Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Stories of Africa from the perspective of a white person can be a touchy subject (especially for black folks). You have a continent full of black people, yet the majority of mainstream films over the years that come from that continent are either written and/or directed by white people ('Tstotsi' & 'District 9'), or the main characters in those films are white (Donald Sutherland, Susan Sarandon and Marlon Brando in 'A Dry White Season', Kevin Kline in 'Cry Freedom', Klaus Kinski in 'Cobra Verde', Stephen Dorf in 'The Power Of One', etc). How is that possible? I don't know if its cynicism or "black pride", but sometimes part of me (and many other African Americans) feels like blindly & ignorantly thinking; "what could a white person know about Africa?" (and I've never even stepped foot on the continent). But that's not how i feel about Claire Denis and her films. She's someone who kind of grew up around black people (she spent some of her youth living in various countries in Africa), yet doesn't brag about it like its some kind of cool accomplishment or Rachel Dolezal-esque badge of honor. I try to limit my conversations regarding race with some white people like that because at some point they all drop the infamous line; "look, i grew up around black people. Trust me, I know black people", as if we're some kind of cool artifact or something. But i don't get that vibe from Claire Denis. Maybe its the fact that 75% of her filmography focuses on black characters in some way shape or form without that patronizing feel. Her focus on black people and various black cultures (African, Caribbean & Afro-European to be specific) feels natural and unforced.
Although very personal and semi-autobiographical, 'Chocolat' isn't Denis' best film (in fact, in my ranking of her work I'd put it in the bottom half...but that's not saying it isn't a really good movie). But it still laid the seeds for her future work. The feature debut of a great director is always an important artifact and this is certainly no exception. So many elements and themes from Denis' later work can be traced right back to her first film...

-The focus on interracial romance which started in 'Chocalt' can be found in her later work like 'Trouble Every Day', 'I Cant Sleep', 'No Fear, No Die' and '35 Shots Of Rum'

-A focus on black people (specifically black males) through the eyes of a white female character (which at times kind of represents claire denis herself) as well as sexual tension between a black male and a white female can be seen in post-'Chocolat' films like 'No Fear, No Die', 'I Cant Sleep' and 'White Material'.

-References to the continent of Africa can be found in almost all of her films either directly like 'Beau Travail' and 'White Material' or in a more subtle/hinted about way like in 'Trouble Every Day' and 'No Fear, No Die'.

-And Even the few Claire Denis films like 'Nenette & Boni' and 'U.S. Go Home' that have nothing to do with Africa (or black people for that matter) got their basic themes from 'Chocolat' in that all three films are essentially "coming of age" tales centered around young people.

(make sure to read "The Cinema Of Claire Denis...")

Claire Denis directing on set w/ the young "France"
'Chocolat' centers around a young girl by the name of "France" living with her parents in a colonized section of Cameroon who becomes friends with the family "house boy"/male servant; "Protee" (played by Claire Denis regular Isaach Debankole). The majority of the film is a flashback told from the perspective of "France" as an adult. There's a lot of unspoken tension in the film mostly dealing with racial tension between the white french people living in colonized Cameroon and the native Africans as well as the sexual tension between France's mother and Protee. All the tension comes to a head when France's family takes in a mysterious stranger after an accident close by leaves him stranded. In the same fashion as films like 'Cria Cuervos' and 'The Spirit Of The Beehive', each character in the film is more than just a person. They essentially represent a group of people or an ideal: "France" represents the new/younger generation of french people. France's parents represents the "old way" of French society, and Protee (the servant) clearly represents the oppressed people of Africa who have had their land taken over by the French. Whats also interesting is that this is the only film in which Claire Denis touches on the tension between Africans and African Americans (even if it is a quick comment). In my opinion, the African American community could use a Claire Denis film right now with all the Tyler Perry & knock-off Tyler Perry movies out there right now. Additionally, the cast of 'Chocolat' is part of the weblike connection/friendships that Denis has with other contemporaries like Jim Jarmusch (who not only went on to cast 'Chocolat' co-star Isaach DeBankole in 4 of his future films, but has started to form a regular working relationship with Claire Denis' other regular actor; Alex Descas) and Leos Carax, who worked with Mireille Perrier (who plays the older "France" in 'Chocolat') on his first 2 films is connected to this film as well.
Like i said earlier, this isn't her best film, but its required viewing if you're a fan and want a better understanding of how she developed as a filmmaker over the years.
Well, that's it. I've now written about every one of Claire Denis's feature films with the exception of 'Nenette & Boni' (the only 2 things holding me back is that I've already written about 'U.S. Go Home', which is very similar in plot and cast and John Cribbs already did 'Nenette & Boni' justice on the pink smoke).

