Tuesday Editor’s Pick: Beau Travail (1999)

by on October 5, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Tue Oct 11 at 7:00* at the French Alliance [Program & Tix]
*Cinematographer Agnès Godard in conversation with critic Kent Jones


The French Alliance celebrates the “beau travail” (good work) of cinematographer Agnès Godard every Tuesday thru Oct 25. Claire Denis’ wonderful I Can’t Sleep also screens today.


But oh Beau Travail, let Alt Screen count the ways… hell, even Armond White liked it. What better way to take a break from NYFF shenanigans then to see one of of Denis’s most astute critical admirers Kent Jones interview her most substantial collaborator? And oh!, to catch one of the best endings in cinema on screen.


J. Hoberman for the Village Voice:

A movie so tactile in its cinematography, inventive in its camera placement, and sensuous in its editing that the purposefully oblique and languid narrative is all but eclipsed. “I’ve found an idea for a novel,” a Godard character once announced. “Not to write the life of a man, but only life, life itself. What there is between people, space . . . sound and colors.” His words might serve as Denis’s manifesto. Her transposition of Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd to a French Foreign Legion post on the Horn of Africa is a mosaic of pulverized shards. Every cut in Beau Travail is a small, gorgeously explosive shock.


In its hypnotic ritual, Beau Travail suggests a John Ford cavalry western interpreted by Marguerite Duras […] Like Denis’s previous films, I Can’t Sleep and Nénette and Boni, her latest is a mysterious mix of artful deliberation and documentary spontaneity. To watch it is to wonder about the process. Are her often elaborate shots generated by the scenes she’s set up? Does she find her structure in the editing room? One thing’s for sure, along with her regular cinematographer, Agnes Godard, Denis always opts for beauty. Beau Travail indeed.


Elizabeth Vincentelli on Godard, also for the Voice:

Godard admires Denis’s work methods: “Claire is always about research, about exploring film as a medium,” she says. “For her the point of making Beau Travail on such a small budget was to do something experimental. It’s by working with Claire that I’ve been able to better understand what the camera means to me.”


Godard’s artistry can be hard to pinpoint, as she avoids obvious flourishes—no chichi blue lighting or hypercontrasted shadows for her. Instead she shapes a distinctive identity for each movie. So she easily switched from Nénette and Boni‘s lush close-ups, in which bodies became landscape, to Beau Travail‘s sun-crushed long shots, in which bodies were part of the landscape. She handled wildly kinetic scenes in Noëmie Lvovsky’s coming-of-age tale I’m Not Afraid of Life, as well as the quiet, tender realism of Erick Zonca’s Dreamlife of Angels. Modestly, she explains, “As a technician you have to be a chameleon and adapt to different directors. But I don’t like the idea of simply illustrating a script. A script is pages and words, and the image is the basic unit of the film’s language. So it’s very important to work out the transition from word to image.”


Over her 10 years as a cinematographer, Godard has attempted to work out that transition by focusing on actors and establishing between them and the audience a relationship based on affection and understanding, not exploitation. “I don’t like feeling like a voyeur. The most inexhaustible landscapes for me remain faces and bodies: I like to look at people, to look at them in order to love them. It’s like dancing with someone, except with a camera you don’t touch them. I just want to tell them that I’d like to put my hand on them.”



Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader (read the complete review here):

A gorgeous mirage of a movie, Claire Denis’ reverie about the French foreign legion in eastern Africa (1999, 90 min.), suggested by Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Foretopman, benefits especially from having been choreographed (by Bernardo Montet, who also plays one of the legionnaires). Combined with Denis’ superb eye for settings, Agnes Godard’s cinematography, and the director’s decision to treat major and minor elements as equally important, this turns some of the military maneuvers and exercises into thrilling pieces of filmmaking that surpass even Full Metal Jacket and converts some sequences in a disco into vibrant punctuations. The story, which drifts by in memory fragments, is told from the perspective of a solitary former sergeant (Denis Lavant, star of The Lovers on the Bridge) now living in Marseilles and recalling his hatred for a popular recruit (Gregoire Colin) that led to the sergeant’s discharge; the fact that his superior is named after the hero of Godard’s Le petit soldat and played by the same actor almost 40 years later (Michel Subor) adds a suggestive thread, as do the passages from Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd. Most of all, Denis, who spent part of her childhood in Djibouti, captures the poetry and atmosphere–and, more subtly, the women–of Africa like few filmmakers before her. A masterpiece.


