copyright 2008, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 50, spring 2008

Colonial fictions: Le Petit Soldat
and its revisionist sequel,
Beau Travail

by Justin Vicari

A revisionist sequel

Strip-mining profitable seams for their last-ditch stores of gold nuggets, the movie sequel, that Hollywood Frankenstein, is synonymous with commercial exploitation. Among art films there are hardly any sequels. Each successive wave of young filmmakers seems under its own Poundian obligation at least to Make It New, if not utterly to tear down the vaunted icons of the previous generation. By their nature, commercial sequels typically conform to an aesthetic status quo, if they can even be said to have an aesthetic. Leftovers, retreads, proofs of formula and “sure-thing” bankability, sequels throw nothing into question and, whatever improbable shapes they do take, are rarely new departures.

For all of these overly familiar reasons, a term like “revisionist sequel” or “art-film sequel” sounds like a barely conceivable oxymoron. We would find it questionable if we heard about a sequel, for instance, that reunites the ennui-sufferers of L’Avventura for yet another vacation where someone else goes missing, or examines the adult married life of the young couple from Blue Velvet, or sets Travis Bickle down on some Kansas farm. Indeed, the more complete and satisfying a cinematic statement, the less we can conceive of a different director coming along and adding his or her own vision to it. And yet, Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (Good Work, 1999) is a kind of sequel, nearly forty years later, to Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier, 1960), in that Denis borrows the hero of Godard’s film, Bruno Forestier. These two French films from disparate decades enter into a conversation with each other through the common link of this recurring character, who is even played by the same actor, Michel Subor.

One of the least cited films in Godard’s early canon, The Little Soldier takes place during the French-Algerian war, but far from the war’s official battleground, in the thick of its peripheral action in Geneva, where Bruno works as a young French secret agent against an Algerian terrorist network. Although Bruno is a pro-France conservative, he experiences qualms of conscience when asked to shoot Palivoda, a prominent radio figure and rebel leader. “If I killed him,” Bruno says in voiceover, “I’d feel like a loser . . . No one can force a soldier to kill.” Bruno’s sinister and jingoistic commander, Jacques (Henri-Jacques Huet), begins to suspect him of disloyalty.

In the middle of this intrigue, Bruno meets and falls in love with a beautiful young Russian-Danish woman, Veronica Dreyer (Anna Karina), to whom he is instantly attracted because she looks “as if she came straight out of a play by Jean Giradoux.” A passionate photographer and art lover, Bruno seduces her by taking pictures of her and lecturing her about classical music, a wonderfully Godardian seduction.

Under pressure from the French, Bruno makes several attempts to shoot Palivoda but fails. Veronica also turns out to be an agent, on the side of the Algerians; she betrays Bruno to Laszlo (Laszlo Szabo) and the other terrorists, who take Bruno to a hotel room and torture him for hours, smothering his face in soaking-wet towels and applying live electrodes to him. He does not break down and divulge any information, and finally escapes by jumping out a window. Still in love with Veronica in spite of her betrayal, he makes plans to go away with her, but again the French agents try to force him to kill Palivoda. This time he carries out the assassination, but meanwhile the French capture Veronica and torture her to death. In the final shot, Bruno rushes up an escalator onto a busy street, his voiceover the ultimate in pragmatic logic:

“One thing I’ve learned is not to be bitter. I was just glad to have so much time left.” [1] [open endnotes in new window]

What does the disillusioned Bruno do with “so much time” on his hands? Entirely plausibly, Claire Denis imagines that he marches into the French Foreign Legion. In Beau Travail, Forestier, now an older man, commands a division of Legionnaires stationed in Djibouti.

In this desert outpost, Sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant) trains the new recruits. Galoup, the film's main character, is an uptight, conflicted time-bomb of a man. He loves military discipline more than anything else in the world but feels alienated from both Forestier and the soldiers in his squad. He is a misplaced link in the chain of command. In a narrative move based on Melville’s Billy Budd, Galoup forms an almost instantaneous hatred for the young and well-liked Gilles Sentain (Gregoire Colin) and sets out to destroy him. Repressed homosexuality seems to fuel Galoup’s obsession with Gilles, although Galoup also forms a romantic relationship with a beautiful Djibouti native woman, Rahel (Marta Tafesse Kassa).

