The soldiers iron their uniforms...
... while Bruno watches them.
Though Galoup seems sexually conflicted, he does have a relationship with Rahel (Marta Tafesse Kassa), a Djibouti native.
... and her unconsciousness gives the scene an uncanny feeling, as if she were consenting to be a projection of Galoup’s fantasy that the colonized “needs” the help and protection of the colonist.
Q’orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas in a stirring but largely thankless performance in Terrence Malick’s flawed The New World.
Christian Bale plays a plantation owner who sees her from afar and falls in love with her.
There are a number of shots in Malick’s film in which one member of a couple spies on or trails another from a distance, suggesting that one of the subjects of The New World is really stalking, an appropriate metaphor for the colonial relation.
In Beau Travail, an image of a Bedouin throwing rocks from the side of the road...
... turns out to be a nightmare Galoup is having, the bad conscience of the colonial who occupies a country not his own.
Having briefly left his post to observe Ramadan prayers, this soldier is ordered by Galoup to dig a hole until his hands are bloody.
Provoked by Galoup, Gilles punches him...
...and Galoup takes his revenge by stranding Gilles in the middle of the desert: a pitiless expanse of white where Gilles nearly dies of thirst and heat prostration.
Facing court-martial and dishonorable discharge for his treatment of Gilles, Galoup lays down on his bed with his service revolver, implying he will shoot himself.
Denis focuses on the gun resting against Galoup’s stomach as another phallic image...
...and follows with an extreme close-up of Galoup’s flexing bicep. She seems to be allying the military man’s obsession with strength and power (at its worst) with a kind of death drive, self-obliteration before “dishonor.”
In his poem “Algiers, Open City,” Jean Sénac wrote:
Senac was Algerian and, like Edouard Glissant, a direct witness to colonialism. The irony of these lines is that colonized peoples are already at home in their own land, although not permitted to possess it for themselves. The power of possession belongs to whoever does the seeing, whoever chooses whether to acknowledge or ignore the prior claim of the disenfranchised native inhabitants.
For filmmakers, the injunction to see and include colonized people, people of color, is made literal by considering the point of view of the camera itself. Politics are woven into any film's aesthetic, in terms of what is shown and what is left out. Denis signals her concern with a kind of war of visual representations in the opening images of Beau Travail. Her camera pans over a primitive painting of a group of small figures climbing a hill, while an old bearded white man — his face foregrounded, in “close-up” as it were — watches over them. This painting, which suggests both folk art and modern urban graffiti, or environment art, is full of suggestive symbolism. Is the old man a kind of God-figure, overseeing the smaller, ant-like men? Is he meant to be Bruno Forestier, the more seasoned soldier who nonetheless can only watch from a distance and is unable to intervene effectively in the action of the film? We hear the French soldiers singing a marching song:
But Denis does not allow the soldiers to have the last word: she next shows a close-up of Rahel, who mockingly mouths an exaggerated kiss, implying a “kiss-off” to the French army (“mighty phalanx” and all) along with the imperialist value-system it seeks to defend.
Perhaps as part of this idea of paying close attention to the Other, Denis employs a style of elliptical, oblique narrative, which, in its favoring of atmosphere over plot and its deliberate suppression of dramatic cues, feels more aligned with eastern rather than western sensibilities. In general Beau Travail compels close, even meditative attention, because of its loose narrative structure. It has very little expositional dialogue, and few extended scenes where characters interact to move the story along. Instead, information is delivered in small, unassuming moments that are in danger of going unread or misread by a casual viewer.