Ed Gonzalez for Slant:

Denis and cinematographer Agnes Godard elevate Sentain and Galoup’s relationship to sweaty, maddeningly existential levels. When the half-naked men begin to circle each other on a desolate beach, they come to resemble animals locked in a battle for survival and Beau Travail takes on the guise of experimental dance art (see the film’s rhythmic workout sequence and final club scene). Art, sex, politics, and commerce converge and duke it out in Denis’s best films. Here, she contemplates a sweltering struggle between man’s instinctual and conditioned self. The film’s men are constantly in training, so much so that they come to resemble the gears of a machine—and throughout the film, they struggle to maintain a mechanism of stability by working (and working out) together. The oppressed African women who live outside the outpost stare into the camp, humored by the way these men learn and struggle to play house. Denis is sympathetic of Galoup’s insecurities even when the man’s jealousy of Sentain leads to chaos. Denis understands that Galoup was once like Sentain: a young man taught to react like a machine to anything and anyone who threatens his sense of complacency. Galoup is merely a rotten byproduct of a dehumanizing military apparatus, but by film’s end he finally learns to let out some steam.



And here’s the evening’s interviewer Kent Jones, for Film Comment (May/June 2000):

Denis’ movies are always leaping into surprising disjunctions, sudden breaks from one sensual event into another one with a completely different shape and texture. It’s a standard move in modern cinema, but Denis and Godard always keep their images attuned to the beauty of natural forms, and emotionally grounded. Formal excitement and emotional specifics are in perfect alignment: the first never misshapes the second, and the second never curtails the first. And Denis really knows how to get one image harmonizing with another (the harmony is always modern, verging on chaotic – very Ornette Coleman). In Beau travail, she manages – miraculously – to tell the tale of Melville’s Billy Budd through fugitive gestures, asides, through the mundane chores and punishing workouts of foreign legionnaires under the hard light of Djibouti. The scenes – or is it images? or moments snatched from time? that seem to have critics all hot and bothered are, in fact, relatively few. They involve bare-chested legionnaires doing stylized versions of training exercises, choreographed by Bernardo Montet and set to the monumental “O heave away, heave!” choral section of Britten’s opera. No doubt such images would rate a nine from habitues of Chippendale’s, but are they really indications that Denis has caught a bad ease of penis envy and turned into a Riefenstahl adept?


In fact, there’s an overlooked comical aspect to these scenes, and to the film in general. The very wry humor here is in the spectacle of human need forced to cloak itself in the necessity of ritual. When Michel Subor’s Commander Forestier sits back, cigarette in hand, and observes his men training for some mythical conflict, you’d have to be doing some mighty fancy reading-in to imagine that he’s thinking lustful thoughts. Subor, in a performance that surpasses the idea of performing, is giving form to an exclusively male feeling of womb-like warmth, refuge, and comfort after a violent recoil from… not so much women (the legionnaires all spend their weekend nights in town cavorting with the local prostitutes) as interaction with women, the painful effort of reaching out. Recoil from the world of self-revelation.


In other words, this is the universe of men silently faced towards one another and away from life. It’s somewhat touching, somewhat pathetic, and wholly mysterious, this state of communal solitude. We’ve seen it before in movies, but it’s usually couched within various endeavors: boxing, truck driving, world war, retail. But by setting it in the strange world of the Foreign Legion, where you and your brothers-in-arms are forever training intensively for nothing in particular and you must always keep your creases ironed to express an “internal elegance,” as Forestier puts it, Denis leaves this ultimate male posture exposed. That’s why so much flesh is on display, and that’s why the larger world that contains this strange, sad story is so consistently present – the sky, the sun, the mountains, and the desert floor make this drama of male jealousy seem touchingly small.



