After Bruno escapes from his captors, he returns immediately to Veronica, still believing he can make their love work. The match that she lights for his cigarette ironically recalls the matches used to torture him.
The hero of early Godardian cinema is a compulsive logothete, assaulting the world with his own private language until it spills out directly at the camera: a proof of his sincerity that nonetheless entails contradiction in a certain artificiality of form.
Denis sets Beau Travail entirely in Africa, where the French colonials become the “other.”
Denis shows a disembodied hand writing French verse in a notebook, superimposed over rolling waves. This shot is suggestive of a similar image...
...from Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H., in which Victor Hugo’s daughter (Isabelle Adjani) speaks/composes letters across the ocean waves.
However, Denis overturns the Eurocentric imperative which attaches writing to a canonical name: in the multicultural enterprise of Beau Travail, the cultural power of art is rendered decentralized, authorless.
Drilling on the sand, the Foreign Legion suggests something between balletic choreography and a kind of militaristic yoga.
Gilles Sentain (Gregoire Colin) represents the youthful, idealistic Billy Budd ...
... malevolently eyed by his commander, the bitter and insecure Sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant).
Black and white soldiers train and serve side by side.
The young soldiers climbing up out of the deep pits could be metaphors for a cinema of the future which is struggling to be born.
Denis shows the landscape of Djibouti, Africa, as a space invaded by signs for western products.
In one of Denis’ most surreally evocative sequences, the regiment carries a nearly naked African through the empty streets ...
Galoup appears from around a corner, dressed in civilian clothes and bearing a slightly “feminized” demeanor. As he follows the soldiers with his eyes, he almost seems to be “cruising” in homosexual parlance.
Is this Galoup’s dream? And is the African figure real or purely symbolic? Denis leaves these questions open.
Galoup does a half-twirl around a pole, almost like a dancer in a musical.
“They carried one of their own,” we hear Galoup say in voiceover as the African hoists Gilles up on his shoulders. Gillles’ solidarity with darkskinned members of the regiment is reinforced throughout the film. He is emblematic of non-racist white manhood, innocent, comfortable with himself — the opposite of the conflicted, self-hating Galoup.
Gilles doffs his cap.
When Gilles is stung by a sea urchin ...
... an African soldier painstakingly pulls the needles from Gilles’ foot.
If The Little Soldier is Eurocentric, with the true Third World totally absent from the film and not allowed to speak for itself, Denis corrects this oversight by setting her revisionist sequel entirely in Africa, where the European Legionnaires are themselves outsiders, classic Others. She redraws the map even further; there is one early sequence that begins with the soldiers — already visibly diverse in their racial backgrounds — training on a beach. We cannot help but note that their stolidly muscular bodies have an equal strength and presence regardless of their differences in skin tone.
Then, in a scene which symbolically dismantles the role of the canonic author as privileged figure, Denis cuts to a close-up of a disembodied hand writing verse in French on the white pages of a notebook, superimposed over ocean waves sparkling and rolling underneath. This striking image is reminiscent of a similar shot of “writing-over-the-ocean” in Francois Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H. (1975), about Victor Hugo’s troubled daughter and her obsessive love for a soldier. That scene's context fits Denis’ purposes (since Galoup’s obsession with Gilles will come to dominate the film), but what is decisive about the shot in her film is the unmistakable political implication in its reversal of privileged points-of-view. Truffaut's Adele Hugo (played by Isabel Adjani) writes many letters in the film, which we see her reciting into the camera as she composes them; at one point we see an image of her face reciting/composing superimposed over ocean waves. But whereas Truffaut attaches this “writing-across-the-waves” to the specific surname of France’s most famous author, thereby underscoring the writer's individualism as such, Denis makes writing poetry wholly anonymous; anyone’s hand could be writing it. Thus, the academic fetish (so familiar from Godard) of name-dropping, of canon formation, is teased here, but ultimately sent away unfulfilled. Denis overrules the mythos of the Great Author in favor of a nameless “writing.”
