Beau Travail (1999)

FILM, Film Society
Previously at the Wellington Film Society: furtive moments/bodies in motion.

Presented with the opportunity to revisit Beau Travail (Good Work) this week, Claire Denis’s masterpiece found yet another way to get under my skin. And as if I needed reminding, it still has one of the greatest endings in all of cinema. Much to my astonishment, the anticipation of this final scene caused my heart to start beating abnormally fast as the memorable denouement approached—an exhilarating sensation experienced by at least one other Film Society regular, as I was to learn afterwards. Ending with the camera gliding from Denis Lavant’s hand on a pistol, presumably to kill himself with, to a single, throbbing vein in his bicep, before cutting to Lavant, alone in a nightclub, surrendering to the beat of Corona’s ‘The Rhythm of the Night’, this abstract suicide is a favourite among cinephiles perusing YouTube. Having reencountered the scene in situ though, I can’t help but feel that when taken out of context and into realm of hyperlinks and embedded video, it loses much of its climactic potency. In its rightful place at the apex of Denis’s remarkable film, it provides an ecstatic release from the half-naked friction implicit throughout her transposing of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd to the regimented universe of the French Foreign Legion. As a singular cinematic moment, it also testifies to the big screen’s power to transform sound and image, as well as the nervous energy of experiencing a film of Beau Travail’s sensory and sensual wonders in the company of others.

On closer inspection, Beau Travail is a clearly delineated tale of jealously within the ranks of a group of Legionnaires stationed in Djibouti, and remains one of Denis’s most logical film narratives in an oeuvre consistently—and perhaps, simplistically—described as an elliptical art form. Indeed, Denis’s rarefied formalism is too instinctive to reduce to a catchall phrase, as it encompasses many facets: a precise feeling for strange and furtive moments, a heightened awareness of negative space, a peripheral vision for inaction outside of the traditional frame. Denis has crafted Beau Travail with the same sense and sensibility of her most esoteric film, L’Intrus (The Intruder, 2004), and yet what struck me upon this viewing was how economically it conveys the direction of its story, the motivations of its characters, and the links between their memories and their present state. Through brief but decisive cues such as a close-up of an African girl’s face, the jerking of the needle on a compass, or a hard stare into the open air, Denis plots the movement of three men—the granite-faced Sergeant Galoup (Lavant), his superior Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor, playing a shadow of his former self in Godard’s Le Petit soldat), and new Legionnaire Sentain (frequent Denis collaborator Grégoire Colin), a charismatic Adonis—with startling efficiency. The lucidity of Denis’s editing is rivaled only by her intense exploration of male desire and form—a symphony of colliding flesh, muscular stress, and bodies in motion.

On the surface a kind of military ‘skin flick’, Beau Travail can’t help but prompt a discussion of homoeroticism. How useful this is as the basis of one’s reading of the film is a point of contention for some critics, and I tend to side with the notion that its homoerotic appearance is only skin deep (as opposed to its study of post-colonialism, a signature theme of Denis’s that is strongly integrated here). One only needs to appreciate Denis’s neutral fascination with the spontaneous lovers of her most underrated film, Vendredi soir (Friday Night, 2001), to be convinced that her gaze focuses on physicality rather than sexuality, and that it’s possible for someone to make a film that pushes through normative perspectives. In Vendredi soir, Denis lingers on the tactile environment of her characters as much as the meeting of their bodies, and in doing so evinces a reverence for the material and natural world. What I particularly enjoy about the film is its immersion in the automotive chaos of Paris (a distinctive feature of a city beautiful to walk through but not at all designed for traffic), and how the frustration of gridlock is a catalyst for both the characters and the viewer to stop and take in their surroundings, be it the quality of light, the feeling of rain, the faces of nearby strangers, or the cacophony of the night. Whether it’s the inseparable tones of the Tindersticks (the director’s favourite collective of composers), or an exquisitely arresting song choice (Neil Young’s ‘Safeway Cart’ in Beau travail; The Commodores’ ‘Nightshift’ in 35 Shots of Rum), Denis is also one of the great curators of music in film. When combined with her aesthetic prowess, there’s never a second where one isn’t aware of the poetry suspended in all things.

Film Societies in sixteen centres run an annual programme of weekly/monthly film screenings. Membership entitles the holder free admission to screenings for a 12-month period. Full details at filmsocietywellington.net.nz, or for information about a film society closest to you, visit the NZ Federation of Film Societies.
Filed under: FILM, Film Society

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Tim Wong is the founding editor of The Lumière Reader. He specialises in film and visual arts criticism, has covered film festivals in Europe and North America, and was the only New Zealand-based critic invited to vote on Sight and Sound’s decennial “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll in 2012. He is also a freelance web and graphic designer. In 2015 he wrote and directed Out of the Mist.