BEAU TRAVAIL

Directed by Claire Denis

Written by Jean-Pol Forgeau and Denis, based on Herman Melville's BILLY BUDD

With Denis Lavant, Michel Subor and Gregoire Colin

Distributed by New Yorker Films

****



I've admired Claire Denis' work ever since I saw I CAN'T SLEEP and U.S. GO HOME at the 1995 San Francisco Film Festival, but my initial reaction to BEAU TRAVAIL was one of dismay. It looked to me like a honorable but complete failure: in an attempt to extend her recent films' experimentation with narrative, Denis had almost completely eliminated plot here, winding up with  an empty set of picture postcard views of Africa. Although I know several people who shared this reaction, Mike D'Angelo is the only other one who's put it into print. In fact, BEAU TRAVAIL has earned Denis the best reviews of her career, garnering the attention of critics who've ignored or dismissed her earlier work. Faced with this wave of praise from almost every critic I respect, I decided that it deserved a second chance, and it improved tremendously on a second viewing. In fact, I think it's the first film that I've ever done a 180-degree turnaround on within a year. J. Hoberman has accurately summed up its uniqueness by comparing it to "a John Ford cavalry western interpreted by Marguerite Duras." Plenty of other films have explored the same milieu as BEAU TRAVAIL, but it feels singular even in the context of Denis' entire oeuvre. It's the kind of mood piece that one has to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate - and I certainly wasn't the first time I saw it - but if one's patient enough, it casts quite a spell.

BEAU TRAVAIL is built around the memories of Galoup (Lavant, the pug-faced star of Léos Carax's first three films), who used to be a sergeant at a French Foreign Legion outpost in the  country of Djibouti (where Denis grew up), located on the Horn of Africa. Life in the outpost is stirred up by the arrival of Sentain (Colin), a young  recruit. Apparently, Sentain's popularity makes Galoup resentful and jealous, especially when his commanding officer Forestier (Subor) becomes fond of the boy. Galoup orders the recruits to perform menial labor in an attempt to drive Sentain away, and the tension between them eventually erupts into violence.

Despite the expectations raised by Denis' treatment of Black immigrants' struggles in NO FEAR, NO DIE and I CAN'T SLEEP, BEAU TRAVAIL isn't a critique of French racism or colonialism. (In fact, the multi-racial/national Legion troop seems to get along with little tension.) Nor is it an attack on the way military culture treats women. Its radicalism is implicit, stemming as much from Denis' visual style as from her "content." Few female filmmakers have managed to turn the male gaze back on men to the extent that Denis has. If Western culture encouraged women to indulge voyeuristic impulses the way men do, we might have more films like it, but its homoerotically charged atmosphere has few precedents outside work made by gay men. (A friend aptly compared it to Fassbinder's QUERELLE). However, Denis is no female Tom of Finland. If she objectifies men, she also treats them tenderly. The damage done to women's minds and bodies by conventional gender roles has been analyzed at length by feminists, but Denis follows Susan Faludi's lead in examining the more subtle damage they do to men. Her critique of masculinity holds plenty of sympathy for individual men.

Charles Taylor's eloquent review of BEAU TRAVAIL in SALON devotes a great deal of space to an analysis of its characters: a useful exercise, but one that seems a little pointless to me. Even the motivations of Galoup, who's the only real full-fledged character, remain opaque. Denis'  images don't tell much of a story. Instead, narrative and character development proceed almost entirely through the soundtrack, which is dominated by Galoup's voice-over.  From a perspective that sees storytelling as the ne plus ultra of filmmaking, most of its images are throwaway, but if one perceives the film as an organic whole, none of them are. The eroticism of BEAU TRAVAIL extends far beyond its images of scantily clad men into practically every shot. Apart from Wong Kar-wai, no  contemporary director can charge objects with tension and vitality like Denis. Each shot could be part of a series  of still lifes.

I can only think of two other movies that devote as much attention to the minutia of daily chores  as BEAU TRAVAIL: Chantal Akerman's feminist landmark JEANNE DIELMAN and Alexander Sokurov's CONFESSION, a 5-hour video set onboard a Russian naval submarine. In fact, this routine is exactly what most films stray away from, since spectators usually go to the movies looking for an escape from everyday life. Even while we're shaving, washing the dishes or doing laundry, most of us don't spend much time thinking about these tasks. As a result, they can look practically surreal onscreen. While JEANNE DIELMAN consists mostly of its title character doing housework (much of it presented in real time), it ultimately presents an alternate reality as eerie and disturbing as anything Phillip K. Dick thought up.

The accumulation of these minutia in BEAU TRAVAIL creates much the same effect.   For all her fascination with this all-male milieu, it eventually looks somewhat absurd. Isolated in Djibouti, the soldiers seem impossibly removed from the political conflicts that might call their combat skills into play. Separated from any immediate, practical purpose, their exercises in walking on ropes and  swimming underwater with knives look like  dance. (Denis strays from naturalism only once,  presenting a military exercise in which the men leap at each other and then hug). Their world is dominated by rituals, and this ritualization extends well into the characters' inner lives. Once Galoup finally succeeds in escaping the suffocating rhythm of military life,  BEAU TRAVAIL ends with a dance bearing no resemblance to the tightly choreographed movement we've seen throughout the film: an image of freedom - in all its awkwardness - as beautiful as  the Bastille Day sequence  in Carax's LES AMANTS DU PONT-NEUF.