Friday, November 15, 2013

Beau Travail















BEAU TRAVAIL        A          
France  (93 mi)  1999  d:  Claire Denis 

With banners furled, and clarions mute,
An army passes in the night,
And beaming spears and helms salute,
The dark with bright.

In silence deep the legions stream,
With open ranks, in order true;
Over boundless plains they stream and gleam–
No chief in view!

Afar, in twinkling distance lost,
(So legends tell) he lonely wends
And back through all that shining host
His mandate sends.
 
The Night March, Herman Melville from Timoleon,1891 

Gold in the mountain
And gold in the glen
And greed in the heart
Heaven having no part
And unsatisfied men.
Gold in the Mountain, Herman Melville from The Works of Herman Melville, 1924

This film grew out of a French TV commission when Denis was approached by ARTE, the most culturally progressive European TV channel, and asked to make a film for a series exploring the theme of “foreignness.”  This is the same company that earlier asked Denis and others, namely Chantal Akerman, Olivier Assayas, COLD WATER (1994), and André Téchiné, WILD REEDS (1994), to make films about adolescence, which resulted in the one-hour made-for-French-TV film U.S. GO HOME (1994).  “Since most of my films deal with that anyway, I worried about how I could avoid repeating myself.”  Having spent her early childhood in colonial French Africa, then moving to the Paris suburbs at age 13, she never felt like she belonged in either place, growing up feeling alienated.  Loosely based on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, though altering the themes and ultimately the outcome, including carefully chosen excerpts of music from the Benjamin Britten opera, Denis has transposed the ship’s setting to a postcolonial French Foreign Legion outpost in the desert regions of Djibouti, Somalia, one of the places her family lived in the 50’s, so she already had a familiarity with the region.  Shot in just 15 days, what’s so remarkable about the film is the extreme originality, the indirect way of telling the story, reflecting the bad conscience of the colonial occupying power, as almost immediately one detects a solidly abstract visual expressionism, where the near wordless film becomes an intoxicating choreography of ritualized movement, as the group of fifteen muscular men do shirtless calisthenics in formation under the emptiness of the blistering desert sky, drenched with male eroticism and cast in the form of a languorous tropical dream, where a theme of rootless and abandoned men who otherwise have no home adapt to the rigid discipline of the legion.  Perhaps more importantly, Denis hired a choreographer, Bernardo Montet (who also plays one of the French legionnaires), transforming the film into a series of carefully constructed scenes, providing a near surreal structure, intentionally blurring the lines between illusion and reality.     

A taut psychological exploration of the increasingly antagonistic relationship between a Foreign Legion officer, Lieutenant Galoup (Denis Lavant), and a charismatic new recruit, Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin), Galoup narrates the tale in voiceover, where he is fanatically loyal to his commanding officer Bruno Forestier, Michel Subor, who previously played Bruno Forestier 37 years earlier in Godard's LE PETIT SOLDAT (1963) which was set during the Algerian War, actually banned for three years in France prior to the release due to the presence of torture scenes, where Forestier is now much older, seen with a chiseled face, sitting alone from the rest of the men, constantly smoking cigarettes.  The Denis film offers a revisionist perspective by actually engaging in a conversation with that earlier film through a shared character.  But when new recruits arrive, Galoup expresses extraordinary vehemence towards the especially attractive Sentain, especially after Forestier has taken an immediate liking to him, overly insecure and threated perhaps by his own noticeable lack of good looks.  Galoup's jealousy, like Othello, literally drives him to murderous insanity.  With a minimum of dialogue, Denis captures the ritual and repetition of a legionnaire’s life, expressed through beautifully ordered compositions of the men during various maneuvers, crawling under barbed wire, vaulting over bars, walking across elevated parallel wires, marching in formation across the desolate landscape, while also engaged in hand to hand combat.  The homoeroticism of the military experience rises to the forefront from the beauty of the visual composition, but also from the inner workings of Galoup’s mind, as he expresses his love of Forestier (carrying around a photo of him as a younger man) and a growing rage against Sentain.  While the legionnaires come from all races and hues, the film raises questions about the relationships of whites to blacks, especially given the perspective of a former French colony, highlighted in scenes where the men go into town on leave and dance with the local women, where one particular local beauty, Rahel (Marta Tafesse Kassa), seems to be the exclusive girl of Galoup, though he treats her paternalistically, as his primary interest remains Forestier.  While the setting is Africa, the atmospheric mood is one of reverie, spending hot dusty afternoons in the sun, where the monotony of the experience can overwhelm the legionnaires.  The voiceover is actually recalling events from a diary in a flashback mode, offering a ruminating calm, even as Galoup’s plans grow more inflamed, where his desire is more potent precisely because it remains unconsummated.

