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“In silence deep the legions stream,
With open ranks, in order true;
Over boundless plains they stream and
No chief in view!” —Herman Melville, “The Night March”
There are plenty of directors out there spinning illusions out of special effects, but to my mind, there’s no more magical contemporary filmmaker than Claire Denis, a Frenchwoman whose images come together more like poetry than prose. Her elliptical style takes some getting used to—and sometimes, as in her impenetrable 2004 film The Intruder, it never entirely coheres—but there’s an intuitive quality to movies like Friday Night, Trouble Every Day, and her new 35 Shots Of Rum that can be liberating to behold. Where other directors are tied to narrative like a damsel to railroad tracks, Denis’ imagination drifts off into the ether, linking scenes less by cause and effect than by association and rhyme. In that sense, they pose a seemingly difficult challenge to the way we’re used to seeing movies behave, but Denis and her ace cinematographer, Agnès Godard, make it easy for viewers to recalibrate their expectations and accept her work on its own distinctive terms.
Loosely inspired by Herman Melville’s short novel Billy Budd—as well as Melville’s brief poems “The Night March” and “Gold In The Mountain”—Denis’ 1999 film Beau Travail (“good work”) concerns a bizarre love triangle of sorts between a sergeant, his avuncular superior, and a fresh recruit in the French Legion. I use the phrase “of sorts” because nothing explicit or physical ever takes place between these three men, other than one striking the other at a crucial point, instantly dissolving the bonds between them. Using very, very little dialogue—none, so far as I can tell, between the two chief adversaries, played by Denis Lavant and Grégoire Colin—the film instead suggests their toxic dynamic through hard looks, wordless montage sequences, and spare entries from a diary composed after the punch is thrown. On the page, it’s as simple as movies get; on the screen, it’s full of ambiguity, startling beauty, and a weird, insinuating tension that isn’t broken until the delirious out-of-left-field coda.
Transposing Melville’s seafaring tale to the desolate mountains and plains of Djibouti, Beau Travail settles on a band of French Legionnaires training together under the scorching East African sun. Led by master sergeant Galoup (Lavant), who puts them through a rigorous daily exercise regimen, the men go about their choreographed rituals with such steely efficiency that they resemble a dance troupe performing two shows nightly plus a weekend matinee. The arrival of Sentain (Colin) shouldn’t upset the balance: Though lean and wiry in comparison to the other men, he’s just another sculpted body in formation, and his quiet, unassuming demeanor and natural charisma help him slip easily into the group. But the more his soldiers—and, crucially, his superior officer Bruno (Michel Subor)—rally around the newcomer, the more irrationally jealous and angry Galoup becomes, until finally he makes it his single-minded purpose to bring Sentain down.
Relayed in flashback from Marseilles months later, as Galoup awaits a court-martial hearing for deliberately plotting against (and nearly killing) Sentain, Beau Travail has the fuzzy distance of memory, but the emotions still simmer hot. It may not be clear to Galoup, but it’s obvious to us that his repressed desire for Sentain has manifested itself in self-loathing and resentment. As in the Melville story, Sentain is innocent and uncorrupted, an orphan eagerly adopted by his comrades-in-arms, the patriarchal Bruno, and even the Djibouti locals, who tenderly revive him after Galoup basically leaves him for dead. In Melville, the young sailor kills the ship’s master-at-arms (the Galoup character) with a single blow after the evil man falsely accuses him of fomenting mutiny, but in Denis’ version, Galoup deliberately goads Sentain into hitting him so he can banish him from the group. In both versions, no one really questions the subordinate’s innocence, but military code nonetheless condemns him to exile.
None of these conflicts play out in hyperbolic shouting matches; Denis’ script is probably a quarter of the size of Melville’s book, and the dialogue and voiceover would only take up a fraction of that. She never expresses in words what she can express in images, and yet as fractured and “difficult” as Beau Travail can seem at times, its tensions are rendered with awe-inspiring visual clarity. In the military, soldiers are trained to surrender their individual identity to the larger group, and Denis’ film makes us see plainly the intimacy that goes along with that. Yes, it’s homoerotic, but there’s a larger, more powerful camaraderie at work, too, and everyone gets roped into it. On one level, Galoup’s resentment toward Sentain speaks to latent, repressed desire, but on another, he feels threatened by the newcomer who alters the group dynamic and pushes him to the outside. Time and again, Denis contrasts the rank-and-file soldiers together—whether they’re doing calisthenics or roughhousing in the sea—with Galoup alone in the frame, quietly seething. Back in Marseilles, he describes himself as “unfit for life, unfit for civil life,” and we know then that his disconnection from the military unit will be fatal, like a severing of an umbilical cord.
Much of Beau Travail is dedicated to the daily exercise and training regimen of the Legionnaires, with a special emphasis (fetishization, really) on the synchronicity between bodies in motion and the stunning landscape behind them—both seemingly carved by God’s hands. It’s impossible not to draw a connection between Denis’ film and the work of Leni Riefenstahl, given the extent to which both pay rapturous homage to physical form. Moved to another locale, some sequences in Beau Travail could fit right into Riefenstahl’s Olympia or Triumph Of The Will; though Benjamin Britten’s opera of Billy Budd wasn’t written until 1951, the presence of its bold, imposing brasses on Denis’ soundtrack wouldn’t be out of place, either. The big difference, of course, is that Riefenstahl is a propagandist and Denis a dramatist, so the context isn’t remotely the same. The other difference is that Denis has a more overtly sensual touch, and a greater interest in how these bodies coalesce. In this gorgeous sequence, the soldiers interact with choreographed aggression in a training exercise, before the film sends them off in formation to the melancholy strains of Neil Young’s “Safeway Cart”:
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Beau Travail was produced the year after Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, and for films about the lives of soldiers, both are notable for their unusual stress on how men relate to the natural world around them. From Malick’s perspective, man and war exist in violation of nature, and he spends a lot of time underlining the contrast between the lush, peaceful harmony of flora and fauna, and bullets and bombs that ripple violently through paradise. Were Beau Travail about soldiers in battle, perhaps Denis would have taken a similar tack, but she suggests a far more harmonious interaction between man and nature. The conflict arises from within the unit, not from the world outside of it, which may be arid and unforgiving, but not inhospitable to men who embrace its challenges.
Here’s where I should dig into the gloriously whacked-out coda, which takes full advantage of the spry, whimsical, oddly feral Lavant that cinephiles know from films like Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang, but I just can’t bring myself to spoil the surprise. Suffice to say, Denis manages to flout any and all expectations for how Galoup’s story was going to end while still giving the character a well-earned, unforgettable moment of transcendence. And that’s the Denis magic: She doesn’t take a straight line from point A to point B like other filmmakers, but intuits her way through a story bit by bit, ellipsis by ellipsis. In that way and others, Beau Travail is a dream.
Next week: The Way Of The Gun
Mar. 26: The Room
And in April: Animation month, starring Jan Svankmajer’s Alice, The Iron Giant, The Triplets Of Belleville, Spirited Away, and Millennium Actress (Dates TBD)