious details of Devigny’s escape, has let him put himself in the shoes of his hero, the only man ever to have escaped from the escape-proof Gestapo dungeon at Montluc.

Mouchette (1967) Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Mouchette by French director Robert Bresson and Pan’s Labyrinth by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro are both films about a young girl in early adolescence trying, and failing, to come of age in a hostile environment.

Mouchette is a 13-year-old misfit who lives with her dying mother, baby brother, and drunken, abusive father in a mean-spirited little town in provincial France. Everything seems to conspire against her. She clumps to school in her cheap shoes, which are at least 2 sizes too large for her. She gets laughed at by the popular girls, singled out, and abused by the teacher. She comes back home, where her parents treat her more like the maid than their only daughter. When she hesitates at the threshold of the local church, her father shoves her inside so violently that it’s unlikely she’ll ever see religion as anything more than a slap in the face, a burden, not a consolation. Just about the only happy moment Mouchette has in the whole film is at a town fair. An unseen woman hands her a coin so she can go on one of the rides, bumper cars. A young man bumps into her. She bumps into him. They play cat and mouse. Suddenly the music is is upbeat, and Mouchette smiles. Sadly, just as she’s about to talk to her new friend, her father grabs her by the shoulder, violently spins her around, and slaps her face. Why? No reason. He’s basically just an asshole.

If Mouchette works so well at showing how an ordinary mean spirited little town in provincial France can drive a young girl to kill herself, then it has a lot to do with Bresson’s meticulous attention to detail. It’s not so much that the ordinary becomes monstrous. It’s that Mouchette’s world is so relentlessly banal, so colorless, so without hope, that she can’t see beyond it. The symbolism of her teacher trying to force her to sing a song about a speech Columbus gave to his crew in 1492, about how hope lies beyond the horizon just when things seem the most hopeless, is too obvious for even the most obtuse film goer to miss.

The song’s reappearance later in the film is a bit more subtle. Mouchette leaves school, and decides to take the long way home through the woods. She’s caught in a violent thunderstorm. A local hunter/poacher takes her into his apartment and tells her to dry herself off by the fire. He’s an alcoholic and an epileptic. While she looks on, he falls to the floor, foams at the mouth, and bites his tongue. It’s a grotesque. He’s an ugly middle-aged man, and becomes even more ugly as blood pours out of his mouth. But Mouchette isn’t afraid. The poacher is a fellow outcast she identifies with, feels empathy for. As she wipes the bloody foam from his mouth, she sings the song she couldn’t manage to sing on key in school, her pitch perfect, her voice beautiful.

Then he rapes her.

But the poacher’s rape is only the first blow that will befall Mouchette that night. When, she returns home, her mother finally dies. Mouchette, who’s been so beaten down emotionally she can barely feel the violent abuse as it happens to her, doesn’t cry after she’s raped. She falls asleep next to her mother’s dead body, her emotional death mirroring her mother’s physical death. But the rest of the film has the same feel as the return of repressed emotions long denied. The townspeople are no kinder to the little girl after the death of her mother than they were before it. A middle-aged women invites her inside for croissants and coffee, then makes her feel like a thief, slipping an extra croissant into her pocket — Mouchette was clearly enjoying her breakfast — and making her feel dirty. She notices the scratches on Mouchette’s skin from the rape and calls her a slut. Mouchette’s next stop is a crazy old lady obsessed with death. If the shopkeeper was a hard, mean, sneering middle-aged petty bourgeoisie, the old woman is more like death herself. She gives Mouchette clothes for herself, and a shroud for her mother, but it’s not out of kindness. It’s for her own selfish reasons. She wants to tell Mouchette about “the dead.”

As in so many of Bresson’s films, a casual suggestion can often be the final piece in the puzzle that resolves the plot. An offhand remark by the psychotherapist in The Devil Probably shows Charles the right way to commit suicide. The gift of the shroud helps Mouchette realize that there’s no hope over the horizon, that her life will never change. Critics have occasionally remarked that her decision to wrap herself in the shroud, roll herself in the lake, and drown herself seems to come out of nowhere.  They have not sufficiently worked their way into Mouchette’s world, into the combination of poverty and emotional repression make finding the urge to kill yourself seem as natural as finding where you put your car keys after frantically searching for them for 15 minutes. Ah, there’s my keys. Ah, there’s what I should do,  end it all, now. It’s been over from the very beginning anyway.

