Images from Beau travail

Beau travail is set largely in Djibouti at a French Foreign Legion outpost in the Horn of Africa.

On her childhood spent travelling through colonial Africa, Denis has said, “I remember being dazzled by the beauty of the Red Sea, the desert. You don't forget a landscape like that. I always thought of Djibouti as a place where human history hasn't really begun yet – or perhaps it's already over..." (Romney, 2000)

The film’s deserts, cliffs and seascapes, though exotically beautiful, are rendered with fluid, dispassionate austerity.

Beau travail demonstrates Denis’ preference for Antonioni-esque still frames in which the human figure often takes secondary importance to empty spaces, inanimate objects, and natural or industrial environments.

The legionnaires spend their days in a hermetically sealed-off universe, staging ludicrous training rituals without an empire to conquer or enemy to attack.

These rituals are invariably performed under the blazing desert sun, with acres of youthful male flesh expressing the Legion’s homoerotic tensions and fascistic ideals of masculinity.

The soldiers’ movements during the rituals constitute a highly choreographed rhythmic space between martial arts, yoga and dance.

The paternalistic love triangle at the film’s centre unfolds as a relay of sub-hysterical gazes between our protagonist, the tortured Sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant) …

... Sentain (Grégoire Colin), the innocent object of his jealous rage…

… and Forestier (Michel Subor), the mysterious platoon commandant who lords over the whole flock.

The gaze is fundamental in establishing Galoup’s erotically charged hatred for Sentain during this martial arts exercise.

Their glowering eye contact and spatial opposition as they predatorily circle each other inscribes the scene as a tongue-in-cheek queer pastiche of the climactic showdown in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Martine Beugnet notes that this long asynchronous shot of the legionnaires walking across a lunar desert landscape from right to left contradicts our traditional sense of movement in time, in the process frustrating our optical engagement with the film-as-narrative.



Feeling and form in the
films of Claire Denis

by Ian Murphy

“If cinema does not give us the presence of the body and cannot give it to us, this is perhaps also because it sets itself a different objective: it spreads an “experimental night” or a white space over us; it works with ‘dancing seeds’ and a ‘luminous dust’; it affects the visible with a fundamental disturbance, and the world with a suspension, that contradicts all natural perception. What it produces in this way is the genesis of an unknown body.”
– Gilles Deleuze [1][open endnotes in new window]

The features, shorts and documentaries of French filmmaker Claire Denis represent one of the more curious riddles of contemporary cinema. Her career-long experimentation with genre forms has made her work a study in extremes, yet it is difficult to chart a decisive authorial relationship between each of the odd, elliptical statements she has issued over the past two decades. Consider the variation in theme and tone that makes uneasy bedfellows of the dreamy sibling-relationship drama Nénette et Boni (1996) and the gruesome sex-cannibal horror Trouble Every Day (2001), or of the free-form Möbius strip of L’intrus (2004) and her recent melodrama on the legacies of postcolonialism, White Material (2009). [2] In the absence of a clear generic pattern, critics have fastened onto those broad stylistic trademarks that cement her work in auteur territory. The unofficial repertory company of actors recycled from one film to the next, including (but not limited to) Alex Descas, Michel Subor, Grégoire Colin, Isaach De Bankolé and Béatrice Dalle. The trusted base of long-term technical collaborators, such as cinematographer Agnès Godard, editor Nelly Quettier, sound designer Jean-Louis Ughetto, and composers Dickon Hinchliffe and Stuart Staples of the British band Tindersticks. [3] The minimal dialogue, free-form approach to narrative, and tendency to punctuate certain scenes with an incongruous but cannily chosen pop song (think of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” in Nénette et Boni or The Commodores’ “Nightshift” in 35 Shots of Rum (2008). Still the films refuse to yield up their secrets, to be known with certainty.

The willful eclecticism that makes Denis’ body of work consistently interesting also makes it difficult to situate within any definitive theoretical contexts. In some respects, it seems that her spiritual lineage lies less with the French New Wave filmmakers whose flame burned brightly during her formative years than with what Paul Schrader has termed the transcendental style of international filmmakers like Ozu, Bresson and Antonioni. [4] We can, to some extent, trace her subversion of classical modes of spectatorship back to those directors’ predilection for long takes, minimal dialogue, and the repetition of still or “empty” frames in which the human figure is frequently edged off the screen, replaced by an alienating focus on depopulated spaces, inanimate objects, and natural or industrial environments. In Denis’ case, though, wide-angle compositions in which figures are inscribed as one object among others in the frame, dwarfed Antonioni-style by their surrounding landscapes, are alternated with isolating and fragmentary close-ups of those same bodies filling the frame. The effect of these tight close-ups can be warmly sensuous as in Nénette et Boni or claustrophobic and menacing as in Trouble Every Day, but the principle remains the same. Human flesh seems trapped under a microscope, framed so close that the viewer acquires a vivid sense of its texture, weight and movement in space, but simultaneously it is denied any corresponding axis of perspective, depth or location in the film’s overall scenographic space.

