Tuesday, November 1, 2011


It really does look like I'm on a quest to write about everything Claire Denis has directed before the year is up. I know a few months back i said id ease up on her but i couldn't resist. Many people (myself included) consider 'Beau Travail' to be the best thing she's ever done. Everything fell right in to place: Denis' most commonly used actors (Gregoire Colin, Richard Courcet, Michel Subor and Nicolas Duvauchelle), Agnes Godard behind the camera, Africa as the backdrop (Djibouti to be exact) and even though The Tindersticks didn't score this film (like they've done with just about everything else Denis-related since 'Beau Travail'), it still has the same dreamy vibe as the other Tinderstick-scored works like; '35 Shots Of Rum', 'The Intruder' or 'White Material'. 'Beau Travail' was one of those films that bridged the late 90's with the next decade. An all-star group of movies released on to the film festival circuit in 1999, but released worldwide in 2000. Others included; 'Humanity' (Bruno Dumont), 'Ghost Dog' (Jarmusch), '8-1/2 Women' (Peter Greenway), 'Ratcatcher' (Lynne Ramsey), 'Rosetta' (The Dardenne Bros.) and a few more.
To give you an idea of the impact that Denis' masterpiece had on the film world, here's what a few (worthy) film critics had to say about...

A Masterpiece - Jonathan Rosenbaum

Amy Taubin's Top 10 of 2000 list

the visually spellbinding cinematic equivalent of a military ballet in which the legionnaires' rigorous drills and training rituals are depicted as ecstatic rites of purification, the embodiment of an impenetrable masculine mystique before which the director stands in awe - Stephen Holden

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. - Scott Tobias (Onion AV Club)

Film Comment End Of Year Critics Poll (2001)

'Beau Travail', a loose adaptation of the book "Billy Bud", is the story of a court marshaled sergeant; "Galoup" (played by Denis Lavant in one of his finest performances) reminiscing about his days as a troop leader in the foreign legion. The Majority of this film is a flashback told through haunting voice over narration by Lavant. In Galoup's last days as a sergeant we see him grow jealous, envious and also fascinated by one of the new foreign legion soldiers under his command; "Sentain" (played by Claire Denis "regular" Gregoire Colin). Galoup's complicated feelings towards Sentain later become the driving force behind his court Marshall. In addition to Galoup's conflict with the new recruit, we also watch the relationship between him and his mentor; "Bruno Forestier" (played by Michel Subor who had taken a long break from acting up til that point), a commander in the foreign legion.
What's interesting about 'Beau Travail' is that for such a masculine film (the cast is damn near all male), the characters deal with emotions on an almost feminine level. Similar to how some women in real life can dislike each other right off the back at first glance, Galoup has no real reason to dislike Sentain, but his hatred for him grows and grows (not to say that all women think this way, but you all know what I'm talking about).
'Beau Travail' has a few levels to it. It isn't just an adaptation of Billy Bud (Sentain = Billy Bud & Galoup = John Claggart). It also has a connection to an older Godard film (as does the character played by Michel Subor)...

Michel Subor reprises his role of "Bruno Forestier" after 3+ decades
 Just like we've explored in previous Claire Denis blogs entries, her films always seem to have a direct connection with other films (either hers, or with fellow french directors). But aside from the 'U.S. Go Home'/'Nenette & Boni' connection, 'Beau Travail' has the most direct relationship with another film. In 1963 Michel Subor played the same character ("Bruno Forestier") in Godard's 'Le Petit Soldat' that he does in 'Beau Travial' (Denis even throws in a more than obvious reference to the Godard film). In 'Le Petit Soldat', Michel Subor plays a young man working for the French Intelligence who doesn't want to be drafted in to the Algerian war. In her Contemporary Film Directors book series, Claire Denis explains her (somewhat vague) inspiration for re-using the Forestier character in her film:

I told myself that after the film ('Le Petit Soldat'), when he leaves the army and kills the correspondent for the FLN, Forestier joined the French foreign legion.

Michel Subor -'Beau Travail' (1999)

Michel Subor -'La Petit Soldat' (1963)

'Beau Travail' is also connected to other works like 'The Intruder' (also directed by Claire Denis and starring Michel Subor). Both films have the same dreamlike atmosphere, cast and there are damn near the same exact shots using the same actors as well. There's also a shot in 'Beau Travail' that's very reminiscent of Bergman's iconic shot in 'The 7th Seal'...

Michel Subor looks through a fence -
'Beau Travail'

Michael Subor looks through a fence
- 'The Intruder' (2004)

'Beau Travail'

'The Intruder'

Old image of Michel Subor used by
Claire Denis in 'Beau Travail'

Old footage of Subor used by
Claire Denis in 'The Intruder'

'Beau Travail'

'The 7th Seal' - Bergman (1959)

In the world of film, Claire Denis and the continent of Africa have become synonymous with one another. I've even noticed a pattern with her. It seems like every decade or so, Claire Denis comes back to Africa to make a film: 'Chocolate' (1988/89), 'Beau Travail' (1999/2000) and 'White Material' (2009/2010).
In 'Beau Travail', Denis captures so many different shades, physical features and nationalities of Africans. Even though this story that's set in Africa is centered around 3 white characters, Denis makes the presence of Africans known all through out the film...


hard men look vulnerable - Lisa Schwartzbaum on 'Beau Travail'

As we discussed in "The Cinema Of Claire Denis", the human body is a commonly explored theme in her work. This isn't a film for an insecure man. There's a lot of shirtless, sweaty men on top of each other exercising through most of it. As a female director (i know some people cringe at that term, but hear me out...) Claire Denis had the opportunity to turn the tables on men and objectify them in the same way that so many male directors have done to women (which is actually something she was accused of with this film by a few critics), but instead she showed the beauty and sensuality of the male body and still managed to make her all male cast retain their masculinity. And lets not forget that the cinematographer of the 'Beau Travail' (and most of Denis' other work) was a woman (Agnes Godard), which adds an additional level to the idea of the (almost) naked male body looked at through the eyes of a female. I recently went with a woman to the french institute to see a special screening of 'Beau Travail', and needless to say she was quite mesmerized by all the shots of the men in the film (she also tried her best to help me out by getting Kent Jones' attention at the Q&A afterwards when I was trying to ask my question). But more importantly, it was interesting to get a females point of view on 'Beau Travail' as I always seem to get in to deep conversations about it with nothing but men...

And in the tradition of any other military film that places an emphasis on basic trying or the idea of a military unit working as one ('full metal jacket', 'an officer and a gentlemen', etc etc), Claire Denis really hammers home the idea of repetition in the way the soldiers live and exercise. Without much of a score (outside of the night club scenes and the opening music), there's a real rhythm to the movie in the way the soldiers move: Their movements through the obstacle courses, the drills they do, they way their bodies all hit the ground at the same time, etc...

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