Monday, November 21, 2011


I've mentioned this film briefly on PINNLAND EMPIRE through various posts like; "The Cinema Of Lars Von Trier" and "The School Of Tarkovsky", but now lets take an even deeper look at Lars Von Trier's feature film debut. This is one of my all time favorite movies but its quite difficult to recommend it to people for fear that they might find it too boring or slow. In fact, as much as i love this movie, it may be one of the few movies that's too difficult to follow because its so slow. Outside of all the Tarkovsky references (see my school tarkovsky part 1), its hard to believe that THIS was Lars Von Trier's first feature film. 'The Element Of Crime', a slowly paced yet BEAUTIFULLY shot neo noir about a washed up detective trying to track down a serial killer, is more about style and visuals than it is about pushing buttons (antichrist), social commentary (manderlay and dogville), or depression (melancholia). It falls more in line with the Europa/Kingdom-era Von Trier of the mid-90's than it does the dogma/cassavetes-influenced Von Trier of the late 90's up through 'Manderlay'. This film made Von Trier an overnight success at Cannes due to the fact that it had a maturity that you wouldn't expect from a director in his mid-20's. In my opinion, 1984 was one of the last great years at the Cannes film festival. Jim Jarmusch debuted 'Stranger Than Paradise', John Huston debuted 'Under The Volcano', Wim Wenders won best picture with 'Paris Texas' and a young Lars Von Trier won the "technical prize" for 'The Element Of Crime'.
When you think "neo-noir" you automatically think about films like 'Blade Runner', 'Dark City', 'Oldboy', 'Brick' or other various films centered around middle-aged, humphrey bogart-esque private investigators, detectives or sleuths getting in way too deep over their heads in some case that starts to unravel in to something bigger (obviously not all the movies i listed above have every single one of those elements, but still...) . 'The Element Of Crime' DOES have all the themes of a classic noir/detective film, but because it's so (intentionally) slowly paced it doesn't feel like a noir at first.
It may draw obvious inspiration from the imagery of Andrei Tarkovsky's films, but plot wise 'The Element Of Crime' shares many similarities with 'Blade Runner'. Both films revolve around a semi-retired, washed up, unshaven detective chasing down bad guys in a futuristic urban setting where it almost ALWAYS seems to be raining.
Set in the near future (the specific date isn't given), "Detective Fisher" (our main character) is retelling his last case to a therapist while under hypnosis (its unclear weather he's in a mental institution or in a therapist session). In an unnamed European city, there's a serial killer ("Harry Gray") on the loose mutilating young girls. When no one else can solve the case, Fisher is called out of retirement by his mentor ("Osbourne") to find the killer (this aspect of the story is similar to 'Blade Runner' in that Harrison Ford is pulled out of what seems to be retirement to find rogue androids). The biggest Lars Von Trier staple in 'The Element Of Crime' is that the plot follows a set of rules. In the film, Detective Fisher works under a set of rules laid out in a book written by his mentor (Osbourne) called; "The Element Of Crime" (a book/police guide to solving cases). In "The Cinema Of Lars Von Trier", i touched on the fact that all of his films, whether it be how they're made or the the actual plot, are based in a strict set of rules that Von Trier always follows. 'The Element Of Crime' is no exception.

