Classic Film Club: 'Beau Travail'

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Each week Tom Huddleston watches a classic film he's never seen before. The rules are simple: each film must be considered a masterpiece and each must be completely new to him. This week: Claire Denis's 'Beau Travail' (1998)

There’s an inherent romance attached to the French Foreign Legion, evoking images of shifting desert sands, grateful natives and pith-helmeted platoons of men so woundedly sensitive to everyday existence that they’ve opted to dedicate their lives to service. It’s a conceit Claire Denis is keen to disavow in ‘Beau Travail’, a loose, poetic adaptation of Melvillle’s ‘Billy Budd’ set in twentieth-century Djibouti.

Despite its fractured, time shifting structure, the storyline is very basic: back in the real world after a lengthy tour of duty, ex-Legion Sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant) reflects upon the events that led to his court martial and dismissal. The archetypal proud, dedicated military servant, Galoup has been undone by his own wrathful jealousy at the perceived indolence and ambition of new recruit Sentain.

Denis seems unconcerned with narrative, using Melville’s story as just a frame on which to hang a series of interlinked thematic ideas. The most clear-cut of these concerns men in military service, and how such a restrictive existence impacts on their sense of self, and their interactions with the world around them. The most direct metaphor in the film is one of family: despite viewing himself as a pinnacle of masculinity, Galoup is in fact reduced to the ‘feminine’ role within the family unit of his platoon, with his commanding officer, Forestier, acting as father, and the lower ranked (and, in the film, mostly unnamed) soldiers as their children. Denis repeatedly depicts Galoup in the commission of ‘womanly’ acts: making beds, laying tables, ordering his platoon around like wayward infants. With the country languishing in peacetime and military restrictions preventing him from punishing the men, Galoup has no outlet for his aggressive masculine tendencies, leading to the steadily mounting rage and jealousy he feels towards Sentain. Indeed, when Galoup finally snaps and takes physical action, it leads directly to his downfall.

Physical movement is the key recurring motif in the film, from the lithe African dancers in the opening shots to the desperate, flailing but oddly graceful (and arguably posthumous) routine from Lavant which closes it. But Denis is not simply interested in movement for its own sake; she contrasts different kinds of movement to achieve different meanings. The soldiers spend a large percentage of their time training: leaping bars, scrambling in and out of pits, digging holes. But none of it leads anywhere, it’s pointless exertion with no viable outcome. The local people are also constantly engaged in movement, but it’s productive: making, mending, even joyful dancing. The soldiers’ attempts to dance are half-hearted, awkward, in stark contrast to the easy grace of their sessions on the assault course.

The film’s awareness of outsiders’ perspectives on ordinary African life stems from Denis’s own childhood as a colonial expatriate, and she shoots the people and landscapes with a sense both of familiarity and distance. The soldiers’ perspective is more dismissive: the landscape barely impacts on their consciousness, it’s merely a backdrop to their labours, something to be run over, dug into, rearranged but otherwise ignored. When Denis chooses the take the soldiers’ point of view, which is often, the landscape is largely ignored, her camera focusing on their straining faces, using high or low angles to block out the backdrop. Only at the close of the film, when one soldier almost loses his life in the wilderness, does the desert finally overwhelm the characters.

Aesthetically, the film is strikingly lucid, preferring stark contrast – such as a soldier’s body framed against a clear blue sky – to anything ambiguous or clouded. We always know where we are within the frame, and within the urban or natural landscape, just as Galoup always knows (or thinks he knows) his purpose and direction. The music in the film is diverse but oddly effective, throwing in repetitive phrases from Benjamin Britten’s operatic adaptation of ‘Billy Budd’, contrasted with heavy, synthesised African pop and brief, unnerving snatches of western music like Neil Young’s wildly incongruous ghetto lament ‘Subway Cart’.

Perhaps the chief disadvantage of Denis’s fractured, intellectually challenging and visually striking approach to ‘Beau Travail’ is that it stifles any chance at an emotional connection to its characters, but there’s no doubt that this is intentional. It’s obvious Denis feels for these lost soldiers, the film is steeped in sympathy, no matter what their transgressions. Her problem is that she isn’t sure what they are feeling, if anything; in this way, ‘Beau Travail’ is very much a women's picture, and one of the few to depict the ‘otherness’ of men from a female perspective, the same way countless male-oriented films have depicted unknowable women. She understands the physical, psychological and political reasons why these characters behave the way they do, but she can’t understand them as emotional beings, at least beyond such surface sentiments as jealousy, inferiority and dismissal. And in the final analysis, far from being a detriment, this lack of understanding merely stands as an example of Denis’s artistic honesty, making ‘Beau Travail’ a more conscientious, thoughtful and sincere depiction of military life than a hundred noisy, bleeding, ‘sympathetic’ war movies.

Author: Tom Huddleston



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