Forestier witnesses the mounting tensions between Galoup and Gilles, but, whether out of apathy or passivity or the same indecisiveness that he displayed in The Little Soldier, he does not intervene strongly enough on Gilles’ behalf. In a calculated effort to destroy Gilles, Galoup drives the young soldier to attack him, then strands the youth in the middle of the desert as a punishment, expecting Gilles to perish. Gilles’ absence arouses suspicion among his comrades, and Galoup finally confesses to Forestier, who prepares to court-martial Galoup out of the Legion. Meanwhile, African natives rescue Gilles, severely dehydrated and barely alive.

Denis’ film ends ambiguously. In fact, it seems to have multiple endings, each open to multiple interpretations. We see Galoup climb an escalator to the street, a shot directly in homage to the last shot in The Little Soldier. A group of Legionnaires taunts the discharged Galoup — or are they saluting him? — by singing the Legionnaires’ anthem to him while he is in a café. The last time we see Rahel, she is sitting on a bus next to the ailing Gilles, to whom she gives a drink of water; we see that now their fates are entwined, and perhaps Rahel is one more “thing” which Galoup has lost. Finally, Galoup lays down on his bed with his service revolver; the film implies at this moment that he will shoot himself rather than face dishonorable discharge. But then, in a strange sequence that almost feels suspended outside the diegetic space, we find Galoup dressed in civilian clothes, dancing alone and with spastic abandon at a discotheque.

Not just any civilian clothes. Denis has deliberately given him a certain look: tight black satiny shirt, tight black chinos, and a cigarette like a rising pinkie finger, all of which is suggestive, in a very broad and perhaps one-dimensional way, of the urban homosexual. Has Galoup found himself at last? He has never been inside the disco before, although other characters in the film have been shown dancing there (Rahel, Gilles). It’s reminiscent of the treatment of the character of Lt. Seblon (Franco Nero) in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982). Seblon is also a military commander with repressed homosexual desires for his men, one in particular, “the sailor Querelle.” Seblon never permits himself to enter the brothel where the other men go, but only to stand outside looking in through its Art Deco windows, until the very last scene, after he and Querelle (Brad Davis) have bonded in their love.

Bruno Forestier is a secondary character, although to some degree the moral center of Denis' film. Encountering Subor’s craggy, aged face in Beau Travail is almost like seeing an old friend, to anyone who recalls the actor’s intense performance in The Little Soldier, where he delivered Godard’s most famous maxim:

“Photography is truth, and cinema is truth at twenty-four frames per second.”

Denis is faithful to Godard’s conception of Forestier as a man who has suffered for his ideals. “A rumor dogged him after the Algerian war,” we are told about Forestier in Beau Travail, a line that succinctly jogs the viewer’s memory of the older film. Nonetheless, though he is still trying to avoid the pain of having ideals in a flawed, corrupted world, Forestier remains covertly idealistic beneath his aloof and somewhat crusty surface. He reaches out more sincerely to the men in his company than Galoup does. Only Forestier has the keen sense of human justice, as well as the hard-nosed discipline, to condemn Galoup for his attempted murder of Gilles.

In both films it is the young characters who suffer most at the hands of an older generation, which is manipulative, power-driven and un-idealistic. The romanticism which in Godard spills out into long frenzied monologues where the young Bruno pours out his heart and soul about poetry, music, politics and love — always returning to love as the glue that binds all the other things together — is more muted and distant in Denis’ film, where the older characters try to locate their own lost romanticism in the younger characters whether it is truly there or not.

At one point a young Russian legionnaire seems to strike a chord in Forestier when he confides in his officer: “It’s hard to go on fighting for ideals that keep changing.” Bruno cocks his head and asks with a certain interest, “What ideal?” Bruno seems skeptical, but at the same time we sense that he’d like to know what ideal the young soldier believes in, as if it truly might make a difference.

Impassive and subdued, the young Gilles serves as a scapegoat for Sergeant Galoup’s own sense of being empty inside, of having sacrificed his entire life for questionable military motives. But Gilles himself, although idealistic in some ways, is also a cipher who cannot be read as upholding an inherently romantic set of values. Unlike the expulsive young heroes of early Godardian cinema, Gilles tends to keep everything inside.

