Richard Hell apparently called Robert Bresson’s The Devil, Probably (Olive Films; DVD, $24.95) “the most punk movie ever made,” which is an unlikely thing to say about an austere, ascetic cultural indictment issued by an old man. But if punk denotes an attitude of sneering condescension, a principled stance against principled stances, then Hell is on to something. For all its lucidity, The Devil, Probably (1977) is one of Bresson’s most contentious films, so completely despairing that its defenders have registered its malevolence as either evidence of a covert spirituality or as a sick joke. Bresson, whose late works complicate his early canonization as a Transcendentalist, admitted it was his “most ghastly” picture. It is, at any rate, probably the least romantic film ever made about teenage existential malaise.
The movie barely seems alive, and that is meant as a compliment. Though Bresson’s heightened abstraction always called upon affectless, automated performances, the young folks here—a set of Parisian bourgeois malcontents trying to greet the pollution of industrial capitalism with an attitude of appropriate disgust—seem especially sapped. A few members of the group gather in a room, projecting images of nuclear fallout, ecological destruction and the clubbing of baby seals, accompanied by the flat declaration that “these pictures can’t be shown too often.” It’s too late for revolution, but not too late to disavow responsibility for “the destruction of the entire species for profit.” Our only real option is to ally with the stubborn, supercilious Charles (Antoine Monnier), though the film makes sure we know he is headed toward suicide. “My illness is seeing too clearly,” our longhaired Dostoevskian drifter tells a snooty psychoanalyst, killing time at one of the last stations of his cross.
As the title suggests, Bresson never quite lets us resolve our position on Charles’s decision. His sure-footed and arrogant refusal to act like a human being courts ridicule, but Bresson never flinches from the idea that this pessimism is the only possible response. He pauses, on the way to the cemetery, to listen to a Mozart piano concerto coming through an apartment window. The sound cuts through the toxic miasma of a Paris that has rarely looked so ugly. But it’s coming from a TV.
An equally pummeling, though far more vibrant, vision of Paris provides the backdrop to another long out-of-print (in the US) auteurist triumph, Maurice Pialat’s Police (Olive Films; DVD, $24.95). Though Pialat worked consistently in a chaotic realist mode, he learned a great deal from Bresson about the power of fragmentation. This frantic, edgy movie hurls itself into an underworld populated only by cops and criminals, where detectives fraternize with defense lawyers in seedy bars even when working opposite sides of a case. The film bears the genre trappings of a policier, but evolves quite surprisingly into another unlikely variation on Pialat’s patently acerbic relationship dramas.
Police turns the police procedural into an outlet for masculine resentment. Gerard Depardieu, who partnered with Pialat on several films, plays the bullying, casually assertive and raffish detective Mangin, whose obsession is always stalking its next inappropriate object. The dialogue in Police—for which Catherine Breillat is credited as a co-screenwriter— attacks relentlessly, allowing the viewer little breathing room. In a milieu where the concept of interrogation knows no bounds, the film’s title should be read as an active verb. There is a case to solve here, I guess, involving a set of Tunisian drug runners and a missing 200,000 francs, but its details dissolve into mere pretext for Mangin’s romantic pursuit of a gangster affiliate, Noria (Sophie Marceau).
Pialat’s films are marked by a close proximity of tenderness and savagery, and as such the casting of Depardieu—exuding a charm that meets his behavior at an odd, disproportionate angle—emboldens the material. Erratic and comical, Police might not be Pialat’s best film (see À nos amours or L’Enfance nue, both available from Criterion), but its emotional extremity leaves behind an invigorating afterglow.
In an era when Dinesh D’Souza can emerge as an unlikely box office draw, it bears remembering that Hollywood was never the liberal-propaganda delivery system of conservative lore. Leo McCarey’s disreputable My Son John (Olive Films; Blu-Ray, $29.95; DVD, $24.95) from 1952 offers a psychosexual variation on an all-American family nightmare: the eldest son (Robert Walker) of a saintly mother (Helen Hayes) and an American Legion–devoted father (Dean Jagger), who returns home from doing unspecified government work with a suggestively fey demeanor and “more degrees than a thermometer”—and who just might be a Communist spy.
The Intellectual is nobody’s heroic movie archetype, and My Son John characterizes John’s perversions as a natural outgrowth of his childhood disinterest in football and church. At one point, in the heat of a Red Scare rage, John’s father smacks him with his Bible. This production couldn’t accommodate anything less than a lurid performance, but Walker is so campy that even James Baldwin, who “wandered” into a screening of the movie while reeling from his own encounters with the FBI, took pleasure in his “gleefully vicious parody of the wayward American son.”
Walker died toward the end of the filming, and My Son John had to employ extra footage from Strangers on a Train to compensate. The result is eerie: John delivers his final public apology as a disembodied voice—a menace that isn’t really there, and maybe never was.
Akiva Gottlieb reviewed the 2012 Whitney Biennial’s film screenings in October of last year.