What gives the film its unique "look" is that it's shot under a red-ish tint with the occasional flash of a blue light from a bulb or TV screen...

And its visual similarities with 'Blade Runner' are also difficult to miss...
'Blade Runner' (1982)
'The Element Of Crime' (1984)
The film's dark lighting, hallway shots and emphasis on the color red seems to be a clear influence on more recent neo-noir films like 'Fear X' (directed by the son of one of Lars Von Trier's most frequent collaborators; Nicolas Winding Refn) and 'Red Road' (a film in which Von Trier himself actually helped create the plot). Certain images from both of these films look like they come right out of 'The Element Of Crime'. In my opinion, because of 'The Element Of Crimes' web-like/tree branch connection to so many other films and directors ('Andrei Rublev', 'Blade Runner', 'Red Road', etc) this would be a great study guide in a film class with an emphasis on neo-noir/mystery...
'Element Of Crime' (1984)
'Fear X' (2003)
I realize Nicolas Refn and Lars Von Trier have "beef" at the moment, but the similarities are just too obvious.
And you can see how elements from his first film influenced his later work and shots from 'The Element Of Crime' can still be found in his recent work like 'Antichrist' and 'Melancholia'...
'Element Of Crime' - Von Trier (1984)
'Medea' - Von Trier (1988)
'Antichrist' - Von Trier (2009)
'Melancholia' - Von Trier (2011)

'The Element Of Crime' is the first part of Von Trier's "Europe Trilogy" ('Epidemic' and 'Europa' being the other 2). Each of the films centers around hypnosis. With Element..., the film starts from the perspective of Detective Fisher about to be put under hypnosis by a therapist so that he can recall his last case (similar to the opening of 'Europa' where Max Von Sydow opens the film by putting the audience under hypnosis). From that point on, the film is told through flashbacks with haunting/cryptic voice over narration. And on a side note, our main character barely ever uses or even holds a gun in the film (something that can be found in other films like 'Children Of Men' or 'The Silence'). And to further hit home his dreamlike, hypnotic and disoriented feel, Von Trier often overlaps scenes on top of each other for an extended period of time (see below) to mess with our heads and screw with our perception of time. And on top of that, the film has a very open ending which leaves us questioning the sanity of Detective Fisher and who the killer actually is...
example #1
example #2
example #3

Like i said before, this is a tough one to recommend (I'm speaking from experience). Sure its one of my personal favorite, but at times it does feel like a sleep aid. This is also one of the more forgotten about films in the criterion collection. I personally feel like this movie is almost a masterpiece, but i understand if people cant get in to it. I still urge you all to give this a chance if you haven't already.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Here's the latest "Five From The Fire" article from the pink smoke in which Stu Steimer was given the task to save 5 films from the collective filmography of; Catherine Breillat, Nicolas Roeg, Takeshi Kitano, Peter Watkins and Andy Milligan. I contributed a little dialogue at the end. Enjoy...

Five From The Fire #10

Friday, November 11, 2011


I didn't think I'd be able to squeeze another one of these out of me but now that It's done I actually think its better than Part 2. Once again, we have the regular cast of characters like Von Trier, Carlos Reygadas, Haneke and Sokurov, but we have a new addition in the form of Tarsem Singh and his last feature; 'The Fall'. Two pivotal sequences from 'The Fall' are right out of "The School of Tarkovsky" (see the videos below). Like Part 2, some of this entry uses video clips to compare today's modern day filmmakers against Tarkvosky. There's still quite a few nice image comparisons ranging from; Haneke's use of fog at the beginning of 'Time Of The Wolf' (which is very reminiscent of Tarkovsky's use of fog in Nostalghia), the floating mother scenes in both; 'The Tree Of Life' and 'The Mirror' as well as Lars Von Trier hanging from a helicopter in 'Epidemic', which is right out of the opening air balloon sequence in Andrei Rublev.
Be sure to look at Parts 1 & 2 as well.