Denis creates a sensuous atmosphere not only with perfectly composed images, but the dramatic power never diminishes between major and minor events, often contrasting close ups with long shots, blending music and natural sound into her film, where she’s not afraid to use silences to match the spacious emptiness all around.  What’s perhaps most surprising, despite the focus on the men, is how carefully layered women are into the landscape, becoming a kind of Greek chorus, where their silent presence is everywhere, amusingly seen staring at the men as they carefully wash and iron their clothes, lining the street markets selling their goods, or seen sitting in the buses riding through the endless landscapes.  When the legionnaires stream into town on leave, they’re seen dancing at the local nightclub with native women, exchanging physical embraces, but rarely words.  The film opens and closes on the dance floor, where the whole film unravels like continual dance sequences, where even in their silence the women are an integral and necessary part of a dance ritual, but their presence is hauntingly ambiguous, silent witnesses, suggesting a potentially unhealthy relationship with the postcolonial presence of the soldiers, who may not be so welcome in the region.  According to Denis, “You always have a moment in life when you’d like to start from zero.  The Foreign Legion is a place where boys go to do that, where people who have no place to go can find a kind of family, especially because they're not asked what they did before.  The legionnaires became an erotic object in film and song—Edith Piaf’s song ‘Mon Legionnaire’ is one of her most famous—but when I saw them walking in the street or going to clubs, their beauty was more sad to me than erotic.  You could see that the Legion is about men together.  These boys who never belonged before now belong to one another.  It’s very touching.”  Tribute to Beau Travail YouTube (8:15), featuring the opening dance sequence with African girls in a disco to “Şimarik (Kiss-Kiss)” by Tarkan (0 to 1:24), calisthenics with a Benjamin Britten chorale (1:25 to 2:25), more unscored calisthenics, (2:25 to 3:45), dance sequence with Rahel (Marta Tafesse Kassa) to Francky Vincent “Le Tourment d’Amour” (3:45 to 4:30), more unscored calisthenics (4:30 to 5:23), march in formation to Neil Young’s “Safeway Cart” (5:23 to 6:50), Denis Lavant final dance sequence up to the end credits to Corona “Rhythm of the Night” (6:50 to 8:15), while this extends the throbbing dance music through the final credits, singing almost in defiance, “This is the rhythm of my life, my life, CD Beau Travail YouTube (4:59).

The full force of the film took critic Jonathan Rosenbaum by such surprise that he had to admit “I must confess that I’m embarrassed by most of my other reviews of Claire Denis films,” claiming the difference between this film and her earlier work “is quite simply the difference between making movies and making cinema,” comparing it to the quantum leap taken by certain exalted artists like Robert Johnson or Charlie Parker in blues and jazz.  Some of the glorified images of male bodies during training exercises or on maneuvers are comparable to the idealized images of farmers harvesting the fields in Dovzhenko’s EARTH (1930), Eisenstein’s visually astounding battle scenes in ALEXANDER NEVSKY (1938), or the glorified sweep of perfectly sculpted battle formations in Jancsó’s THE RED AND THE WHITE (1967) or Kurosawa’s RAN (1985).  While the history of cinema is filled with beautiful young women in various shades of undress being leered at by gawking male directors, male bodies have come under scrutiny before as well, where the term homoerotic suggests it was largely under the gaze of male directors, where the names Derek Jarman or Pier Paolo Pasolini come to mind, or Todd Haynes’s Poison (1991), or Fassbinder’s QUERELLE (1982), which has a similar doomed love theme between a superior older officer and a gorgeous looking young sailor.  What’s unique here is how rare it is to find similar themes of male bodies visualized so artistically under a woman’s gaze, including the director and her lifelong cinematographer Agnès Godard, where you may have to go back to Leni Riefenstahl’s OLYMPIA (1938) for a similar comparison, where one suspects every single German cameraman in 1938 was male.  If one examines art history, women have typically been systematically excluded from art training, and this argument is raised every year at the Cannes Film Festival as to why there are so few female directors represented in competition, if any.  Only the names of Agnès Varda or the more literary Marguerite Duras are included in the French New Wave, which otherwise produced all male directors, where women were more likely to appear in front of the camera.  With alternating images of stark despair and staggering beauty, the suggestion here is not only is it rare, but from women directors it may be unsurpassed aesthetically.       

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