The Great Beyond
Jeff Reichert on Beau travail

Beau travail is one of my favorite films and a clear masterpiece, so it was odd to feel somewhat let down upon revisiting it nearly a decade on. I remember well my first encounter, being lulled into a near-hypnotic state by Denis’s enticing wash of images, only to be jolted out of reverie at points throughout, and then finally energized by the cinematic possibilities opened by a daring dance-floor finale. Here was a film that was speaking a movie dialect all its own—familiar as language, but untranslatable, seemingly without immediate antecedent, like Basque or Finnish. (Oft-overlooked Nénette and Boni represents her first bold steps towards this new way of speaking.) How could we know then that Beau travail was merely Claire Denis on the cusp? Even by the time she’d moved into the gray vampiric Paris of her next feature, Trouble Every Day, Denis’s strategies of visual seduction were already stronger, sexier, her ellipses more intriguing and inviting. Friday Night, considered slight by many, only proved (like a clear predecessor in heart, if not mind, Robert Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer) the essential translatability of her cinema across unlikely contexts. L’intrus was the leap into the unknown—a Finnegans Wake to Beau travail’s Ulysses. Her most recent, 35 Shots of Rum, a sly Ozu’ed re-entrenchment, is a sensual gift for her audiences after a decade spent roaming the wilderness. Denis has learned through the years how to draw audiences in, parcel out information, play with confusion and withholding. Her last five films are a master class in oblique, sidelong storytelling.

Beau travail is an inspired reimagining of Herman Melville’s short novel Billy Budd transferred from the late 18th century British Navy to the French Foreign Legion working in present-day Djibouti. (Coincidentally, it was produced the same year as another inscrutable French masterpiece based on Melville’s work, Leos Carax’s Pola X.) As such, it recalls in mood and setting the sun-stroked atmospherics of Denis’s first film, Chocolat, but how complex her narratives had grown since she emerged from the tutelage of Jarmusch and Wenders! Billy Budd itself provides an apt model for the liberties Denis takes with Beau travail. The novella’s last three chapters transition into a meta-recapitulation of the story’s events, the text building a refracted self-exam into its structure. To call Beau travail a “refraction” of the initial text only truly gets us halfway.

Beau travail opens with a slow pan over cave paintings glowing orange in dim light as a French Legionnaire hymn wafts across the soundtrack. A jarring cut takes us to a dance floor, with several African women shimmying to the beat of blaring pop. With the flickering of the lights, and their strict formation, they look almost like a school of fish holding place near the surface of sun-dappled water. Predatory colonialism winds its way into the scene as the Legionnaires (mostly white and in whites) descend upon them, and the camera goes all sinewy and twisty as it winds through the crowd, picking up various couplings along its route. The shots that follow: landscapes from a train, a man using a telephone while a crowd watches, an unused tank sitting in a desolate space, shadows of bodies on the ground, arms raised to the sky in supplication (like cave paintings), then the men themselves standing like status baking in the hot sun (menacing opera on the soundtrack), water. Painting, music, dance, sculpture, all caught up in the poetry of Denis’s camera. This is Beau travail’s first ten minutes or so and it proves Denis needs few words assert the primacy of her filmmaking over the other arts.

Denis’s narrative doesn’t move forward so much as drift along, punctuated by the semblance of eventfulness that never really coheres in a standard teleological sense. There’s a burning jealousy at the core of Beau travail, but one that isn’t articulated clearly (i.e. with words); instead it issues forth from the burning gazes and intense first person narration provided by Sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant). Galoup’s a consummate professional, a lifetime legionnaire with a craggy visage and addiction to order, and all seems fine for him in this solitary, circumscribed, pointless existence (their group activities involve gearing up and storming an empty building like a bunch of paintballers on a weekend retreat) until the beautiful recruit Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin) joins the corp. The younger man’s easy rapport with the other troops furthers Galoup’s sense of isolation from the men—as sergeant, he’s too superior to mingle easily with them (a lonely shot of Galoup setting table for their group dinner while the rest of the troops splash about in the water like children speaks volumes), but also not senior enough to command the fatherly respect of his superior, the bearlike Bruno Forrestier (Michel Subor)—and arouses his suspicions: who is this pretty interloper, and why has he come to interrupt his regimen(t)?