In a sense, only Forestier remains young at heart. Denis repeats the playful close-up from Godard’s film in which he opens and closes his hands over his face in a bathroom mirror, a game of self-“peekaboo” that signifies, in both films, Bruno’s innate contradictions, his childishness, his unwillingness to look too deeply into himself at times, his need to hide from messy realities. However, in Godard’s free-form, heady world of youth expressing itself, this peekaboo could be seen as one more poetic gesture; its persistence in Beau Travail marks the older Bruno as an anomalous dreamer. Indeed, Bruno appears in Beau Travail partly as a stranded representative of the dogmatic, committed 60s — as in the significant scene where an African cab driver asks him, “Do you know how much a colored girl is?” Taken aback by this insinuation, wary and embarrassed at being seen as that kind of colonial, Bruno replies, “If it weren’t for fornication and blood, we wouldn’t be here,” a line that seems tailor-made as a summation of early Godardian cinema, and a defense of the radical 60s in general.

It is nearly impossible not to imagine that Denis is employing Bruno/Subor as a deliberate evocation of the nouvelle vague (without whose groundbreaking work, one could safely say, she or any other modern filmmakers “wouldn’t be here.”) But it’s a wistful, complicated evocation: much of Beau Travail takes place while Bruno is off to the side, watching. He seems an “absent” commander functionally cut off from the activities of the younger men who follow him. As Galoup’s machinations and Gilles’ difficulties deepen and develop, the film begins to look like an intergenerational conflict not only of men but of cinemas themselves, with an unmistakable question emerging at the center: Is cinema itself still headed in the right direction?

In one sequence Gilles follows Galoup through an obstacle course of jumping in and out of pits, a race in which Gilles is perennially behind, striving to catch up. If Gilles represents future cinema by default, he seems to be off to a bleak start, described in one scene as an orphan “found in a stairwell.” Denis incorporates many images of disuse and chaos — an abandoned French tank rusting out amid sand dunes; Galoup leading his men across a bleak whitened expanse like a zigzag line of ants. Such images suggest an entropic falling-off, a loss of possibilities, as does the elegiac tone of her film in general. Her critique is partly centered around the ubiquity of crass commercialism. Even in Djibouti, posters for Coca-Cola and Marlboro invade and deracinate the landscape, suggestive of the influence of a western culture and, by implication, a western cinema, which, in their willful isolation from Third World viewpoints, have grown stagnant and reactionary.

In this Denis picks up where the Godard of Made in USA (1966), Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967), Tout Va Bien (1972) and other films seemed to “leave off.” But in spite of constructing this link with the famously left-wing Godard, she does not exempt The Little Soldier from the reach of her critique. There are obvious reasons for this, and indeed The Little Soldier makes an obvious target. It is from Godard’s pre-radical phase; its politics are more romantic-existential than dialectical-rigorous. In a statement made around the film’s release, Godard described Bruno as

“a man who would like to be able to cut his way through with a dagger like the others, a man who is very proud of being French because he likes Joachim du Bellay and Louis Aragon, and really he’s still only a little boy . . .” [2]

Expressing regret that no contemporary film had been made from the Algerians’ viewpoint, [3] the director went on to say:

“Now [in 1960] politics meant Algeria. But I had to show it from the aspect that I knew and the way I felt it. […] Personally I was speaking about things which concerned me in 1960 as a Parisian belonging to no political party.” [4]

In other words, Godard’s viewpoint is a shifting one, up for grabs, pragmatic rather than committed, and attempting to occupy a centrist or at best an independent position. In an interview with Yvonne Baby, Godard explained The Little Soldier in these terms:

"I have told the story of an agent of the right, but I could just as well do a film on the life of Djamilla Bouhired [an Arab revolutionary]."

"In any case, he [Bruno] is both right wing and left wing — because he is a sentimentalist. […] If he had to choose, he would no doubt be on the other side. He hankers after a more revolutionary past. […] Today, we live in a less lyrical period. One is more compelled to find truth inside oneself rather than outside. The little soldier is searching for truth, he is searching for what is most important: that is to say not to be defeated, not to be bitter, to continue being active, to feel free. But even when everything is going wrong he feels that he should not have any regrets. […]"

"I find it easy to identify myself with him." [5]

 The later, radicalized Godard would have doubtlessly rejected this search for inner, relative truth as a political cop-out. Perhaps only the highly vitriolic and divisive issue of Algeria could have made him attempt such an uncharacteristic identification with a right-wing character like Forestier. Algeria occupies a place in modern French history similar to Vietnam for the United States. It was a long, bloody, costly imperialist war that finally ended with the smaller power driving back the bigger one in frustrated defeat. It also bears resemblance, for obvious reasons, to the current war in Iraq. Indeed, many of the topical issues that went directly into Godard’s film — nationalism, imperialism, terrorism, torture — are very familiar to us in our post-9/11 world, where they often appear as no less complicated and difficult to parse.

