Claire Denis (born 1946) graduated from the French
film school IDHEC (today FÉMIS) in 1971, and became a valued assistant director
to (among others) Jacques Rivette, Wim Wenders and Dušan Makavejev.
Her powerfully ambivalent childhood experience of being raised in parts of
Africa under French colonial rule has been a strong inspiration for her own
work as director, beginning with Chocolat in 1988; “multi-racial” casts are standard in her
projects. Writing steadily (often with collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau) and
filming quickly, she has managed to create fifteen features (and numerous
shorts) in the past 34 years, with The Stars at Noon, a “romantic
thriller” set during the Nicaraguan Revolution, coming next.
Celebrated by critics and regularly studied by
scholars, Denis’ audiovisual treatment of story material is intensely lyrical
and often deliberately enigmatic; she pays special attention, in editing, to
scrambling the conventional bases of comprehension and multiplying the
potential interpretive points-of-view. A devoted cinephile, Denis references
many genres in her projects – thriller, action, musical (the dance scenes in
her films are indelible), romance, sci-fi – yet always lands beyond the
reassuring, straitjacketed conventions of any single generic template.
Regularly challenging puritanical morality and
comfortably liberal political stances, Denis is unafraid of breaking taboos and
confronting her audiences with violent and sexually provocative material, as in Les Salauds (Bastards, 2013) and High Life (2018). Her career
highlights so far include J’ai pas sommeil (I Can’t Sleep, 1994), Trouble Every Day (2001), L’intrus (The Intruder, 2004), 35 rhums (2008),
and the first of her collaborations with Juliette Binoche, Un beau soleil
intérieur (Let the Sunshine In, 2017).
Beau travail (‘fine work’) is among the
freest, the most lyrical and inventive of films. Denis follows the example set
by the Nouvelle Vague in the 1960s, but across fiction and documentary work she
has evolved her own, distinctive style and world-view.
It is a completely poetic piece,
characterised by an unusual combination of images and music (classical and pop
music alike), a minimal dependence on plot, and an approach to bodily gesture
and movement that is much closer to dance than naturalistic drama – in fact, Denis
collaborated with a choreographer, Bernardo Montet, on the staging of the
action, especially its scenes of military exercise.
film’s premise is simple: nominally a portrait of the French Foreign Legion
stationed in Dijbouti at some point in the late 20th century. It may
seem an odd or anachronistic idea – and that is exactly the feeling Denis wanted
to create, of a colonial power hanging around and messing things up long past
the supposed glory days of the Foreign Legion mythologised in movies and
popular culture. (In 2003, observing this region’s role in a newer war, she
ruefully commented: “I thought I was filming the end of something, not the
military men are mere figures in a landscape, detached from any reality but
their own. Their codes of honour and rituals of masculinity are given a highly
surreal air. Discipline, training, bodybuilding – all
these cyclical, daily activities of the Legionnaires are shown with an amused
but also fascinated gaze. The film’s scenario is loosely based on Herman
Melville’s unfinished 1891 novella Billy
Budd (extracts from the score of Benjamin Britten’s operatic adaptation are
included on the soundtrack), but the atmosphere has more in common with Samuel
Beau travail shows the interaction of
two starkly different worlds: the Legionnaires in their strange, ascetic
bubble, and the African society all around them, sensual and vibrant. The
soldiers seem forever separate from a forbidding, dry landscape; Denis shows
this also as a clash between a world of men and a world of women. The women
dance and laugh, providing an ironic perspective on the ingrown world of the
this microcosmic male world, however, things are stirring and seething. The
core of the story, sketched in a very economical, almost diagrammatic way, is
the mysteriously homoerotic triangle that forms between the head of this
outfit, Bruno (Michel Subor), a new recruit, Sentain (Grégoire Colin) and the
small, intense guy who runs the show from day to day, Galoup – played by the
remarkable Denis Lavant, familiar from five Leos Carax movies (including Holy Motors, 2012).
the film is told through the memories of the disgraced Galoup, as he struggles
uneasily to fit back into civilian life in Marseilles. Yet Galoup brings no
particular hindsight or wisdom to his account. Instead, we enter into the
intense world of his jealous fantasies and passions, his love for Bruno
deforming any natural personal or professional relation he might ever have had
with the unfortunate scapegoat, Sentain. (Denis and Fargeau were surely
remembering René Girard’s influential theory of triangular mimetic desire, which literally became the inspiration and basis
for Facebook: the obsessive fix of a thwarted, rejected or repressed lover on
the third party or object that the loved one likes.) These interpersonal
tangles build to a level of tension and dread, of true drama and catharsis,
which is unique in world cinema.
time of its commercial release in Australia, most mainstream reviewers went on
the defensive about Beau travail, seeming to apologise to
potential viewers for its careful pacing, its reliance on pure images and
sounds over old-fashioned dialogue, and its modern approach to storytelling.
But this is a film that, thanks to Denis’ masterful execution of a complex
idea, compellingly creates its own frame of reference, taking you into its
vivid world and commanding your full sensory and emotional attention.
Beau travail is a masterpiece (most fans regard it as Denis’ best so far), a film whose rich inner life only becomes more absorbing and intricate with repeated viewings. Oh, and have I mentioned the dance scenes? The film opens, stunningly, with a club crowd dancing to the Turkish hit by Tarkan, “Şımarık” (better known to Australians as “Kiss Kiss”, Holly Valance’s cover version), and ends, immortally, with one of cinema’s most extraordinary and oft-referenced spectacles: Lavant dancing his soul out to Corona’s 1993 “The Rhythm of the Night”. After seeing and hearing that, don’t let anyone tell you that disco is dead.
© Adrian Martin March 2001 / February 2022