JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

The amplification of incidental sound effects, such as the amniotic flapping of legionnaires' flippers in underwater training, is equally important to Denis’ construction of a musical rhythm.

As the film progresses, Galoup’s psyche is explored more deeply in tactile and aural registers, often through intimate close-ups that emphasize his ears as much as his eyes.

This camera set-up, positioned behind Galoup’s head at a traumatically noisy campfire dance, even frames his ears in silhouette.

In the filmís most unnerving scene, a near-silent itinerary of the sergeant combing his hair and dressing in a bathroom mirror will cut to the deafening underwater explosion of a helicopter.

As Galoup buttons his shirt, his sporadic voiceover narration sutures us into his subjectivity

His gaze into the mirror signals the explosion as the brain-event of a man who has lost all pretense of grid-like Cartesian interfacing with his environment.

It is a strikingly potent audiovisual, the blue sea suddenly bursting with an inky red that, in literal terms, could be either blood or fire.

The incident marks the turning point in Galoup's life, the moment when he is eternally banished from Forestier's affections because "it was then that Sentain's heroism came to the fore."

Galoupís mysterious, ostensibly sexual assignation with beautiful Djibouti native Rahel (Marta Tafesse Kassa) suggests he is not completely cut off from the plane of touch, but clearly hers is not the touch he craves.

Claustrophobic close-ups of torsos, limbs and palms during the training rituals appear to mock Galoupís bitter longing for tenderness.

Sound and touch collide in violence as the legionnaires slap against each other's chests in a compromise between an embrace and a wrestling grip.

Decentred compositions like this one emphasize Galoupís loneliness, isolation, and failure to adjust to civilian life in Marseilles.

 

Adrian Martin has written elsewhere of the visual techniques Denis uses to break classical chains of command, a dense process that includes but extends beyond such French New Wave traditions as disembodied voices on the soundtrack and characters’ breaking the fourth wall. [18] [open endnotes in new window]Essentially she demolishes the three-way harmony between scene, camera and editing, breaking up shot linkages in a manner that does violence to the syntax of continuity and the laws of mainstream spectatorship. Martin offers the opening three minutes of Denis’ semi-autobiographical 1988 debut film Chocolat as evidence, citing the discord between establishing shots that set up spatio-temporal context and usher in the objective illusion, shots of a character looking at an off-screen object that announce the suturing process, and eyeline matches that do not match the expected POV and thus lead us astray. His example is enlightening: a long but relatively conventional opening shot of a quiet beach, followed by another conventional shot of a young white woman gazing across the sand at a black child on the shore, followed by an overhead close-up of the child in the water. This last shot is the one that violates cinema’s traditional laws of looking, because it cannot be intended to represent the gazer's distant perspective. And with images desubjectified, divested of certain ownership, classical viewers have both visual identification processes and the spatio-temporal ground torn from beneath their feet.

Martin, Beugnet and others have traced the development of Denis’ visual aesthetic in the years since Chocolat, identifying the ways in which she has refined her methods of ellipsis and worked out new narrative devices with which to plant seeds of doubt in our minds about the knowledge-value of vision. Certainly there is a distinct sense of a filmmaker who has gradually developed her own mercurial brand of Deleuzian time-image cinema, moving from the relatively accessible use of parallel editing structures in films like US Go Home (1994), J’ai pas sommeil (1994) and Nénette et Boni to the extreme case of a film like L’intrus, in which the viewer’s attempts to grasp the most fundamental details of narrative incident, chronology or spatial organization are constantly frustrated by the manner in which every scene – indeed, every image – unfolds in an uncertain limbo between flashback, memory and dream.

One of the devices through which Denis attains a state of narrative flux in Beau travail is, at least on the surface, a fairly conventional, novelistic one: that of the unreliable narrator. Rather than provide the viewer with a stable point of objective reference, Galoup’s voiceover is misleading and impressionistic, frequently dropping off the soundtrack for long stretches before returning with a sticky, close-up murmur to offer an opaque digression or aside that collapses the boundaries between reality and myth, memory and dream. [19] Without other sources to corroborate Galoup’s observations or orient us in terms of geography, time zones, or chronology of events, we are never quite sure what to believe. As a result we are forced to trust the hazy impressions gleaned from signifiers like location and costume changes.