However, only moments later, when the African Rahel is showing off one of her rugs, she is asked, “Where did you get this?” She proudly answers, “I made it myself.” Denis allows Rahel to be the acclaimed artist, to be given her signatory due. Within these two moments, Denis overturns centuries of scholastic Eurocentric thinking in which poetry is treated as a specialized individualistic achievement and rug-weaving as the random expression of a collective tribal ritual.
Nameless, authorless writing, whether cultural artifact or cultural symptom, suggests a nameless, authorless cinema, whose unfolding messages will be random and raw, not necessarily guided by the eye of a master-craftsman but culled from a species of life-being-lived. Indeed there are times in Beau Travail when Denis achieves this. Some of her scenes mingle dream and documentary in a way that seems to eavesdrop or directly absorb life rather than existing as compositional links in a methodically super-constructed work. Such a decentralized visual and narrative style has its specific uses, not all of which are idealistic in themselves. Sometimes, when artists repudiate high or “imperial” culture, it is not only because that culture is deemed as ineluctably oppressive, allied with an ancien regime or with corrupt power; it is also because that culture, in spite of its legitimate selling points, may no longer be able to save us from lurking threats. Something more genuine and immediate, less insular and more shared, more open and communal, must be evolved at certain historical, turning-point moments.
One is reminded of Godard's young Bruno Forestier trying to understand political chaos through the limited prism of western culture, speculating at one point, “And Veronica, are her eyes Velasquez gray or Renoir gray?” while the world he knows is being torn apart by terrorism, torture and warfare. He is helplessly using the staid canon of imperial culture to try to fathom a changing world in which power itself has begun to be less concentrated, and in which marginalized voices need to be assimilated by the center for the true composition of the world to make sense.
Thus, as a kind of harbinger of new, non-imperial manhood, Beau Travail’s Gilles stands in contrast to the older, more classical and Eurocentric way of thinking. He is on friendly terms with the blacks in the regiment. A semi-surreal sequence shows Gilles and some other young soldiers carrying a nearly naked African through the dusky streets of Djibouti in a kind of victory processional; at one point, they set the African down and he, in turn, carries Gilles on his shoulders. Galoup says, “They carried one of their own,” while we see Gilles doffing his cap and waving like a heroic conqueror. But Gilles’ “conquest” here is fraternal and compassionate — he is pointedly accepted by the natives as “one of their own.” In another scene, we see an African painstakingly pulling sea-urchin needles from Gilles’ foot. Finally, Gilles attacks Galoup precisely to defend another black soldier from being abused.
Here, Denis seems to be consciously referencing her other important source, Herman Melville, although more seems to be owed to Moby-Dick than to Billy Budd. In particular, Denis' film evokes the homoerotic marriage between the white Ishmael and the Native American Queequeg, which was meant in Moby Dick to symbolize (albeit with more than a hint of self-nullifying irony) the ideal and harmonic merger of European and Native, of colonist and colonized.
If, as Susan Faludi writes,
then the virtues and terrors of such a merger have constituted a central feature of U.S. psychic identity since the idea of a uniquely American identity first came up, in roughly the seventeenth century. As a canonic author, Melville himself has been held up to much revisionist scorn for embodying, or at least not questioning harshly enough, the imperial, racist, colonial attitudes of his own age. Clearly, in Billy Budd, Melville cannot bring himself to override the harsh military rules that will doom his hero to an early death. Critic Frederick Crews, who must be counted as a pseudo-conservative on the side of the canon, has this to say about the conflict between Billy Budd and his nemesis, Captain Vere (who “becomes” Galoup in Beau Travail):
There is a sense of manhood in question — the real and natural man, as represented by Gilles in Beau Travail, is open to people of color, as well as to other men. Men in self-doubt, as Galoup and Vere are, are ever at desperate pains to shore up their self-image as men. Racism, with its automatic conference of prestige and superior power upon white skin color, becomes an ally of Galoup’s in his mission to prove himself as a worthy man. There is an unfortunate homophobia at work in this particular explanation of man's colonial tendencies (we might extend it to say “war-like” tendencies in general), the idea that men have more or less compensated for a fear of latent homosexuality. Certainly the Puritans whose descendants populate Melville's fiction (and whose cross-cultural heir Galoup becomes) were intolerant of every kind of sexual temptation, even heterosexual ones. Perhaps Melville himself, reeling from the reading public’s bewildered and outright hostility to Moby-Dick when it was published in 1851, returned to the more straitjacketed and pessimistic vision of the ultimate triumph of authority which obtains in Billy Budd (his last novel and, admittedly, not completely finalized at the time of his death). Historian Richard Slotkin recognizes, in Moby-Dick, this motif of two different kinds of codes, which is also to say masculine codes, at war with each other:
This overtly sexual language is utopian and skewed in favor of the hunter, of course; the devoured prey can feel little love when ingested. There is something to be said, at the widest perspective, for seeing an opposition between sexual desire (the life instinct) and war and imperialism (the death instinct) as a central conflict of human dualism. The ghosts of colonial agony abound. And though they can be expressed through a kind of sexual consummation (which is also violent and destructive), they can only be exorcised through acts of love. Godard, in The Little Soldier, also suggests as much, in that when Bruno falls in love with Veronica and achieves romantic and sexual fulfillment with her, he becomes that much less inclined to act as warrior and do the dirty work of the French colonials. At the same time, this romanticism is always doomed to pale as an empty gesture, if only because circumscribed within a social order where those at the highest levels (as exemplified by Captain Ahab no less than by officers like Galoup and Bruno’s superiors in The Little Soldier) do not love, and in fact hate.
The aged Forestier’s connection to the changing, more inclusive world of today is obscure — not that Denis numbers him among the imperial “racists.” In fact, she has aged Bruno into a reasonable and fairly well-adjusted man — a military man and imperialist by default, but no longer an active oppressor. Instead it is Galoup who inherits Bruno’s flip-flopping conflicts and aggressions, which Denis illustrates in several important ways. The only relationship with the natives that Galoup can forge is a sexual one with Rahel — with himself, of course, as paternalistic protector and provider. Galoup also views the military as a kind of first cause that cancels out the need for racial identity, and thereby renders people of color invisible all over again: “You’re not an African anymore,” he yells at a black Muslim soldier who is trying to follow religious prescriptions during Ramadan, “you’re a Legionnaire now!” And in one brief but significant scene, Galoup has an anxiety dream where a Bedouin shepherd hurls rocks at him from the roadside, an image of the bad conscience of one who occupies a land that is not his own.
A detour (toward the Indies)
As these lines from Caribbean poet and colonial theorist Edouard Glissant express, the colonization of “the new world” by Spanish and English mercenaries in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries was a kind of rape scene. The colonists raped the land, here personified as a woman, the same way that they also raped (literally and figuratively) the people of color who were that land’s indigenous population. This is a factor of colonialism in all of its historical manifestations, and the ways in which various forms of colonial oppression have been portrayed in films, for instance, usually pale before what we know of the true historical realities. The bottom line is that these realities can never be de-romanticized enough, and are frequently romanticized too much in their cinematic and artistic portrayals.
Here is where American colonial history overlaps with French, although U.S. history was bloodier, more genocidal and more destructive of the land. In some ways there were specific historical and geographic realities that drove this process. The English colonists were cut off from a European culture that was, at that time, giving birth to the Enlightenment and somewhat decentralizing the Christian god in favor of a new interest in ancient civilizations. In Europe there was, as Roberto Calasso has pointed out, a resurgence of the entire panoply of pre-Christian divinities in the works of such romantic writers as Byron, Kleist, Hölderlin and Novalis, for example. The North American colonists, faced with hostile Natives, began to cling more and more to the monotheism of Judeo-Christianity as a unifying force and also as a kind of battle-ax against the Natives and against the wilderness itself. Unlike the Europeans, who could worship the defunct cultures of ancient Greece and Troy from afar, through manuscripts and artifacts, the colonists experienced a living pagan culture that seemed to threaten their very existence. According to Slotkin:
The Puritan settler conceived himself as torn between maintaining his strict religious code and being dragged pell-mell into a kind of savagery, with no foreseeable middle ground. Hence, the violence and extremism in which the North American national character was forged and which persists to this day. In fact we are living through a similarly reductive situation, whereby, because Fundamentalist Islam is perceived as being “on the rise” in certain parts of the world, U.S. radical-right politicians advise that we must become more and more Fundamentalist Christian, as a kind of antidote, rather than attempt to embrace ideological differences as inevitable, healthy and potentially positive in certain ways. We can read some parallels in this following passage, again from Slotkin:
Although the historic parallels are not perfect to the current embroilments in the Middle East (radical Islam has not been a completely innocent force), we can at least say that nothing has been learned from the historical pattern, and that much “corruption and destruction” has been perpetrated by the West for its “own gain.” A more balanced and less warlike strategy would be to free ourselves from the grip of dogmatic Calvinist belief entirely, where unbridled capitalism remains linked to Protestant and Evangelical belief, and rediscover (if it is not too late) that oneness and harmony with nature that animated most pagan religions throughout history (including that of the Native Americans).