For instance, we first infer that Galoup is involved romantically with Rahel from a brief scene in which he comes to her room while she is asleep and places a present under her hand. This moment has a certain oddness, to be sure — its emotions are incomplete, or as the French say, inachèvé, a beautiful word from which the English word “unachieved” probably derives. Is this a simple gesture of courtship on Galoup’s part, of ardor and pursuit, with the gift as a desperate bargaining chip? Is it the pro forma gesture of a long-established relationship, like a paycheck doled out to an employee? Is the gift, finally, nothing but a kind of allegorical prop, something Galoup uses to convince himself that he is a tender lover, and what is truly significant about the entire moment is the fact that Rahel is unconscious and exists only as a further reassuring prop? In fact, it is all of the above, for Galoup is the Other, the interloper, the unnatural element, and as a result his motivations are meant to be illegible — a mix of good intention and manipulative selfishness.
Again, Denis’ ending, which shows Rahel on a bus with the dehydrated, more-dead-than-alive Gilles, suggests that Rahel’s fate is entwined with Gilles’, perhaps as fellow “victims” of Galoup. Yet it’s hard to see the impassive, occasionally sprightly and pixie-ish Rahel as a victim. She is the only native character in the film who is given a name, or much of an identity, apart from the largely symbolic. In contrast, for instance, with Pocahontas in The New World, who perishes in a paroxysm of masochistic ecstasy once she has been sewn into an old-world ball gown, Rahel neither needs nor really wants what European culture has to offer. Again, there’s a contrast in the methods used by the filmmakers themselves, with Malick wanting to neatly resolve the complex issues of history by focusing on the martyrdom of one woman and effectively telling us, “She didn’t mind, after all”; whereas Denis, perhaps because of her feminist credentials, leaves things more open, respects their potential unresolvability — or indeed feels free to depict her heroine as a self-willed, independent survivor.
Ultimately, it’s more broad-minded of Rahel to take up with Galoup than it is for him to take up with her. Despite his love for military discipline, Galoup experiences the loneliness of soldiering, especially in a faraway foreign country. He fulfills his understandable need for love in Rahel. But is he the most likely candidate for Rahel to love? Denis suggests that her love for Galoup may be sincere by making certain deliberate casting decisions: she surrounds the shorter, plainer-looking Lavant with tall, young actors who all seem almost too glamorous to be Legionnaires. They all look like male models, in fact, especially Gilles. Perhaps this is to heighten Galoup’s sexual unease: everywhere he looks, he sees projections of his hidden, forbidden desire.
Like Godard in The Little Soldier, Denis uses voiceover to work out her characters’ imperialist conflicts. The Little Soldier and Beau Travail could be said to have “dueling,” certainly overlapping voiceovers — Forestier’s in The Little Soldier, Galoup’s in Beau Travail. Denis deliberately has Galoup speak certain lines from The Little Soldier — for example, both men say, “I’m too old to play an active role, it’s time to think things over.” Perhaps this is meant to suggest that Galoup is not an original but a fatuous copy; or even to imply that young men in every generation go through the same stage of trying to figure out their relation to the world, to power, to the Other. But beyond this kind of direct citation, there are formal differences that alter the context for the two men and their respective voices. During Forestier’s voiceovers in The Little Soldier, Godard’s camera shows us images of the outside world (mainly traveling shots, from a car, of Geneva’s night-time streets lit by neon). It's as if, even when speaking alone, Bruno is still always “talking to the world” and, by implication, trying to change it, following radical 60s imperatives. He corresponds to a wider, more public environment. As if to suggest a more closed, claustrophobic world with fewer possibilities for change, Denis has Galoup speak mainly while we watch images of Galoup himself puttering around the kitchen, sweeping with a broom, pruning a tree: a stiflingly anal, domestic space closing in on itself. If anything, this matching of Galoup’s voice to his own image feels more disconnected, less whole — as if Galoup were talking not to the world but, schizophrenically, only to himself.
“Viewpoints count, angles of attack,” Galoup says at one point, emphasizing the postmodern tendency to reduce everything to isolated and unverifiable points of view that come and go without ever establishing roots. Galoup seems to be mired in identity conflicts and strictly secondhand details, even as Forestier, oppositely, was (and is) a character who transmutes the world through his own private language. As part of Godard’s effort to bring ideas directly into film, his early heroes were compulsive logothetes, babelogues, modernist spewers of language, assailing the world around them with monologues, anecdotes, questions and quotations, converting doubt and random detail into a towering private word-system that subsumes the world’s chaos in a kind of desperate encyclopedic order. But this logothetic element — never a particularly realistic one, since in the real world people tend to talk less rather than more — is suppressed from speech in Beau Travail, whose military characters keep their feelings locked inside and speak to each other only when absolutely necessary.
