Jun 27, 2015
Since I have been on a strange and completely unexpected Claire Denis (Chocolat, Les salauds aka Bastards) kick lately that has led me to the natural conclusion the fairly unconventional auteur is easily the greatest living female filmmaker, I decided that I would stoically bite the bullet and finally watch the film that has been described as her magnum opus, which is, thematically speaking, not exactly the sort of film that one would expect to be directed by a woman yet, at the same time, it could have only been directed by a member of the fairer sex who has an unabashed love of hard yet sculpted male bodies as many of the director's other works demonstrates. Indeed, Beau Travail (1999) aka Good Work is undoubtedly a somewhat curious masterpiece for a heterosexual female as it tells the somewhat subtle and even esoteric story of a French Foreign Legion master sergeant of the latent homosexual sort who is fanatically obsessed with his fellow latent homosexual commander and decides to wage a personal war against a new young soldier who catches the attention of his forbidden love object. Of course, as her work J'ai pas sommeil (1994) aka I Can't Sleep especially demonstrates in a refreshingly uncompromising way, Denis seems to almost have a fetish for pretty poofs and never shies away from male nudity and glorifying the male body, so I was not all that surprised that she would direct a largely choreographed work where muscles and testosterone take center stage to the point where most of the young legionnaires do not even have credited names. While Denis' work certainly tells a story and a somewhat arcane one at that, the film is largely populated by what one might describe as living statues in the form of young Adonis-like soldiers who incessantly expose their bodies for both the protagonist and the viewer. Unquestionably Beau Travail is the greatest film on macho militarized homosexuality since Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1982 swansong Querelle (incidentally, Fassbinder included a quasi-S&M-oriented Legionnaire scene in his early masterpiece The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971)), as it manages to express testosterone-driven homoerotic passion in an innately subtle and nuanced fashion without depicting a single scene of gratuitous buggery or even homo kissing. To some extent, the film feels like a deconstructed western where all the savages have been killed or otherwise pacified and where the John Wayne character has created an imaginary enemy in his mind because said enemy has caught the attention of the old cowboy he loves most. Of course, Denis’ film is also like a French arthouse take on the underrated closest queen commando classic The Sergeant (1968) starring Rod Steiger and to a lesser extent John Huston’s all the more underappreciated and reasonably bizarre Carson McCullers adaptation Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) starring Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. Aside from its strong crypto-cocksucker theme, Beau Travail is also loosely based on Herman Melville's posthumously released unfinished 1888 novella Billy Budd and makes reference to Jean-Luc Godard’s once banned work Le Petit Soldat (1963) aka The Little Soldier, with Michel Subor playing a character with the same exact name as that of the character he portrayed in the pro-commie anti-Algerian War flick. Of course, as one can expect from a Claire Denis flick, Beau Travail features certain racial and political themes about the legacy of colonialism, like the patent absurdity of attempting to mold negroes into ‘Frenchmen’ so that they will persecute their own black brothers in the pursuit of promoting the three-headed dragon of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” Denis’ film is also notable for featuring what I would certainly describe as one of the greatest and strangely uplifting endings in cinema history. Indeed, after watching Denis' film, you will never look at a suicidal sod or middle-aged military officer the same way again.
It would be a lie to not immediately reveal in a review of Beau Travail that the film is largely comprised of long scenes featuring healthy young soldiers with toned bodies doing redundant military drills and exercises in almost ethereally scenic locations. The ‘gay gaze’ that the filmgoer is subjected to is that of introverted protagonist Galoup (Denis Lavant of Leos Carax of The Lovers on the Bridge (1991) and Holy Motors (2012)), who is a master sergeant in the French Foreign Legion that secretly lusts after his elderly yet surely elegant commander Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor). As Galoup lovingly states regarding Forestier in a way that hints at his love interest's repressed homosexuality, “Bruno. Bruno Forestier. I feel so alone when I think of my superior. I respected him a lot. I liked him. My Commandant. A rumor dogged him after the Algerian war. He never confided in me. He said he was a man without ideals, a soldier without ambition. I admired him without knowing why. He knew I was a perfect Legionnaire, and he didn’t give a damn. Bruno. Bruno Forestier.” Indeed, like Forestier, Galoup uses his military authority as a reason to sit on his ass and somewhat creepily stare at young and buff men all day long. In fact, Galoup and Forestier's scoptophilia is so obscenely obsessive that they actually delight in watching their men do emasculating things like ironing their uniforms. As Forestier proudly says while shamelessly gawking at his soldiers, “We’re taught elegance in and under our uniforms. Perfect creases are part of this elegance.” A non-linear work that is partially set in Marseille after the protagonist has been forced to leave the French Foreign Legion, Beau Travail centers around Galoup narrating the story about his long and undying unrequited love for Forestier led him to murderous jealousy when a young recruit named Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin of Milcho Manchevski’s Before the Rain (1994) and Denis’ Nenette and Boni (1996)) joined the Legion and soon caught the Commander’s attention and affection. Galoup even has a sense of foreboding upon first seeing 22-year-old twink Sentain for the first time, or as he reflects via narration in a fashion that makes him seem somewhat like a pathetic paranoiac, “One day, a plane from France dropped off some new guys. I noticed one of them that stuck out. He was thin, distant. He had no reason to be with us in the Legion. That’s what I thought. I felt something vague and menacing take hold of me.” Of course, little did poor Galoup realize that Sentain would ultimately become the most beloved and soldiery member of his little frog brigade.