The problem seems to be, as it has always been, an essential inability of white European culture — over-hierarchized and obsessed with striving and achievement — to see through the eyes of non-white cultures, which are less hierarchized and more communally oriented. Even today, U.S. society is a ladder that goes up or down, rather than a circle, a pool of water, a wheel, or any of the elemental symbols which have typically characterized Eastern or African societies.
This problem of filmmakers being unable to see clearly (or at all) from the perspective of colonized peoples — as well as the sub-problem of over-romanticizing colonial history — is exemplified, more recently, by Terence Malick’s flawed The New World (2005). Malick's achievements include his visionary lyricism and his subversion of traditional narrative with complex elements of dissonant, even dissociated, subjectivity. But in spite of the great care that went into the lavish period detail of The New World, he fails at redressing the historical atrocities which form the backdrop of his central love story. This love story itself makes the film's narrative problematic. Marketed as “the best romantic epic since Titanic” (critic Richard Roeper), The New World becomes a soft-centered whitewashing of the exploitation of the Natives by the settlers, in the sense that we are made to focus on the love affair between Puritan settler John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Native princess Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher). The character of Smith is glamorized too much; he should have been played as a cross between Brad Pitt’s killer in Kalifornia (1992) and Warren Beatty’s muttering con man in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1970) rather than as the Thoreau-ian anarchist woodsman he is depicted as here. Also, the film has inaccuracies of fact or emphasis. For example Malick depicts the English settlers as temperate in their religion, with only a handful of them shown as rabid Puritans (here seen as largely ostracized within the Jamestown settlement), whereas in historic reality the entire colony, under Increase Mather and then his son Cotton, was fanatically Puritan in its beliefs. From the very beginning of The New World, the settlers speak of wanting to promote good feelings with “the Naturals” for purposes of trade; however, the settlers did not adopt such an economic expedient until much later, when the Natives had been largely run off from their land and defeated.
Many of The New World’s problems stem from Farrell's star power and the need to center the film around him. One of Malick’s most egregious missed opportunities was to begin with the arrival of the English ships. Thus, we only see the Natives through English eyes, as opposed to having a half hour or so, at the beginning, where the film might have immersed us in Native culture, in order to let the indigenous people speak for themselves. Instead, by the unwritten laws of Hollywood filmmaking, the star (Farrell) had to be shown within the first five minutes or his fans would think they were in the wrong theater. Plus, the cinematic techniques Malick uses — particularly the jumpcuts, a hallmark of Malick’s sophisticated, postmodern European-derived sensibility — work against the idea of seeing the holistic, harmonious world of the Natives, a world that gets broken up within the eye of the lens as much as within the eye of history itself.
Intriguingly, however, Malick repeats numerous shots of people following each other at a distance: usually it is a pair of biracial lovers, one watching the other, sometimes one being coyly led on; this interesting visual motif suggests that one of the unstated subjects of Malick’s film is stalking, an entirely appropriate metaphor for the colonial relation. Such stalking also occurs in Beau Travail, in the scenes where Galoup watches his men from a distance and particularly in the dreamlike scene where he follows at a distance as the Africans carry Gilles down the street.