It is not a question of condoning or supporting terrorist violence. Godard’s reticence or disapproval toward this are more than understandable. It is not even so much a question of whether Godard should have taken sides, or delivered a slanted condemnation of French foreign policy. Instead, the question raised by The Little Soldier is one of aesthetic representation, the ongoing and important question of how any white European (or U.S.) artist should approach the lives and voices of Africans and Arabs.

To be sure, Godard is already fairly balanced politically. He depicts the French agents as nearly as cold-blooded as the terrorists. It is the French, after all, who kill Veronica, though this takes place off-camera while the torture of Bruno is shown in excruciating detail. (One brief scene shows French agents forcing Veronica into a car, but this is all done in long-shot and is composed as a kind of homage to Hollywood film noir and gangster movies. In the 60s such a stylistic trope was Godard’s shorthand for distancing himself emotionally from a given subject.) And yet, in The Little Soldier, the Algerians, unsavory and slightly ridiculous, are much closer to prop-box, B-movie villains. There is only one, nearly incongruous scene in which Godard allows the rebels to speak for themselves; Laszlo, making an illegal radio broadcast, announces to the camera:

“The revolutionary thrust is like a ship already visible on the far-off horizon. It is like the disc of the sun, whose burning rays already pierce the shadows. It is like the child who will soon see the light of day.”

This is bland, unconvincing rhetoric and, again, made even more hollow by Laszlo’s direct link to torture. (As a further undermining of credibility, the Algerian Laszlo is played by the actor Szabo, who was actually not an Arab at all but a Hungarian.) [6]

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,

“A culture forges myths for many reasons, but paramount among them is the need to impose order on chaotic and disturbing experience -- to resolve haunting contradictions and contain apprehensions, to imagine a way out of darkness,” [The Terror Dream, Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York: 2007, p. 254]

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):

 “… Vere’s legalistic rigging of the hastily convened trial, immediately prompted by his fear of mutiny, is ultimately rooted in self-mistrust. Billy must die as soon as possible because the ambitious but colorlessly ‘bookish’ and ‘pedantic’ Vere ... knows that he can’t command intuitive loyalty from his crew in the manner of Lord Nelson.” [7]

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:

 “‘[The Pequod] was a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies.’ The Pequot Indians, suppressed by the ancestors of these Nantucketers, thus have their final triumph. As the Pequots decked themselves in scalps, so their white heirs … deck their ship in the name of their slaughtered foe and make their ship a cannibal as well. […] The marriage and cannibal metaphors, and the mythic strains they represent, provide the context in which the problem of the great hunter-captain Ahab slowly reveals itself. The act of eating and drinking the body and blood in the Eucharist is meant as an act of love, uniting the worshipper with a beloved deity … Ahab’s hatred of the thing he hunts violates the ethic of the hunter myth, in which the hunter and the beast are lovingly to share and interchange identities.” [8]

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)

 “‘You deceived me, woman of this west! O inebriations! O torrents!
What may he drink now, the lover come from afar, what ardor? O moon!
I know the savage love that depopulates and uproots itself; it is mine!
So much sweat and ocean, to arrive at such desolation! O, I shall stay!
And I shall rip to pieces your dung of jaguars and serpents! I, who entered through the Gate of the Sun!
I know a people down there in whom I shall trade; whom I shall hook up to your tit.
For your lovers whom I killed, stubborn love leads me to where are the heavy, crawling fish.
A people, O woman, who shall have you all night long for their pleasure and their pain.
At dawn, I shall scratch the black rind and make fall the secret dew.
So that my desire may assume durable form! So that the morning may belong to me, and the moon too!’
Now the earth wept, knowing what eternity is.”
—Edouard Glissant, The Indies [9]

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:

"As the Puritans’ experience in the New World lengthened, the peculiar features and problems of their new environment were assimilated into the vocabulary of symbols that expressed their vision of God and the world. The wild Indians, fleeting unseen, omnipresent and threatening through the dark wilderness, were visible emblems of the dark motions of the human soul, trapped in original sin. In order to survive in the Indians’ world, the English settlers would have to adjust their habits and ways of thinking to that world; but this adjustment involved some diminution of their sense of Englishness, a figurative marriage with the Indians that threatened damnation." [10]

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:

"The Pilgrim settlers are the chief and only obstacle to this natural, fruitful union. Where the Indians have been just, honest, generous, wise, respectful of age, and open in sexual love, the Pilgrims have responded with injustice, venality, hypocrisy, folly, malice, and touch-me-not bigotry. They withhold their hearts and their persons from the Indians and the wilderness, seeking only the corruption and destruction of both for their own gain." [11]

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.

