Robert Bresson’s The Devil, Probably: The Rhythms of Proletarian Life

Curator's Note

Robert Bresson’s distinctive style relies on pared-down performances from nonprofessional actors, sparse and fragmentary images stripped of their expressivity, and delicate sound cues often repeated with little variation. What purpose do these formal strategies serve?

If these features find focus in his work, it is in the director’s sustained effort to explore the possibilities of rhythm. Bresson suggests as much in his 1975 book of aphorisms, Notes on the Cinematograph, where he writes of the need to bend all sense—all meanings and effects of a film—to fit a rhythmic shape. In practice, Bresson controls acting, image-craft, and sound design in order to mold his stories into a series of subtle life-rhythms.

Bresson’s earliest experiments with rhythm set sound and image to an almost metric pulsation. In Journal d’un curé de campagne/Diary of a Country Priest (1951), a single sound effect from offscreen—a rake across the ground, presented at longer, then shorter intervals—gives pace to the famous medallion scene where the film’s Countess resigns her soul to the curé. Some years later, in Mouchette (1967), paired sound effects—the bump-bump of bumper cars—express a visceral sense of mounting pleasure between Mouchette and a teenage boy. Rhythm organizes bodies into a preconceived, repetitious structure—a bump-bump every six seconds.

In the mass transit scene of Le diable, probablement/The Devil, Probably (1977)—the focus of this video essay—Bresson’s rhythms are more complex. Here rhythms are a-metric and unstable, capturing the organic flows of working-class life amidst the disillusionment of the post-May 68 period.

Our aim in this video essay is not only to document how Bresson achieved these rhythms but to underscore their sub- or pre-rhetorical purpose. They are experiences to be intuitively felt, not a form of communication or propositional thought.

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