'Epidemic' - Lars Von Trier (1988)
'Andrei Rublev' - Andrei Tarkovsky (1966)

floating mother scene in 'The Tree Of Life' (2011)
floating mother in 'The Mirror' (1974)

'The Tree Of Life'
'Stalker' - Tarkovsky (1976)

'Time Of The Wolf' - Michael Haneke (2003)
'The Mirror' - Tarkovsky

'Time Of The Wolf'
'Nostalghia' - Tarkovsky (1982)

'Silent Light' - Carlos Reygadas (2007)
'Solaris' - Tarkovsky (1972)

Below are the video comparisons I was talking about between 'The Fall' and various sequences from Tarkovsky's work. Below is my favorite scene from 'The Fall', which almost feels like combined elements from Tarkovsky's 'Nostalghia', 'The Sacrifice' and 'The Mirror'. Please see the videos below...

And here's another comparison from 'The Fall' (fast forward towards the end) which reminded me very much of the falling horse scene in 'Andrei Rublev'. Michael Haneke has a similar (although quicker) scene in 'Time Of The Wolf', but the clip isn't on youtube or vimeo...

And in these videos below, we compare the cinematography and long take shots from 'The Castle' (haneke), Werkmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr) and 'Silent Light' (reygadas) with Tarkovsky's 'Nostalghia' and 'Stalker'...

Thursday, November 10, 2011


If there's one thing we like here at PINNLAND EMPIRE its great image comparisons, stills and print screens from movies. Its easy to simply say that one director is influenced by another, or that one film draws inspiration from an older film. But sometimes you need a little more evidence to get your point across (please see my "School Of Tarkovsky" parts 1 & 2 for further examples of this). In this 2nd volume of featured writings we're gonna take a look at some of my favorite image-heavy movie reviews...

Friday, November 4, 2011


Last year i attended a Screening/Q&A for Sofia Coppola's latest film 'Somewhere' (a movie i included in my TOP 10 movies of 2010). I asked Sofia if some of her motivation for making the film was 2008's '35 Shots Of Rum'. Both movies are a positive look at fatherhood (specifically single fathers raising daughters), both directed by women, and they both have the same calming atmosphere. I had high hopes this conversation would open up a nice chain of dialogue between her and I. I know the term "female director" is silly, but these last few years it's been almost impossible to not recognize that women have been putting in serious work behind the camera (Sofia Coppola, Claire Denis, Marina De Van, Katheryn Bigelow, Lynne Ramsay, etc etc). I made the naive assumption that Coppola was inspired by Denis not just because she was another female director, but they're latest movies were so similar. To my disappointment, Sofia Coppola had no idea what i was talking about. She hadn't seen '35 Shots Of Rum', so that kind of ended the dialogue between us pretty quickly (although before I sat down I recommended that she check it out). Even though Sofia drew no inspiration from Claire Denis' '35 Shots Of Rum', they're still spiritually connected in the same way as 'Blue Velvet' & 'Something Wild', 'Lost Highway' & 'Crash' (1996) or 'Kes' & 'Ratcatcher'.
Hints & Implications are two words i often use when talking about Claire Denis' style, and '35 Shots' may be the best example of that. To sum the movie up nicely, its a story about a widowed father ("Lionel") and his relationship with his daughter ("Josephine"), neighbors, co-workers and close friends. Its never directly said his wife died, but through Denis' unique film making style, you just kinda know. Sounds pretty boring, right? A father/daughter movie with no abuse or dysfunction where barely anyone raises their voice. But its surprisingly a very engaging, interesting film with both serious and/or heartwarming moments as well as funny moments. I don't know If I'd include this in my Top 50 films of the decade, but it would easily be an honorable mention (and besides, Claire Denis already has a couple of films on that list so its OK).
'35 Shots Of Rum' is partially inspired by Yasujiru Ozu, specifically his films 'Early Summer' & 'Late Spring', in the sense that a big part of the film deals with a father learning to let go of his daughter.