Beau Travail 's approach to speech is itself a comment on Denis’ part. Societally, the shared landscape of the real itself has eroded as a belief-system and therefore as a system of representative signs. At one point in Beau Travail (during a game of chess) we hear Galoup accuse Forestier, “You put too much faith in appearances,” as if cynically attacking the romanticized imagery of Godardian cinema. Godard's films seemed to evoke a process of falling in love with people and the world through a camera’s lens, of finding truth in the visual surface and the way it quotes other visual surfaces (from films, photographs and paintings).
Later, Galoup seems to reinforce Denis' idea that appearance has become vain and illusory, fragmentary, when he says that the things of the world, the great archetypal “images,” are “just blocks of information, stored in my memory” — uselessly collected and left to gather dust, in true imperial fashion, like the unclaimable postcard spoils of war in Godard’s Les Carabiniers (1963) or, indeed, Citizen Kane’s warehouse of incinerated legacies. We could say of Citizen Kane that as the beloved sled “Rosebud” is melted away in the flames, it finally sheds the burden of its owner’s absent and obsessive love, and it is finally able to remove, through the purgation of intense fire, the freezing chill of the snow bank into which he cast it down, as an angry boy, so many years before. At either extreme, the object is taken for granted, forgotten, exposed to the elements and vulnerable to desuetude. The ultimate revenge of such an exploited object, or an exploited colony, is that no one will be left to look at it with eyes of possessive ownership. This moment of victory is nonetheless also often a moment of death, of withdrawal from the world. Such a moment verges at its most extreme (in the form of the suicide bombers now plaguing the Middle East and elsewhere) on complete self-annihilation and the destruction of others.
In Beau Travail, we see that Forestier’s heart — and by extension, the heart of the Godardian auteurist film — is far from dead. Philosophical, seasoned, chewing his qat and keeping to himself, Forestier survives as a romantic figure in a world that has become more and more materialistic and commercialized, where even the colonized people readily speak of their market value without embarrassment. It is only by comparison with Forestier’s honorableness that we can judge Galoup’s actions and find him guilty, just as it is only by comparison with a hand-made auteurist masterpiece that we feel what is lacking in slick commercial products. By valorizing Godard’s hero as the last of a certain breed, Denis valorizes certain aspects of Godardian cinema. But it also seems that she is “tweaking” that cinema. She awakens the Godardian hero from a kind of forty-year cryogenic sleep — with his fastidious heart, his fetishism of high culture, his morality and sentimentality, his sometime blindness toward women and societal Others. Denis now sets him adrift at the dawn of the 21st century, up to his neck in identity politics, sexual ambiguity, and a sharp, continuous decline in Eurocentrism.
This is the meaning of Galoup’s spastic liberation-dance at the end, where he seems to violently break out of the reactionary pose of the “hero” — the man who can afford to hold himself above and apart from others. The song he dances to, “The Rhythm of the Night,” a house-music anthem popular in gay clubs, implies a “coming out” of the real person trapped underneath the phony hero. In the prolonged sequence, we feel the throbbing beat and the singer’s pleading, defiant insistence: “This is the rhythm of my life, my life.” Galoup’s dance implies that he is no longer a soldier but, in fact, a gay man, and therefore can accept the “Third World” on its own terms — as fellow sufferers — rather than oppress it. A sexual ghetto joins with a racial one in expressing its pain of being exploited, being “used and cast aside.”