If the world of the 13-year old Mouchette is banal and mean spirited, the world of the 11-year-old Ofelia, the heroine of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, is over the top, baroque horror. Ofelia comes to a small military base in Franco’s fascist Spain to live with Captain Vidal, her soon to be stepfather. Carmen, Ofelia’s mother, is pregnant. She’s also sick, and then, like Mouchette’s mother, dying. It’s easy to see why. Captain Vidal, who’s running a counterinsurgency against a small group of anti-fascist guerillas, is a monster. Actually monster doesn’t quite express the man’s evil. He’s perhaps the best portrait of the pure, distilled nature of fascism I’ve ever seen in any film. He runs his little world as if he were God (or Satan). He kills on a whim. He tortures on a whim. There’s no kindness, no empathy, not even any emotion about Captain Vidal. He’s nothing but a narcissist who worships his household gods, himself. He murders Carmen’s doctor for disobedience, thus insuring that Carmen will die in excruciating pain. Finally, he murders Ofelia for the same reason.

But, unlike Mouchette, Ofelia is unconquered. Like Mouchette, she’s sullen, disobedient, and rebellious. Unlike Mouchette, she has a rich, powerful imagination that conjures up an entirely parallel universe. Ofelia is not just an unhappy little girl. Centuries ago, she was Princess Moanna, future queen of the underworld. Ofelia’s inner life includes monsters, secret passageways, fairies, magic chalk that opens doors where there are no doors, tests to prove her heroism, and, finally, the rebirth of her mother and her real, biological father. She’s made it clear through the whole film that Vidal is no father of hers. Robert Bresson and Guillermo del Toro may seem like opposites. They are, mirror images. If Mouchette is an expression of how reality can conquer the soul, Pan’s Labyrinth is an expression of how the soul can conquer reality. Ofelia not only sees the world of hope over the horizon. She’s already there.

Pickpocket (1959)

Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket is a meditation on the idea of grace.

Michel, a young man in his 20s, lives in a drab, rented room in Paris. He has no job, no real social contacts, no career path. Even though he looks like the young Montgomery Clift, he has no romantic life as far as we can see.

Jeanne, played by the 16 year old non-actress Marika Green, is the caretaker for Michel’s elderly mother. Michel barely notices her existence. Marika Green’s supermodel looks are essential to the plot. Why doesn’t Michel notice her?

Michel is in fact so indifferent to Jeanne that until the very last frame of the movie, I thought they were brother and sister.

Michel doesn’t ignore Jeanne because he’s her brother. He ignores her because he’s possessed by a demon, the compulsion to steal. Michel, who’s very loosely based on Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov is no murderer, but he is a relentless petty thief, a pickpocket who spends all day wandering through Paris looking for his victims.  He lives a flat, joyless life, punctuated with brief moments of excitement that come whenever he cuts a purse or lifts a watch or a wallet. Everything about Michel’s existence, his posture, the way he moves, his hangdog expression, his tiny room, his collection of books, not on shelves, but simply piled on the floor, mark him off as a small time criminal living in continual fear of getting caught.

Michel’s life is so unfulfilled, so flat, so drab that, like Raskolnikov, he almost seems to want to get caught by the police, the anxiety over being exposed as a thief allowing him to savor those brief moments of fulfillment he gets in the act of stealing. Nothing ever changes for Michel. He always wears the same drab suit. He always walks in the same shuffling, round shouldered manner. After the police begin to tighten the net, he escapes to Milan, then London. He lives abroad for two years, but it takes up all of a minute of the film’s screen time, and, when he returns to Paris, broke, he’s still wearing the same drab suit and the same hangdog manner. When he finally does get caught, his cell looks no different from his apartment. When he says that he barely notices the bars, we believe him. His existence in prison seems no different from his existence in the outside world.