Other voices

In his poem “Algiers, Open City,” Jean Sénac wrote:

"Seeing, I would become their Lord.
Possessors of an empire we can’t traverse,
We are gods without a magic formula.

On Life’s threshold,
We don’t know anything except that all of life is already in our hands." [12]

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:

“Under the burning African sun, Cochin-China, Madagascar, a mighty phalanx hoisted up our banners. Its motto, ‘Honor and Valor,’ makes for brave soldiers. Its flag, that of France, is a sign of glory.”

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.[13]

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.

Urgent, uncomfortable

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:

"There is something more important than having an ideal, but what? It is something more important than not being defeated. I would just love to know exactly what it is. . . . My argument is that everyone has an ideal, therefore there is something more important that everyone hasn’t got. For example, I am sure that God doesn’t have an ideal. There is a very, very beautiful saying. Whose is it? I think it was Lenin. ‘Ethics are the aesthetics of the future.’ I find that saying very beautiful and very moving. It reconciles the left and the right."

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.


[1] Godard’s image of Bruno pushing through a door as a symbolic way of leaving the past behind feels like a deliberate echo of the heavily fatalistic ending of The Lady from Shanghai (1948), where Orson Welles pushes through a turnstile while saying, “Maybe I’d forget her, maybe I’d die trying.” Like the Welles character, Bruno has experienced the death of love, but Godard adds a layer of complexity wherein this sense of personal disappointment and betrayal can be read politically as well — as an unraveling of the one-dimensional patriotic ideals that Bruno had tried to live by.

[2] Le Petit Soldat: Modern Film Scripts Series (Translated by Nicholas Garnham; Simon and Schuster: New York, 1967), p. 8

[3] It took the late Pontecorvo to do this successfully in his great masterpiece, The Battle of Algiers (1965), perhaps the single best “political film” of all time.

[4] Le Petit Soldat: Modern Film Scripts, ibid., p. 9

[5] Ibid., pp. 11-12

[6] Laszlo’s monologue prefigures numerous scenes in Godard’s later films, especially the scene in Weekend (1967) where the African and Arab sanitation workers stare aggressively into the camera while we hear them describing their revolutionary agendas in voiceover: “We have therefore chosen guerilla warfare as the only possible solution. It is an advantageous tactic for us and an easy one to apply — we work in the nation’s strategic points, in the factories, the fields and the white men’s homes. We can easily destroy and commit acts of sabotage.” (In fact, Godard again had the same Hungarian actor, Szabo, play the Arab in Weekend. I doubt that any major filmmaker would be able to get away with such “race-switching” in casting, today.)

[7] Frederick Crews, Follies of the Wise, Shoemaker Hoard, Emeryville, CA: 2006, p. 340)

[8] Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1800 (Wesleyan University Press: Middletown, CT, 1973), p. 544

[9] The Collected Poems of Edouard Glissant, translated by Jeff Humphries with Melissa Manolas (University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, MN, 2005), p. 85

[10] Slotkin, ibid., p. 66

[11] Ibid., p. 60

[12] Jean SÚnac, Avant-Corps (my translation; France: Gallimard, 1968), p. 58

[13] It’s intriguing to me that Denis, as a female director, lets her camera linger so longingly over the naked bodies of the young soldiers. There’s a kind of reversal of the “sexism” displayed by the eye of a male director gathering female flesh into his shot. Catherine Breillat, another great French feminist director, makes this point explicit in her self-critical Sex is Comedy (2002), a movie about the difficulties a director has in filming a sex scene. At one point, the director (who is supposed to be Breillat) says words to the effect that she always chooses her leading actors for their looks and she always ends up disappointed in them. It is Gregoire Colin (Gilles from Beau Travail) who plays the vain, vapid actor she is talking about.

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