Beyond the narration, Beugnet has described how Denis also destabilizes viewer perspective at the level of editing and mise-en-scène, citing among many examples a long asynchronous shot of the legionnaires walking across a lunar desert landscape to the dreamy strain of Neil Young’s “Safeway Cart.” [20] In this case, the fact that the legionnaires move across the screen from right to left – in effect contradicting our traditional sense of movement in time – is an optical defamiliarization tactic familiar from such films as Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) and Agnès Varda’s Vagabond (1985). The film consistently plays such tricks on our vision to prevent us from accumulating meanings that obey the cause-and-effect psychology of traditional narrative cinema. Long shots and still frames of landscapes cut unexpectedly to close-ups of faces and bodies, with a distressing lack of master shots to smoothen the transitions or even securely localize the spaces of action. Instead, the wildly uneven duration of the shots and the alternation between straight cuts, dissolves and superimpositions conjures up a distinct sense of improvisation at the editing desk – a sense that Denis and Quettier are searching for new ways to riff upon cinematic time and space. More obviously, it causes the film to speed up and slow down in tempo. Taken as a whole, these strategies constitute the development of a strange, almost seasick rhythm, which critic Jonathan Romney picked up on when he compared Beau travail to the free-jazz compositions of Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman. [21] [22] It is rhythm that pulls the film outside the established syntax of traditional narrative and into another realm: music. According to Langer,

“Music, like language, is an articulate form. Its parts not only fuse together to yield a greater entity, but in doing so they maintain some degree of separate existence, and the sensuous character of each element is affected by its function in the complex whole. This means that the greater entity we call a composition is not merely produced by mixture, like a new color made by mixing paints, but is articulated, i.e. its internal structure is given to our perception.” [23]

Of foremost importance to Denis’ construction of a musical rhythm, and the articulation of its structure to our perception, is the role of sound. No auditory sensation goes unheard – or unfelt – in the monosyllabic male world of the Foreign Legion. The sparsity of dialogue makes us pay closer attention to everything we do hear.

  • The scratchy static of a sweeping brush along the ground.
  • The bassy hum of a breeze as the legionnaires walk a precarious high-wire.
  • The steam hissing from Galoup's iron as he starches his shirt.
  • The whoosh of shaving foam from a can.
  • The brushing of a razor upon skin.
  • The abrasion of hands, feet and torsos against raw earth as the men wriggle under the barbed wire of an obstacle course.

Aural contrasts register in jarring fashion, like an abrupt cut from bubbly dance music in the local discotheque to the amniotic flapping of legionnaires' flippers in underwater training. Beau travail is, to borrow Steven Connor's phrase about another work – Walter Ruttmann's eleven-minute audio recording Wochenende (1929) –

"a sound-film requiring a kind of listening eye, a gaze mutated into the conditions of hearing." [24]

An individual analysis of any one of these sound effects may elicit puzzlement at Denis' decision to mike up ambient or incidental noise higher than is usual in cinema. Taken cumulatively, though, her aural design works in concert with Galoup's trenchant narration to transport the viewer into his ever-darkening brain states. Even more so than her visual subversions, it is this emphasis on aural subjectivity that creates a cinematic rhythm whose import is purely symbolic.

For Langer, music attains the status of “significant form” by virtue of being symbolic rather than discursive. She believes there is a close logical resemblance between its formal structure and the forms of human feeling. What distinguishes music from language is that, rather than being understood successively through chains of “conventional reference,” music operates as a complex symbol for the processes of our psyche, a “tonal analogue of emotive life” [25] that is capable of expressing what words cannot. So, too, Denis’ narrative project in Beau travail gradually reveals itself as an auditory account of her protagonist's mental life, a psychic limbo where

“the singular space of the visual is transformed by the experience of sound to a plural space.”[26]

Sounds build upon one another to form pictures, providing the internal psychodrama of a man who, blindsided by jealousy, gradually loses all pretense of grid-like Cartesian interfacing with his environment. In turn Denis renounces the temporal continuity and spatio-visual reassurances of the classical narrative. As Steven Connor reminds us,

“The self defined in terms of hearing rather than sight is a self imaged not as a point, but as a membrane; not as a picture, but as a channel through which voices, noises and music travel.”[27]

Denis has attuned us so intimately with Galoup's synaptic jitters that the expulsive redness filling the screen could just as easily be an aneurysm popping in close-up. The red sound-image serves no practical purpose in Beau travailís story-world, operating instead in a purely symbolic realm closer to music than narrative cinema.
It feels like Galoupís inner epiphany of impending apocalypse: "That day something overpowering took over my heart. I thought about the end. The end of me. The end of Forestier." His admission that "first we just heard a deafening noise" cues the explosion as a psychic code red, so that even if we are not sure where we stand in the narrative chain of events, it all makes a deeper, more intuitive kind of sense.

Emotions also travel through these channels, and Denis brings troubling emotional undertows to her wall of sound. The human body is an echoing chamber, a site where the seeing-equals-knowing ethos of vision lies exposed as an impotent construct. As one might expect from a director twisting film form into the shape of music, Denis has more faith in hearing as a structuring essence of life, a faculty that is acquired embryonically long before vision and only leaves the body in death after the other senses have shut down. Hence the most unnerving scene in Beau travail is not a gaze-related one, but the one that cuts from a near-silent itinerary of the sergeant combing his hair and buttoning his shirt in a bathroom mirror to the deafening underwater explosion of a helicopter.