But there’s always Jeanne. Like God’s grace making itself available to an unhappy sinner, she’s always lurking near him, always there for the taking. Marika Green is extraordinarily beautiful, like an angel hidden in plain site, the Virgin Mary walking the streets of a Parisian slum. She gets pregnant by Michel’s friend Jacques. She refuses to marry him. She won’t live a lie, she says to Michel, who seems incapable of taking the hint. She visits him in prison, dutifully attending the son the way she did the now dead elderly mother. Why doesn’t Michael reach out and take the grace offered him? we think, wondering if, perhaps, if that’s how God thought after he sent his only begotten son to walk the earthy only to be rejected by sinful humanity so badly in need of forgiveness. Finally, Michael breaks down, and admits he loves her. They press their cheeks together through the bars. The light changes. Michel, no longer a drab young man in a drab suit, positively glows. He’s been saved. Salvation is easy, Bresson is telling us. So why do we work so hard at going to hell?

The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962)

What language does God speak? An omnipotent God speaks them all, from the tiniest Native American dialect all the way up to English, Spanish, and Mandarin. Yet for nationalists of all stripes, God usually has a soft spot in his heart for their own. The Protestant Reformation, a Northern European rebellion against the Vatican, gave us Luther’s translation of the Bible into German. Every member of Cromwell’s New Model Army had his copy of The Soldier’s Pocket Bible,” the Little Red Book of the English Puritans.

In Robert Bresson’s film “The Trial of Joan of Arc,” Joan, played by the young Florence Delay — who would later go on to publish more than 30 novels — tells us he speaks French. “I trust God,” she says. “The voice is soft, and speaks the language of France.” It’s a defiant statement. The French Quislings and English occupiers who have her on trial are high-ranking Catholic priests and bishops who would assume he speaks Latin. If he speaks French, that means any simple peasant girl can speak directly to God without their mediation. Joan is not only a French nationalist. She’s an early Protestant.

Robert Bresson, who spent time in a German prisoner of war camp, probably shares Joan’s belief that while she doesn’t know if God hates the English or not, she does believe that if they refuse to leave France they need to die. Just replace “the English” with “the Germans.” But Joan’s statement is also about the language of cinema. The Trial of Joan of Arc is a response to The Passion of Joan of Arc by Carl Theodor Dreyer, a Dane whose great silent film “occupied” the story of a heroine of French nationalism. Dreyer’s film, usually thought of as one of the greatest films in cinematic history, is almost certainly the greatest silent film. Bresson, who was nothing if not an intellectual, understands that the transition from silent film to sound involves more than adding spoken dialog. It means rewriting the language of cinema altogether, putting the aural on the same level as the visual.

As the American film critic Dennis Grunes argues in his review of Lancelot du Lac, “one always hears a Bresson film as much as sees it.”

Florence Delay’s voice isn’t strikingly beautiful or melodic, and her Joan, as Pauline Kael points out, is more graduate student than romantic poet. But the villain of The Trial of Joan of Arc is clear, the English language. Bresson’s French Quislings are a mixed lot. But the English are manipulating the trial from behind the scenes. Their English is curt, ugly, alienating. They speak hisses and whispers, part men, part snake. After they decide that Joan’s strength comes from her virginity, they send men to rape her. We’re never told explicitly whether or not they succeeded. Later in the movie she complains about how English soldiers tried to molest her, but that’s not what makes them irredeemably evil in our eyes.

It’s how they sound.

We know what the verdict will be from the very beginning. There’s no chance Joan will be acquitted, and she knows it. The film could just as easily be titled A Kangaroo Court for Joan of Arc. It’s only at the end of the film that we realize why she defended herself so long and hard against her interrogators. Just before she’s burned at the stake, the English make it clear they want everything burned, every last hair, every last article of clothing. They don’t want the French turning a lock of hair or a piece of cloth into a relic. The trial minutes, on the the other hand, were written down in vast detail.

Ironically, it was the kangaroo court that give Joan her place in history.

Lancelot du Lac (1974)

Lancelot du Lac, a late work by Robert Bresson, is the ugliest, most boring film ever made about the age of chivalry.

So why should you watch it?

I suppose that the main reason is because it’s by Robert Bresson. If Joe Kowalski from Bayonne New Jersey made Lancelot du Lac, we’d just assume it was a bad film, and turn it off after 20 minutes. But because it’s Bresson, you have to ask yourself the obvious question. What exactly is he trying to do? He knows how to make good movies. Why did he make a bad one?