This is similar to a scene in Denis’ J’ai Pas Sommeil (I Can’t Sleep, 1997), where a proud, lonely, sexually misbegotten male reclaims his identity by dancing alone in front of other people. I say “reclaims his identity” with some qualification; in fact, this black character, “Camille“ (played by Richard Courcet), is wearing a head-wrap and gown suggestive of plantation life, and is dancing for a white audience who could be said to be sizing him up like purchasers at a slave auction. So often, the tragedy of the outsider is that he/she must embrace objectification to be “seen” at all. Camille becomes the center of attention, the most vivid and interesting thing in the room (though remaining, arguably, a thing rather than a wholly and naturally validated person).
Indeed, what makes Galoup’s dance ambiguous, more solipsistic and stillborn, is the fact that the nightclub around him is empty, a site of fantasy rather than true public liberation. Also, Galoup’s dance is marked by its gracelessness. He flails around, jumps in the air, twirls like a dervish. Absent is that nobility of feeling, that refinement that often seemed to mark the public man of the 60’s and which can be seen in Godard’s films in rather flamboyant displays of intellectual and physical gymnastics that strengthen the heroes’ self-images while hiding their vulnerabilities. (“People run beautifully in Godard’s films,” Susan Sontag once noted.) Like a son who is a disappointment to his father, contemporary liberation is shown to be itself a kind of capitulation — self-diminishing, desperate, tawdry, and set to a relentless Top 40 backbeat. And yet, Denis seems to say, gracelessness is one of the prices to be paid for honesty, which is more important than fictitious, self-delusional notions of “grace.”
Post-9/11, the issues raised by both of these interlinking films remain as urgent as ever, if not more so. The Little Soldier seems especially important to reconsider, with its themes of terrorism and torture, confrontations between entrenched ideologies, the undeniable guilt of western superpowers, and the uneasy, ongoing attempt of different cultures to live together in an ever shrinking world. Godard has called it a “classical” film (in the same interview quoted above), and as such it belongs to a time when, admittedly, the perspectives of western white males dominated culture. By contrast, Beau Travail is an example of the great revisionist cultural enterprise that has thrived in such important projects as multiculturalism, deconstructionism, etc., but whose future suddenly seems uncertain. Not because such an enterprise no longer seems possible or desirable, but because it’s been problematized by the most unromantic of realities.
What does it mean, at this moment in history, to embrace the Other at the dilution of one’s own self, one’s own culture? Or to submerge the strong authorial identity of the classical or modernist, Eurocentric artist in favor of a less individualistic, eastern aesthetic? Neither The Little Soldier nor Beau Travail suggests that any answer to these questions has ever been a simple one, or even a matter of freely given choice. Indeed, both films are intensely discomfiting works, precisely because of their insistence that all political conflicts are insoluble problems that distort and contaminate not only society as a whole, but the most intimate of personal relationships. If the self-appointed task of most experimental cinema has been to imagine new ways to break from the confines of socially conditioned thought — whether in the films of Buñuel or Brakhage, Anger or Tarkovsky — The Little Soldier and Beau Travail seem like vicious circles hopelessly enclosed within those confines, weary, disillusioned, unable to escape the effects of oppression and gain higher ground. But in this, they are curiously compelling. In the urgent words of the little soldier as he confronts his own doubts about his militaristic agenda:
It is impossible to deny that our own contemporary realities of torture and terrorism are equally messy, conflicted, and overtaken by a rampant mauvais foi. In an era when most religious believers stress the idea that God certainly has an ideal and that it is one which we or they or everyone must live by, the liberating existential idea that God pointedly does not have an ideal comes as a breath of fresh air into a stifling discourse. If our conceptions of God (and at this point they have become so various as to perforce cancel each other out) would lead us in any direction, it must certainly be toward that of ethics in the public realm. By this, I mean nothing less than that the ancient cathedrals which were built as aesthetic monuments to a God who could only be rendered visible by such pomp and circumstance may well have to be dismantled in favor of edifices and structures that do not soar away from man so much, that do not erect so many false alliances between the material prosperities of this world and the hoped-for spiritual prosperities of this or any other.