Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Beau Travail



FR 1999
dir. Claire Denis
scr. Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau (based on Billy Budd by Herman Melville)
cin. Agnes Godard
stars Dennis Lavant, Gregoire Colin, Michel Subor
90 minutes

I approached Claire Denis’ Beau Travail with mixed expectations. On one hand, I’d read the raves of the critics who had praised it as “cinematic perfection,” warning audiences to “expect to be blown away.” On the other, I’d sat through a thirty-second trailer that made the movie look like the worst kind of pretentious arthouse rubbish, featuring gloomy actors exchanging meaningful looks, over-elaborate images with a soundtrack of portentous classical music and ominous narration.

Well, Beau Travail turns out to be a combination of both extremes – at times it is an almost parodic example of how highbrow films can stray over the line between art and arty, but, more often, it’s a bold cinematic vision of a world within the world. I haven’t read Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, or seen either Peter Ustinov’s film or Benjamin Britten’s opera based on it, but from I know of the basic plot Beau Travail can only be described as the loosest of adaptations. It’s more of a dream of Billy Budd, a fevered, fragmentary dream pieced together from memory, in unreliable retrospect.

The film makes most sense as a visualisation of the memories of its central character, Galoup (Lavant), a tough little mid-ranking officer in the French Foreign Legion, stationed in the remote African ex-colonial outpost of Djibouti. There’s very little dialogue in the film, instead we hear extracts from Galoup’s diary, written later on his return to civilian life, in Marseille as he reviews the events of his recent life. Galoup formed an instinctive, never fully explained loathing of a new recruit, the saturnine Sentain (Colin), one which attracted the disapproval of Galoup’s commanding officer, the much older Forestier (Subor). These three are the only characters in the film we get to know at all, and even then they remain essentially enigmatic.

We can infer from Galoup’s attitude to Sentain that his distaste is, to some extent, an inversion of the attraction he feels towards the younger man, and a manifestation of his inability to deal with these homo-erotic impulses. We may also deduce that this is a replay of a much earlier event involving Forestier – and that perhaps the three men represent (as in Jacques Demy’s Lola, or Peter Greenaway’s Drowning By Numbers) three facets of the same individual, or perhaps three archetypes of a certain kind of man.

These inferences and deductions are valid, but the film does not offer any firm conclusions about anything depicted on screen. Denis’s approach is one of very careful ellipsis. The film is constructed of discrete scenes and fragments, from different times and places, which the audience is left to arrange – whether into a cohesive drama, or into a cubist collage – is up to the individual. There’s a looseness in Denis’s approach, in that there’s plenty of room for each observer to explore the film’s world, but also a precision, in that Denis only shows exactly what she wants to show. What’s certain is that there is much that we are not told, or shown. Instead, Denis gives the impression of a real, vivid world, in which the movie camera is only accidentally, and transiently present.

We see Sentain and his fellow recruits engaged in repetitive training which seems as balletic as it is militaristic. The actual meaning, if there is a meaning, of such actions is less important than the ritual of performing them. This seems to be what the title refers to, though it’s also a pun on the comment Forestier makes to Sentain when the younger man says he was an orphan discovered on a stairwell – he’s a “good find”, or ‘bel trouvail.’ It’s also vital that such “good work” is witnessed – by Galoup and Forestier, and by the director and the audience. In this respect Lavant (previously best known for his “Desirez-vous autre’chose, Papa?” adverts for Stella Artois) is perfect as Galoup – a convincing, coiled physical presence, with alert, animal-watchful eyes in an inexpressive face. Lavant, Colin and Subor share this sphinx-like quality: it’s tough, perhaps impossible, to penetrate the masks they show to the world, shielded by the legendary anonymity the Legion offers. We must observe, deduce, infer, from the limited evidence presented during Beau Travail‘s economic hour-and-a-half.

This elliptical approach is harder to pull off than it looks, and Denis pieces together her movie with a judicious eye (small details: a ‘straight edge’ tattoo across shoulderblades, the pulsing of a vein in an arm) and ear. Britten’s strident Billy Budd music does appear on the soundtrack, but forms only one small section of a wildly eclectic mixture (this is one film which should feature Moby, a distant descendent of Herman Melville) that also includes a subtle, exotic instrumental piece that lends ominous undertones to apparently prosaic images of Djibouti women. Even more effective is the scene of the recruits marching through the bleak African desert, over which Denis lays Neil Young’s delicate ‘Safeway Cart’ – it’s a magical, transcendent moment.

Transcendence + copious voiceover narration + men of war + the natural world: Beau Travail is often strikingly reminiscent of The Thin Red Line. Colin’s Sentain is distant kin of Jim Caviezel’s Private Witt from Malick’s film, though apparently Melville’s Billy Budd was apparently even more saintly and Christ-like. If Denis never quite scales the peaks of Malick’s film – in particular, its underwater sequence carries none of the emotional force of Line‘s repeated images of Caviezel diving with the Melanesians – then it does score by being a much more rigorously controlled, carefully thought out piece of work, as much literary as cinematic: it’s rare to find a film that is so pervasively solemn in its approach, while never tipping over into the monotonous or depressing.

Beau Travail make demands of its audience, but in a way which panders to what that audience has come to expects a ‘good work’, in moviegoing terms to be. It is predictable in those terms, and I’d contrast it with David O Russell’s soldiers-in-the-desert film Three Kings, which, while it placed its visual inventiveness at the service of its plot, at least had the benefit of being somewhat different from what its multiplex audiences were led to expect by its slam-bang George Clooney trailer. I don’t think Beau Travail offers any more enlightenment or psychological truth than Three Kings – all those ellipses may not ultimately add up to very much, and Denis’s film may well nothing more than a collection of strong images wrapped into the illusion of an enigma. I prefer to see Beau Travail as an example of what cinema does best – it shows us a world within the world, alien and inexplicable, but impossible to resist.

by Neil Young