Chivalry is ugly. It’s based on a hierarchical economy, serfdom, violence against women, religious totalitarianism. But you’d never know that by looking at most Hollywood movies. From the grand romanticism of Michael Mann’s El Cid, to the infantile white nationalism of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, big budget, Hollywood films often assume that the age of chivalry was, if not exactly a kinder gentler era, then at least an age with more wonder and enchantment. That ugly, reactionary, films like Birth of a Nation or Gone With the Wind have, as their underlying message, the assumption that the slave power of the antebellum South was the rightful heir of the idealized Middle Ages as imagined by Walter Scott, often goes unexamined.

Perhaps the most famous deconstruction of the “days of old when knights were bold” is Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Twain, who loathed Walter Scott, half blamed him for the United States Civil War. Connecticut Yankee ends, like so many other novels, with a climactic battle, but here it looks like the Siege of Petersburg and the Battle of Cold Harbor, murder, not war.

Monty Python’s film “Monty Python And The Holy Grail” attacks the idea of chivalry from another angle, laughs. Peasants who burn witches are dense idiots. Smarter peasants mock the idea that the Lady of the Lake could have made Arthur King. Flying bunnies sail through the air, and murder the best knights of Camelot. The French mock the English for looking for the Holy Grail. Sir Lancelot murders half the guests at a wedding party to rescue a “lady,” who turns out to be a gay man.

Monty Python And The Holy Grail is fun. It’s the kind of film you can watch over and over again. Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac, which was filmed a year earlier and which seems to have had some influence on the comic British masterpiece, is not. Unlike the Pythons, Bresson doesn’t sugarcoat his attack on chivalry with comedy. Instead, he imagines King Arthur’s court at Camelot as the endgame of western civilization, as the final collapse of the imperialist world order into entropy and blood.

It’s aversion therapy for film goers addicted to chivalry and romance.

Lancelot himself is a non-descript looking 40ish man who looks more like a college professor than a great warrior. Guinevere has the pale, dreamy beauty of so many of Bresson’s actresses, but she’s controlling, then indecisive, then controlling. King Arthur is a bore. Sir Gawain is a good looking young hunk, but he dies in the most ignominious way imaginable, accidentally at the hands of his best friend. Mordred looks like a counter man at a pizza place. Most importantly, all of Lancelot du Lac’s actors are wooden, without affect, blank. George Romero once said that “every film Bresson ever made is a zombie film.” That fits Lancelot du Lac perfectly. This is a zombie film.

But it’s more. Zombie films are often entertaining. Bad actors alone don’t make Lancelot du Lac the aversion therapy it most assuredly is. For that, Bresson uses alienation and repetition.

Lancelot du Lac, like so many other films about the legend of King Arthur is full of anachronisms. Like the silly (and “silly” does not mean it’s a bad movie) John Borman film Excalibur, Lancelot du Lac’s ancient, 5th Century Celtic warriors wear ceremonial armor from the 16th and 17th centuries, polished, gleaming suits of metal. Yet here the difference ends. There’s no Wagnerian score in Lancelot du Lac, no grand apocalyptic battle, no magic, and certainly no young Helen Mirren. There’s a bunch of boring, non-descript men walking around like high school kids, coming up with plot after plot, none of which ever seem to get carried out. Even when it seems most inappropriate, they wear their armor. You wonder if they shower in it. There’s no drama or pageantry, just a chivalric metaphor for the alienation of people from their bodies, and one another.

Then there’s the repetition. And take my word for it. Lancelot du Lac is dull. One scene in particular stands out. Lancelot goes to a jousting tournament in disguise. We’re never told why. It’s certainly nothing like the way Errol Flynn wears a cloak in the classic The Adventures of Robin Hood, then reveals himself at the last moment before fighting his way out of the castle. Lancelot just goes to the tournament in disguise. He defeats one opponent. It’s more than dull. We don’t even see it. Bresson, like an incompetent photographer, films his actors from the neck down. We hear it. We see some legs. We see the bottom of a horse. Then it happens again, and again, and again. Finally, after unhorsing 20 opponents, Lancelot rides off into the woods, and collapses. Blood pours out of his shorts, some kind of groin injury.

Does he die? No. He gets better. Bresson isn’t finished with us yet. We need more aversion therapy and more repetition. There’s more plotting. Lancelot gets back with Guinevere, then disavows her, then saves her. Finally, he rides into a climatic battle against Mordred. Both sides have 4 or 5 knights. They all die. A horse rides in a circle. Camelot has fallen. We don’t care.

And that’s just the way Robert Bresson wants it.

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.