(35 Shots) grew under the shade of 'Late Spring' - Claire Denis (NY Times, 2009)

There's little side stories and subplots involving the supporting characters that surround Lionel & Jospehine: 2 different men ("Noe" & "Ruben") are pursuing Jospehine, one of their neighbors ("Gabrielle") clearly has a "thing" for Lionel and is trying to be somewhat of a mother figure to Josephine & Lionel's  friend/co-worker ("Rene") has been forced in to early retirement for an unnamed reason which puts him in a deep depression. Whats also quite interesting is that there's no explanation as to why the movie is actually called '35 Shots Of Rum'. There's a few hints, but nothing is completely explained.

In my "Cinema Of Claire Denis" exploration (which can be used as a great study guide when reading about her films on this site), Intimacy was one of the categories. This one movie alone could be studied on how she creates so many great intimate moments (both romantic and non-romantic) with just a simple touch or stroke of the face. There's intimate moments between family members, friends and lovers in '35 Shots Of Rum' that connect with so many other previous Denis films like 'Trouble Every Day' or 'Friday Night'...

Intimacy & Touch in other Denis films...

'Trouble Every Day' (2001)

'Trouble Every Day'

'Friday Night' (2002)

'The Intruder' (2004)

This may be his best performance next to 'No Fear, No Die' (Descas' first collaboration with Denis) or 'Lumumba' (where he plays Mobutu). Its one of those performances that grows on you or creeps up on you over the years and makes you realize how quietly amazing and commanding he is in '35 Shots Of Rum' (and just about anything else he's in). 'No Fear No Die' is becoming more and more rare these days, so '35 Shots Of Rum' might be the best film to introduce someone to Alex Descas. In an interview, Claire Denis had this to say about her longtime collaborator...

I would not make the film without him. I think that Alex Descas always has a past, don’t you? It’s like he brings an inside story to his characters. - Claire Denis (reverseshot.com)

This statement could be said about almost all of the characters Descas has played over the years. His stern face and minimal facial expressions really do make him a more mysterious figure. He has the same face and mannerisms in most films, yet you never get bored watching him. Seeing him smile kinda feels like a treat because its so rare on camera. In '35 Shots Of Rum' his character deals with a lot of issues internally. His friend and co-worker commits suicide, he still thinks about his wife and he's coming to terms that his daughter is no longer a little kid. Vincent London in 'Friday Night' and Denis Lavant in 'Beau Travail' are probably the only actors to come close to matching Descas' leading man persona in a Claire Denis film.

'35 Shots Of Rum'
'Vers Nancy' (dir. Claire Denis)
'The Intruder' (also directed by Claire Denis)

'35 Shots' is definitely in the top half of Denis' filmography. It's one of her only films that (in my opinion) doesn't draw inspiration from the directors she's commonly associated with like; Jarmusch, Wim Wenders or Tarkovsky. Claire Denis has always professed her love of Ozu's work, but this is the first film that really draws a direct influence. Furthermore, this is the first NON-DYSFUNCTIONAL family film that Denis has ever done. 'Nenette & Boni' is about 2 estranged siblings (one a pregnant teen) that both hate their father. And the family dynamic in both; 'I Cant Sleep' and 'White Material' are dysfunctional as well.
Even after all that I've just said about it, there's still an indescribably sweet yet mature atmosphere i cant put in to words. It's a must see.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

FOREST WHITAKER'S INTERVENTION (enough is enough. its time)