This incident marks the turning point in Galoup's life, the moment when he is eternally banished from Forestier's affections because “it was then that Sentain's heroism came to the fore.” It is a strikingly potent audiovisual, the blue sea suddenly bursting with an inky red that, in literal terms, could be either blood or fire. Denis has attuned us so intimately to Galoup's synaptic jitters that the expulsive redness filling the screen could just as easily be an aneurysm popping in close-up. The red sound-image serves no practical purpose in the narrative, operating instead in that purely symbolic realm where

“the factor of significance is not logically discriminated, but is felt as a quality rather than recognized as a function.” [28]

It feels like Galoup’s inner epiphany of impending apocalypse. He tells us,

“That day something overpowering took over my heart. I thought about the end. The end of me. The end of Forestier.”

His admission that “first we just heard a deafening noise” cues the explosion as a psychic code red, so that even if we are not sure where we stand in the narrative chain of events, it all makes a deeper, more intuitive kind of sense. Life begins with sound. Life ends with sound. The crisis that bifurcates Galoup's life is thus organized in terms of sound.

If sound is the sense whose constant presence defines Galoup's life, touch is the sense whose absence is most painfully felt. Touch functions as the invisible anchor of Beau travail, an off-screen vanishing point that charges every cell of the film. Touch is also, obviously, the sense most literally connected to the thematic of desire that haunts all of Denis’ films. She seems to be aware that what matters most in desire is the failure to satiate it, for once satiated it can no longer be desire. Galoup's desire is potent precisely because it remains unconsummated. Whether he wants to have sex with Sentain or kill him (or probably both), he never gets to lay a hand on him. Nor is he welcomed back into the paternal bosom of Forestier's affections. Galoup is not completely cut off from the plane of touch, as evidenced by his mysterious, ostensibly sexual assignation with beautiful Djibouti native Rahel (Marta Tafesse Kassa). Clearly, though, hers is not the touch he craves. Thus we may interpret the soundtrack's gradual descent into cacophony as the crumbling sound-world of a man driven mad for want of tactile comfort.

The scene where Sentain is publicly praised by Forestier for his act of courage typifies Denis’ rhythmic approach to both tactile sensation and quiet-loud dynamics: Galoup, alone in his room, briefly interrupts his own seething silence to tear off his military shirt and whip it through the air. Other significant collisions of sound and touch have a similarly dark import. When the legionnaires and natives join for a campfire dance, Denis' camera fixes itself on the back of Galoup's head, his large ears outlined in silhouette. His clanging internal racket is attuned to an aural set piece that incorporates the whistling of soldiers, the smashing of glass, the sizzle of firewood, the beating of hands upon wooden drums, and a fist-fight between two men on the sand. At such moments our attention is drawn to the status of rhythm as ancient, patterned movement, a primordial energy whose form is measured in sound and silence. Rhythm is a force that depends not on the unifying primacy of vision, but on a sympathetic correspondence between those senses that predate vision, and this means that it is also, in Langer’s words,

“a kind of symbolism peculiarly adapted to the explication of ‘unspeakable’ things.” [29]

The film’s numerous training rituals, which constitute a rhythmic space between martial arts and dance, offer another case in point. In one, the legionnaires slap against each other's chests in a homoerotic compromise between an embrace and a wrestling grip, their bodies crashing into each other with unfettered violence. Balletic and sculptural in their choreography, these rituals are full of outstretched palms and angled elbows, shot up close as if to mock Galoup's bitter craving for tenderness. There is, halfway through the film, a brief interlude where sound and touch meet in harmony: Sentain, having his head shaved by another soldier, chuckles happily as his comrade dusts the loose stubble off his scalp. But his simple sensual pleasure is undercut by the very next shot, as the self-loathing Galoup loads a fresh magazine into his rifle and gazes ferociously into the camera.

The focus on psychic subjectivity, and the sheer vividness of Denis’ rhythmic articulations, ensure that our empathies lie with the spiteful, spurned Galoup rather than the catalytic cipher Sentain – even when the latter, punishingly expelled in the wilderness after Galoup has plotted against him, nearly burns to death on a sun-drenched salt beach. Desire is expressed as an animal state, a condition beyond the grasp of moral judgment or conscious recognition, and a force that refuses to yield to the laws of discourse. It is simply, in Galoup’s own words, something overpowering that takes over your heart. In this case, we have no right to expect the discursive properties of language – syntax, grammar, logic – to magically emerge from his voiceover narration:

“Everybody knows that language is a very poor medium for expressing our emotional nature. It merely names certain vaguely and crudely conceived states, but fails miserably in any attempt to convey the ever-moving patterns, the ambivalences and intricacies of inner experience, the interplay of feelings with thoughts and impressions, memories and echoes of memories, transient fantasy, or its mere runic traces, all turned into nameless, emotional stuff.” [30]

Galoup, raw with self-loathing, loads a fresh magazine into his rifle and gazes ferociously into the camera. The intense focus on Galoupís subjectivity ensures that our empathies lie with him rather than Sentain, even when the latter nearly burns to death on a smoldering salt beach.

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