The emphasis on the lived experience of the human body means that Denis’ cinema can be only partially located within the transcendental aesthetic, which for Schrader is less concerned with subjectivity and finally depends on a quality of epiphany bursting through the minor key of everyday “stasis.” In her incisive book-length study of Denis’ career, Martine Beugnet helpfully reads Denis’ focus on sensation, movement and physicality in terms of Gilles Deleuze’s influential philosophy of time-image cinema, in which time is set free from the causal framework of traditional narrative to “become the actual texture of the film.” [5] Indeed, the gaps in narrative space that characterize Denis’ approach to storytelling are self-consciously Deleuzian. Bypassing such frivolities as exposition and psychology, the screenplays she writes with regular collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau are jagged and nonlinear, built around a series of structured ellipses that betray a perverse disregard for the laws of time, space and logic that govern traditional narrative. Denis has spoken at length about this process, which she and Fargeau initiate by writing “full” story drafts to establish the specific relationships between characters, incidents and timelines. The finished-looking script, however, is only used as a private blueprint for the collaborators. At that stage the real work begins, with successive layers of text stripped away until the story feels sufficiently “musical.” [6]

The notion of a “musical” approach to film narrative is significant for this article. Beugnet states that, once they are “freed from their functions as mere links in a chain of causes and effects, images are thus offered up to contemplation and observation.” [7] If images are cut loose from the implicitly understood laws of narrative cinema, they inevitably inhabit a different role in relation to the other elements of a film – editing, camera movement, score, sound design. In the case of Denis’ cinema, I contend that the images assume a purely sensual and symbolic relation to these other elements, whereby they only carry meaning as part of a complex whole. When the viewer’s relation to the image is opened up, subjected to interrogation in a manner not possible in traditional narrative cinema, it also has meaningful implications for the senses of hearing and touch – faculties that cinema typically considers ancillary to the unifying stability and coherence of vision.

I draw upon the aesthetics of philosopher Susanne Langer and ‘haptic’ cinema theorist Laura U. Marks to argue that, in privileging tactile and auditory modes of spectatorship, Denis creates a rhythmic form whose material structure is closer to music than the language of narrative cinema. This in turn facilitates a deeper engagement with the memories, perceptions and intuitions that make up the viewer’s inner life, what Langer calls “the verbally ineffable and therefore unknown forms of sentience.” [8] While the argument could be extended to a number of Denis’ films, I agree with Beugnet that 1999’s dizzying postcolonial fable Beau travail and 2002’s low-key romance Vendredi soir remain

“the most accomplished examples of a filmmaking that privileges the visual and the rhythmic (that is, the way the images are edited together but also the structure of the soundtrack, ambient or musical) over scripted dialogue and plot.” [9]

To this I would add that while Denis’ cinema of feeling and form can demand a new type of psychic engagement from viewers, it can also reward them with a deeper connection to the self, to “the genesis of an unknown body.” [10]

Beau travail—the listening eye

“Cinema is not made to give a psychological explanation. For me, cinema is montage, editing. To make blocks of impressions or emotions meet another block of impressions or emotions, and put in between pieces of explanation, to me it’s boring… Our brains are full of literature – my brain is. But I think we also have a dream world, the brain is also full of images and songs, and I think that making films for me is to get rid of explanation.” – Claire Denis [11]

Beau travail is Claire Denis’ idiosyncratic take on the narrative laid out in Herman Melville’s 1924 novella Billy Budd and the 1951 Benjamin Britten opera of the same name. Far from a direct adaptation, Denis’ film is an impressionistic, free-form reconstitution of the more mythic and allegorical elements of the story, which concerns the homoerotic battle of good and evil that arises when a saintly young seaman is accused of conspiracy to mutiny by his ship’s malevolent Master-at-Arms, John Claggart. One fundamental change in Denis’ version is that this psychic war has been transplanted from the HMS Bellipotent of Melville’s text to the French Foreign Legion, where a regiment of soldiers has been stationed indefinitely in the Northeast African outpost of Djibouti. The film thus unfolds within the ravaged narrative context of postcolonialism where, without an empire to conquer or enemy to attack, the soldiers spend their days in an hermetically sealed-off universe, perfecting ritualistic daily routines, consorting with local women, and performing endless training exercises under the white-hot sun.