Sorry, but this has been bothering me for years. Will somebody please tell Forest Whitaker that once you win an academy award you have the right to be somewhat selective in the roles you take. It seems like ever since he lost all that weight he lost his ability to tell the difference between a good script and a bad one. I know an academy award isn't the most important thing in the world, but it does put you in a kind of "top tier" among actors. And the last time I checked, "top tier" actors don't share the screen with people like Carlos Mencia in 'Our Family Wedding'...
really tho??
Would Sean Penn or Daniel-Day Lewis make a wacky comedy with the likes of Dat Phan or Kat Williams? I don't think so. So why would Forest Whitaker lower himself and taint his name by putting it next to Carlos Mencia's?? Doesn't he know that no one likes him? Is he THAT outta touch? And it wasn't like the movie was billed as: "Starring Forest Whitaker, co-starring Carlos Mencia". No. They're statuses in that movie were the same!
He's one of my favorite actors so I feel the need to say these things (even if no one outside of the 20+ followers of this blog read what I have to say). What makes him such a unique actor is the fact that he can seamlessly go from being a big menacing bully to being a teddy bear. He's got great odd/unique mannerisms that one else has. And he represents more than just himself. He represents all large, menacing yet quietly odd, mis-used actors like Vincent D'noffrio, Tom Noonan or Michael Madsen.
Seriously, look at what he's done since 'The Last King Of Scotland' (which, brace yourselves, isn't even in his top 5 greatest performances. But hey, we'll take an academy award wherever "we" can get it.). Name me one memorable film or performance of his since 2006 (and we aren't talking about his TV work). I'll wait...


In fact, the last great performance he gave was in 'Mary' (Abel Ferrara's barely seen religious drama from 2005 that didn't get released theatrically until 2010), which I saw at anthology film archives as part of the "Abel Ferrara In The 21st Century" retrospective. He was so great in that. And after watching 'Repomen' a few months back, I was in desperate need of a good performance from him. As both a fan of Forest Whitaker and an organ transplant recipient (a kidney transplant for those of you who still don't know) I was DOUBLY offended by last years 'Repomen': The body "horror"/drama/action/comedy starring Jude Law & Forrest Whitaker as ruthless organ transplant repossessors. The movie pissed me off for 2 reasons:

1. How do you screw up a plot like that?! Say what you want, but the idea of people having their transplanted organs repossessed for not paying their medical bills is both interesting and hilarious to me (its OK, I had a kidney transplant so I'm allowed to laugh at that). Its like Philip K. Dick meets 1980's David Cronenberg (the guy who shoulda directed 'Repomen' if you ask me)

2. It pretty much STOLE the ending from Terry Gilliam's 'Brazil'. Don't me wrong. I'm all about paying homage and directors giving nods to other directors (more than half the content of this blog is about that). But thievery is thievery, and 'Repomen' completely stole from 'Brazil'.

'Repomen' was the last "memorable" movie he appeared in on the big screen. Other than that, it seems like he's been doing nothing but painfully average indie movies that go straight to DVD after playing at sundance. A few months ago I made a facebook status update calling Forest Whitaker "this generations Louis Gossest Jr". And that wasn't a compliment. For those of you who don't know, in the 70's and 80's there was that myth among black people that when a black actor receives an academy award (or even just a nomination) that it became the "kiss of death". Louis Gosset Jr. was a prime example of that. After winning an academy award for 'Officer And A Gentlemen', he went on to co-star in such great films as the Iron Eagle saga, TWO films alongside Dolph Lundgren ('The Punisher' & 'Cover Up') and countless made for TV movies that no one remembers. But its doesn't stop with just Gosset. You had Adolp Ceaser ('A Soldier's Story'), Dianne Carrol ('Claudine'), Angela Basset ('Whats Love Got To Do With It'), and so on. Over the years actors like Denzel Washington, Jaime Foxx and Will Smith kinda turned that myth around (no matter how you may feel about them). But in a way, Forest Whitaker is moving backwards. Does he know he's A-list?? Or is he still? He might not be anymore, I dunno. Even AFTER winning an academy award for best male lead he continues to take 2nd billing to people like Matthew Fox (I understand 'Lost' is a popular TV show, but still...)
So I think what needs to happen is we rent a van and just hi-jack him, take him somewhere and have one of those intense interventions where his family, friends and devoted fans be honest with him and tell him the truth about he's ruining his name.

And before I go, lets end this on a positive note and take a look at some of his more memorable scenes/performances.

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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