Amy Taubin, also for Film Comment (May/June 2000):

“From a certain point of view. I screwed up, and points of view are important. Angles of attack,” says Galoup, by way of an introduction. The film locates the present in Marseilles, but Galoup lives in the past, and as he obsesses about what he had and what he lost, what he did and what was done to him, he leaks the story to us in fragments. And since he’s already suggested that he’s not a reliable narrator (“From a certain point of view, I screwed up,” is the statement of someone who is unwilling to take full responsibility for his actions), we’re encouraged to bring our own point of view to bear.


Still, this privileging of a single subjectivity, however torn, confused, and even delusional, is a strategy that puts Beau travail at odds with Denis’ other films, all of which are built on the intersection of multiple points of view. “When Jean-Pol Fargeau [co-writer of all her films] and I work on a script, the main thing we do is figure out the points of view. We are always seeing someone through someone else’s eyes.” But no one scrutinizes Galoup as intensely as he does himself – not the Commander, not Sentain, not his comrades, not even his African girlfriend. The permanent residents of Djibouti have a presence, and a subjectivity even, but not a story of their own.


Beau travail, then, is Denis’ first psychodrama – her version of Taxi Driver or Bad Lieutenant, although, in its formal audacity and its subject matter, it’s closer to Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour. Genet’s homosexual prisoners escape their cells, and the surveillance of their sadistic jailer, in fantasy. Galoup, who cannot admit his fantasies, escapes the law inscribed on his body only in death. Then, he dances.



Tamara Tracz for Senses of Cinema:

This is not a film about narrative, but about image, sound and rhythm, the way in which they create understanding beyond storytelling. Dread, desire, peace, pain, confusion and antipathy are all present in the film. Often it is hard to place exactly why such feelings engulf the viewer as a result of what they see and hear, but the feelings are disarming nevertheless. Fragments of a conversation about fishing, the scrabble of legionnaires on their elbows under low wires, the swell of music and even the absence of sound altogether seem to trigger a memory that isn’t even ours. Experiencing the film is like remembering a dream on waking; a dream that made sense so recently but now is confusing and dispersed.


Indeed, it is, after the painting of the legionnaires, an African woman – a woman who plays no part in the plot – who opens the film, kissing at the camera in the disco. The disco also concludes the film; now empty of all but one, as Galoup performs the extraordinary dance that seals the film’s ending. Beyond anything in the film, this frantic explosion of movement makes no linear sense. But this doesn’t matter. This film doesn’t have to be understood. In doesn’t have to be understood to be understood. The film must be read on the level at which it gives itself to the audience, a languorous mystery, suspenseful, unexplained – a film that is almost entirely sensual. Is the dance real? Is Galoup a ghost? These things are not important. What matters is the power of the dance, free, wild and mad, yet dignified, bursting out between moments of restrained cool as he smokes his cigarette. All the scenes in the disco are shot via mirrors and one can never be entirely certain what is reflection and what is not. At one point we see the dancers via a wall of diamond mirror tiles that looks at first as though they dance through a wire fence, penned in. Galoup’s world is similarly hard to read; what happened, what he imagined, what he felt, what he saw. At times it is as fragile as a glass bauble. In Marseille he tries to reconstruct his shattered world. But his reconstruction remains fragmented and strange, like the mirrors in the disco – where one looks in or out of a kind of prison. Such double vision, such mixtures of memory, fantasy and observation, such a mirror-ball like creation of worlds of desire and mystery are at the centre of Beau travail. One leaves the film uncertain of much, but never of its unsettling and hypnotic power.



Charlotte O’Sullivan for Sight & Sound:

We first see Galoup’s beloved captain Forestier in a black-and-white photograph. When this is replaced by the ‘real’ image of him smoking it’s difficult to tell the difference – he still looks as mysterious as any noir hero. The same is true, too, of the men in the army and the prostitutes who service them: they’re all gorgeous, iconic and remote.