After Sentain’s heroism in the wake of a freak helicopter crash (handled economically via a cloud of orange smoke, the sound of exploding metal, and some bodies floating in the water—Denis proves repeatedly we need not see to know) he is openly praised by Forrestier in the kind of language Galoup has obviously been craving to hear, and the sergeant’s obsessions take over, He redoubles his search to locate the “trash can” inside Sentain, which leads to an eventual face off. But “face off” in the world of Beau travail feels more like ballet than conflict, with the two men staring hard at each other and circling warily on the rocks. How does one win this dance? Up to this point, Denis has punctuated her narrative (such as it is) with extended sequences detailing the rigorous calisthenics the recruits perform which take material shape as cascading geometric compositions filled with tanned, toned bodies scored to opera. These sequences speak to the unique way in which Denis is parceling out narrative information—this is a film where a shot of water rippling reveals more than dialogue, where inaction and stasis forms character and a new kind of action, and where two men circling each other on the rocks communicates inarticulate bestial intensity (the pair seem just as likely to fuck as fight).

Forrestier offers Galoup the chance to lay his trap by sending the men out on an expedition into the wild. One evening a guard briefly deserts his post, and ever-watchful Galoup sentences the man to dig in the sun until his hands bleed. Sentain, again showing his humanity (the perfection Galoup so resents), attempts to give the dehydrated man some water, but the sergeant is there to intervene, slapping the younger man and kicking the offered canteen to the ground. Sentain responds as Galoup expected and desired, punching his sergeant in an oddly fluid and rubbery bit of slow-motion playacting. Sentain is punished for this insubordination, and Galoup triumphantly sends him into the desert to die with a sabotaged compass. (Galoup’s subtle smile as the military jeep leaves the object of his disaffection stranded in the desert would fit nicely on the Mona Lisa.) That the broken compass and Sentain pop up again should come as no surprise.

Who remembers all of the incidents of Beau travail, given how actively they seek dissolution into the overall wash of the narrative? Denis, ever attuned to the alienation of the Other, provides constant reminders of the lives being lived around these men—train rides, handmade blanket sales, women finishing their laundry—even if we’re almost actively encouraged to remember them as if dreams of a foreign land. She provides ample evidence of the time the Legionnaires lead outside of daily training as well: witness a near throwaway sequence of Forrestier and Galoup playing billiards in which a couple of lines of adoration from the older man, serve to both placate and intensify Galoup’s resolve. (It’s difficult to talk about speaking in this nearly speechless film, and since what dialogue is spoken is simultaneously banal and laden with slowly unfolding meaning.) For all this, what one remembers are bodies in the sun, odd dance-like movements, water, sand, the interior of a night clube. Denis learned to move narrative in Beau travail, less in fits and starts than in a gradual accretion of details half-remembered, half-forgotten, and most often seemingly insignificant until much later.

In Beau travail Denis makes images stand-in for traditional means of narrative advancement, and not merely in a pat metaphorical sense. She uncovered within her art a system that allows for a provocative expansive stasis amidst the inexorable advancement of narrative by dropping in images that suggestively layer on top of the “story” in a purely cinematic fashion. If not for Lavant’s voiceover, which forms an unnecessary locus of attention and meaning, a tether towards a more conventional, filled-in mode of cinema, that betrays the film’s literary roots as well, her images would have roamed completely free, unencumbered. Beau travail, a breakthrough in its day, now seems almost a transitional work when placed alongside L’Intrus, one of the great experiments in probing the surface tension of narrative in recent years, a film that throws chronology and geography into the same blender in which Denis had already been pulverizing space and narrative information. Even the silent pas de deux of Friday Night feels a step forward into the realm of the purely cinematic. Still, her parting shot, severed in half by the roll of the credits, of Denis Lavant dancing alone in a club, presumably in some odd nether-region post-death, liberated at last, is still amongst the most vital closing salvos in world cinema of the 1990s. His increasingly wild dance is a perversion of the controlled movements he performed over the preceding ninety minutes, and perhaps of the filmic career that preceded it.