Another key difference in Denis’ adaptation is that our protagonist is no longer the saintly Billy Budd type but the villainous Claggart figure, here named Galoup and recast as a tortured sergeant major (Denis Lavant) who feels “something vague and menacing take hold”with the arrival into his fold of new recruit Sentain (Colin). Innocent, heroic and beautiful, Sentain's seeming perfection drives Galoup into a state of barely suppressed rage that encompasses both lust and jealousy, especially when Sentain wins the paternalistic favor of platoon commandant Bruno Forestier (Subor). “There must be a chip in Sentain's armor,”Galoup tells us in tense voiceover narration. “We all have a trashcan deep within.”

As usual for Denis and Fargeau, the script of Beau travail is a bare skeleton. Long stretches of spooky silence are punctuated by a handful of verbal sentiments, most of which shed so little light on characters' rationale or emotional life that they feel willfully unhelpful. This is partly because the band of youthful legionnaires at its center purposely lacks personality: they are nameless, featureless, and almost comical in their male-model beauty and inertia, an amorphous mass who have sublimated any notion of selfhood to the greater calling of national identity and the futile postcolonial project of the Legion. Yet the tone of withholding and estrangement also extends to those landscapes that Denis was dazzled by as a child. [12] The deserts, cliffs and seascapes of Djibouti may be wildly beautiful, but Agnès Godard’s camera pans across them with a crystalline depth of field that suggests not exotic rapture but the kind of fluid, dispassionate austerity that marked the primitive island scenery of Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960). Furthermore, as if to cement the film’s status as visualist critique of Western male expansionist myth, Beau travail is intimately concerned with issues of the gaze.

The homosocial environment of the Legion, humid with psychic repression and fascistic ideals of masculinity, lends itself naturally to an intertextual dialogue that incorporates the transgressive mythologies of Melville and Britten, but also Jean Genet and a lineage of filmmakers ranging from Fassbinder to Jarman, Eisenstein to Riefenstahl. [13] As such its narrative allows ample space for exposed male flesh and hysterical gazing behavior. Galoup, wolfish and pug-nosed, watches Sentain with the overheated resentment of a Biblical misfit; Sentain looks back, blameless and bemused; Forestier watches over both men with a leer at once sinister and jaded. There are martial arts exercises so absurdly homoerotic that the gaze becomes foreplay to a hate fuck that never happens: Galoup and Sentain circle each other like predators on the beach, their eye contact stealthy and ferocious as Britten's opera booms over their silliness. [14] The more charged the gazes grow, the less they tell us about anything. 

Perhaps that is because Denis’ cinema does not equate visualism with knowledge. Nor does it privilege sight as the primary faculty of human understanding. Sight in her films is always unstable, lacking integrity. That alone makes it necessary for her to abandon that filmic system built around the visual faculty at the expense of all others: the classical narrative. Within this system, the foundations of backstory, causation, and human psychology find their form in the invisible alchemy of the continuity edit. As theorized by the likes of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, continuity operates by orchestrating an artificial syntax between establishing shots, POV shots, eyeline matches and shot-reverse shots to create the illusion of pictorial depth and, with it, a coherent narrative space. In doing so it proposes merely to follow

“the ‘natural attention’ of the spectator. First the onlooker surveys the scene (establishing shot); as the action continues, he or she focuses upon a detail (cut-in), or glances back and forth at the participants in a conversation (shot/reverse shot), or glances to the side when distracted by a sound or motion (cutaway).” [15]

The classical shot cannot be understood outside of its essential discursive function, a chain of cause and effect that sutures the viewer into a diegetic perspective and stimulates a psychic response. It achieves this by co-opting the viewer’s whole sensory field into the unifying structure of vision. If we take each shot as a single unit of meaning, we may understand the classical narrative as a style that attempts to unfold like a language, with visual utterances assuming the fixed status of what Susanne Langer terms “conventional reference” [16] when they are ordered in a recognizable spatio-temporal sequence. As Langer sees it,

“Language in the strict sense is essentially discursive; it has permanent units of meaning which are combinable into larger units; it has fixed equivalences that make definition and translation possible… The meanings given through language are successively understood, and gathered into a whole by the process called discourse.” [17]

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