What you realise, slowly, is that this is because they’re all creatures of Galoup’s memory. When, as a bitter civilian, Galoup presses an iron into his clothes, he looks stiff and ludicrous – a man doing a woman’s job. But when the soldiers iron their clothes, they look fluid and complete. As they do their exercises, the camera crawls up their arms and thighs, asking us to breathe in their perfection. Like Galoup, we can’t escape these visions of loveliness and begin to feel almost as oppressed by them. Are we and Galoup the aberrations, or are they? As the glowing landscape – yellow sand, green water, white rocks – pulsates behind the men’s bodies, we enter into Galoup’s masochistic, waking dream in which the answer, over again, seems to be that it’s only the beautiful who belong.


Framing her essay on sexual identity like a thriller – “one stays and two are expelled,” says Galoup of the trio he forms with Sentain and Forestier, prompting the question, which two? – Denis hooks our attention. Having allowed us to meet Forestier, she then has the screen fade to black, creating a sense of narrative expectation. The commandant’s behaviour reveals flickers of nerves (unlike Sentain, he’s self-conscious, given to gazing at himself in the mirror) which makes us wary of how he might treat the possessive Galoup. It’s important that we don’t sympathise with Galoup (or Sentain) too soon; looking for weak spots or the seeds of triumph in all three men, we see both, everywhere. Unable to judge these characters, we just have to stay with them.



Andrew Chan for Reverse Shot:

Nowhere else in Denis’s oeuvre does our surrender to the pure pleasures of sound and image allow us to completely abandon our urge for coherence and comprehensibility, since her manipulation of that urge is so often intended to induce a certain frustrating level of defamiliarization in us. As in L’Intrus, distinctions between the lived, dreamed, and remembered moment are blurred, but one of the qualities that makes Beau travail arguably her most popular film is the way it roots her unearthly, almost hieratic voice in the flesh and blood of human existence. With the cave paintings of soldiers that appear in the film’s first shot, Denis positions the Legionnaires in the canon of ancient mythic figures and her film in that rarefied field of cinema in which artistic idiosyncrasy takes on an air of mystical authority. The Legionnaires’ internal battles, performed on the level of glance and gesture, come to feel so elemental when combined with Billy Budd that a leap into abstraction seems like the only natural response to the material.


Beau travail’s emotional core may be difficult to decipher from its cold art-cinema veneer, but few films in recent memory have so poetically dramatized the poignancy of the male body. The handsome Grégoire Colin, as the too-perfect new recruit Sentain, embodies immaculate, youthful beauty as a symbol of moral purity. His foil is Chief Master Sergeant Galoup (played by Leos Carax regular Denis Lavant), whose pock-marked face and awkward posture make him look as if he has been gnawed away his entire life by repression. In a number of scenes the camera identifies with Lavant’s gaze, observing the Legionnaires as they frolic on the beach, and too embittered to reenter their carefree world. His implied lust for them is exorcised through a jealous predation on their innocence, and Sentain provides the ultimate challenge to him, blurring the boundaries between his desire and envy. Finally, as the equivalent of the novella’s Captain Vere, Michel Subor reigns over the proceedings with a godlike imperiousness. But by naming the character Bruno Forestier, after Subor’s role in Le Petit soldat, Denis prompts us to compare the actor’s flabby body as he approaches old age with our memory of his younger, leaner self. This subtle allusion operates as a rare, heartbreaking acknowledgment that the bodies floating across the screen are tactile, mortal things, burdened with the weight of their own histories.


Perhaps the film’s central achievement as a work of adaptation is how it complicates the Manichean worldview behind Melville’s opposition of pure Billy Budd and evil Claggart. Galoup’s humanity is confirmed not through a profession of guilt, but in a new take on the highly regimented movements he has performed his entire career in the Legion: a furious, solitary breakdance that allows him to finally let loose. It’s yet another startling reversal in a film based on many—not least of all the fact that Denis used a book sprung from an author’s late-career feelings of failure and disappointment to carve her own way into the film pantheon.


– Compiled by Brynn White

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