Dredged up: “Ritual, rhythm, resentment” (a piece written circa 2011)

December 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Like a tide lapping the sand and then retreating, Claire Denis’ 1999 dusty gem of a movie “Beau Travail” – translated as “Good Work” – dips in and out of a man named Galoup’s memories of his final days as a Sergeant in the French Foreign Legion, in command of a young outfit of legionnaires stationed in Djibouti, a tiny nation wedged between Eritrea and Ethiopia and Somalia. It also documents his brewing hostility and hate for a young new cadet called Sentain of whom he is envious, which he shamelessly confides to us, the viewership.

You see, Galoup’s narration punctuates the entire picture, part reminiscence, part journal entry, part amateur poetry. Early on, the palpable bitterness he exudes is striking, not only in his words, but in his voice and later, in his actions. You hardly hear the man speak directly to any of the other characters for the film’s 90 minute duration, but it’s telling that the few times he does seem to come from a place of deep resentment and inner imprisonment. In fact, twenty minutes will pass before dialogue of any consequence or narrative importance is uttered, and one would estimate that all in all there are roughly ten/fifteen minutes of dialogue, if that. But Claire Denis has no qualms inserting shots, snippets and scenes of civilian life, seemingly unrelated to the film’s central focus if only for the sake of contrast. Denis grew up on the continent, and her camera (helmed by a masterful Angés Godard) shows a certain fondness for its people. Some local women are talking shop over some rugs and mats while another group of local women have fun watching a lanky technician hug a telephone pole, mock fantasising, it seems, about the other pole between his legs. In the background, Galoup ruminates with a mixture of disdain and devotion on the nature of routine, his, theirs, the general ubiquity of it. A local nightclub is the one place where routines unite, becoming something of a ground for mating rituals. The girls dance, the legionnaires stalk, Galoup lands himself a cute young local booty-call whom we see every so often. It’s doubtful whether he has much interest in her, but at night there he is, standing and smoking, watching her do her thing, her ritual.

Having never read Herman Melville, it’s nonetheless interesting to discover that his unfinished Billy Budd, a novella about the antagonism between a charismatic, orphaned seaman and an officer, is the basis for this movie. A handful of scenes depicting the young legionnaires engaged in what can only be described as French military Tai Chi are lent a sense of gravitas, perhaps even a camp majesty, as they play to extracts from composer Benjamin Britten’s mid-century opera titled…“Billy Budd”.  The choral incantations are effective in evoking something; whatever it might be, one can’t be entirely certain. Somehow, it’s likely that this flourish forces a viewer to see things through Galoup’s eyes. As much as his service might exhaust him, it’s all that he has. He very early on declares himself to be – quote – ‘unfit for civilian life’. So to him, what might be a dusty, sweaty exercise becomes – must become – a kind of ballet, some breed of modern dance; transcendent. You can see that in these moments Galoup is where he is supposed to be, in the midst of his boys, topless, in the Djibouti sun. He has purpose. On the topic of music, there are some very – one hesitates to say “cool” – soundtrack choices in this film. Not many of them, but each quite memorable. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Oliver N’Goma, Corona – disparate styles, all underscoring their respective scenes to a perfect tee. And lest it ends up forgotten, the brooding, subterranean score by Eran Tzur adds a menacing surrealism that is difficult to shake. At first, you’d be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the wind in Djibouti smokes Marlboros and slams down whisky.

Make no mistake, a substantial chunk of this movie quietly watches Galoup and his company engage in training exercises, and believe it or not, it’s riveting stuff. Throw in the sparse coastal setting, gorgeous in its arid simplicity; add the camera, like a little girl let loose amongst men, at times coming in for curious close-ups, other times gazing from a distance during moments of lapsed attention or whimsy. Shades of azure and tan fill the screen. Rows of round shaved heads back a blue sky. And boy do the scenes have rhythm, not just the ballet grills but everything. Denis is renowned for the ebb and flow of her films, the unique pacing. “Beau Travail” is in no hurry to get anywhere, but it certainly knows where it’s going. It might take its time, but calling it slow is like calling a circling condor confused. If you allow yourself to admire its grace, you soon become transfixed by it, hypnotised. Hell, this writer’s breathing patterns fell under the spell. It’s that kind of a film. One might hesitate to call it Malickian, but anyone familiar with the works of Terrence Malick will begin drawing parallels within the first five minutes.

Sentain is the titular Billy Budd. Quiet, handsome, heroic and well-liked by his peers, he arouses Galoup’s loathing. Some would say he arouses a little more than that, hence the loathing. Much is said about the homoeroticism that simmers within and beneath “Beau Travail” and it’s hard to dispute its presence despite very little being stated or presented overtly. But, frankly, is it anything more than the homoeroticism implicit in almost every war picture? Perhaps, in the absence of actual warfare and a good deal of clothing, this aspect of military life is given license to come to the fore. And for those who depend on a tangible plotline, the ‘relationship’ between Sentain and Galoup is the closest you’ll get, but towards the end some pretty interesting shit goes down. The only other ‘main character’, Commander Bruno Forestier, is a curious one. Galoup seems to harbour a measure of fondness and respect for him, but it seems the Commander couldn’t care less. He is content to just laze about watching nothing unfold, giving the impression that his benevolence is really just resigned passivity.

“Beau Travail” is exactly the kind of movie that grows on you like an oddly pleasant after-taste. It should be experienced as opposed to simply seen. Really, it’s the work of a poet whose pen and paper are in fact a camera, a handful of actors and some choice tunes. Being this writer’s first Denis film, one who’s been dying to get into her work sooner or later, “Beau Travail” is an entrancing initiation ceremony, as entrancing as the random dancing that peppers the picture.

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