Guest post by Caitlyn Stevens, IU Cinema’s Social Media Specialist and Marketing & Engagement Assistant.
I was first exposed to the work of Claire Denis years ago when I blind-bought a copy of White Material during a Criterion Collection sale. I absolutely loved the film (which was one of the sparks that ignited my obsession with Isabelle Huppert) but didn’t dive deeper into Denis’ oeuvre until hearing Barry Jenkins cite her as one of his favorite filmmakers and greatest inspirations in 2017.
Until very recently, however, one particular film eluded me, despite being one of her most critically acclaimed. It was probably my general aversion to “war films” that kept me from seeking out Beau Travail (1999) sooner, but with High Life coming to IU Cinema next week and the deadline of this blog post impending, I decided it was finally time to take the plunge.
Getting my hands on a copy of Beau Travail turned out to be much more difficult than I anticipated. In the age of digital media, I am so used to being able to watch pretty much anything my heart desires, even if it means spending a couple bucks for a rental on Amazon or Vudu. Beau Travail (along with several of Denis’ other films), however, is nowhere to be found. On top of that, the DVD copies from the Monroe County Public Library AND Vulture Video were checked out! Finally, after a tip from Jon Vickers, I found it at the IU Wells Library and sat down to watch.
I will admit, it took me a few tries to get in the right mindset for the film. I would press play and watch the opening club scene attentively, but soon find myself distracted by my cats or something on my phone. It was only after a few frustrated re-starts and shutting my phone in a drawer in the other room that I finally let myself become immersed in the film’s hypnotic images. And I’m so glad I did.
Beau Travail’s loose narrative is drawn from Herman Melville’s unfinished novella Billy Budd. If the connection to its source material isn’t clear enough, Denis also incorporates excerpts from Benjamin Britton’s 1951 opera of the same name into the film’s epic soundtrack. Instead of taking place on a ship, however, Denis’ version is set at a French Foreign Legion training camp in Djibouti, Africa.
The film’s events are presented non-linearly through the narration of Galoup (Denis Lavant) as he recalls his time as a Foreign Legion Officer and laments the arrival of a new Legionnaire, Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin). Sentain’s physical beauty immediately ignites a surge of emotion in Galoup, and a jealousy that is only heightened as the new arrival garners respect from his fellow Legionnaires and the section’s Commander, Bruno Forsetier (Michel Subor). Homoerotic undertones are implied throughout as the consequences of repression and toxic masculinity are explored.
Although it is Galoup’s perspective that drives the narrative, we are not invited to identify with his character from a point of empathy. Identification with any one character is made difficult, in fact, by the film’s lack of dialogue and abstract disposition. The audience is instead positioned primarily as observers of the men’s bodies as they move through the rituals of military life. Highly-choreographed training sequences that feel like bizarre dance numbers are made beautiful by Agnès Godard’s sensual cinematography, and the categorically masculine space is intercut with sequences of everyday domesticity. Perhaps it is this sense of distance from the characters’ subjectivity that made the film’s ending so powerful and cathartic for me. Galoup’s manic self-expression felt so deeply human yet so incongruous with the rigid persona he had previously embodied that as the credits rolled to the beat of Corona’s “The Rhythm of the Night,” I was left with the feeling that I had witnessed something transcendent.
This post was originally intended to be more of an overview of Claire Denis’ work, but the more I thought about it, the more my experience watching Beau Travail felt like more of a tribute to her filmmaking style than any attempted summary could achieve. Like many of her films, Beau Travail requires its viewers to disrupt their expectations of conventional storytelling and embrace abstraction and ambiguity. Even the director’s most accessible narratives maintain a quality of poetic lyricism and preference of enigmatic images over straightforward dialogue. It is a formal style that may take some getting used to, but one that also has the capacity to evoke a richness and depth of emotion in those willing to go along for the ride.
For a deeper discussion of Beau Travail, tune in to next week’s episode of IU Cinema’s A Place for Film podcast, hosted by David Carter and Elizabeth Roell.
Caitlyn Stevens graduated from the University of Missouri with a Bachelor of Arts with emphases in Women & Gender Studies and Film Studies in 2015. A passionate cinephile and art house cinema enthusiast, Caitlyn is now pursuing a masters of arts in Arts Administration at Indiana University.