The French Foreign Legion is in Djiboutis and while there are plenty of young colored gals that are more than willing to fuck for a candy bar, the soldiers spend most of their free time with each other, with Sentain at the lead as a natural alpha who has great empathy and loyalty for his compatriots. While talking to a negro driver named Ali during a night in Ramadan, Forestier remarks regarding his soldiers, “My bastards are good kids” and then proceeds to describe himself as a sort of surrogate father to the soldiers. When Ali rhetorically remarks, “Guess how much a colored girl costs here,” Forestier jokingly yet somewhat awkwardly replies, “You’re a pain, Ali,” adding,“ If it weren’t for fornication and blood, we wouldn’t be here. That’s all.” Meanwhile, Galoup becomes increasingly agitated about the new recruit, complaining to himself like a little bitch, “Sentain seduced everyone. He attracted stares. People were drawn to his calmness, his openness. Deep down, I felt a sort of rancor, a rage brimming. I was jealous.” Of course, Galoup is as loyal to Forestier as ever as demonstrated by remarks like, “Here I am, Commandant, like a watchdog, looking after your flock,” but that ultimately changes when the protagonist dares to mess with the Commandant's favorite ‘son.’ When a freak helicopter accident happens that kills a fellow named “Pierre, the Corsican,” both Forestier and the troops develop a seemingly impenetrable respect for Sentain, who manages to save another Legionnaire (played by blond beast Nicolas Duvauchelle of À l'intérieur (2007) aka Inside and Denis’ White Material (2009)) from drowning, with Galoup somberly complaining, “It was then that Sentain’s heroism came to the fore.” When Galoup attempts convince Forestier that Sentain is a traitor and that “he has something up his sleeve,” Forestier, who has developed a deep passion for the young mensch, becomes agitated and gives the protagonist a firm warning not to fuck with his best boy by stating, “Careful what you’re saying. Backstabbing isn’t in the Legion’s honor code.” Naturally, it is really Galoup who has something up his sleeve and he will do anything to take down Sentain, including potentially causing him to suffer a slow and painful death. Despite Galoup's jealousy of him, Sentain is actually an orphan from a humble background whose appearance abandoned him as an infant. Notably, when Sentain informs Forestier that he was “found in a stairwell,” the old queen Commandant expresses his fondness for him by replying, “Found? Fuck! At least it was a nice find.” Of course, Forestier never expresses such affection for Galoup, who might as well be a ghost as his presence his negligible at best.
Ultimately, Galoup decides to attack Sentain by persecuting his comrades in the hope that he will go over the edge and attack the protagonist, who plans to dish out the ultimate punishment to the poor unwitting orphan boy. Indeed, Galoup harshly punishes a negro soldier for “abandoning his post” after he goes to pray with some fellow black Muslims. When Sentain dares to attempt to give the punished negro a cup of water while he is tediously digging ditches as punishment to the point where his hands are bleeding profusely, Galoup knocks the cup out of his hand and stares at him in a threatening fashion. When he complains, “That’s unfair, sir” and Galoup slaps him, Sentain instinctively punches him in the face, which is exactly what the protagonist wanted him to do as it gives him the opportunity to use punishment against him as a means to liquidate him. As punishment, Galoup drives Sentain many miles away to the middle of a desert where the young Legionnaire is left with nothing but a backpack and a compass and is forced to find his way back to the base. While Sentain acts passive-aggressively towards Galoup upon being dropped off by remarking, “I’ll see you soon, sir. Says hello to Commandant for me,” he does not realize that the protagonist has something up his sleeve. Of course, before dropping Sentain off, Galoup broke his compass so that he cannot find his way back, with the protagonist even bragging to himself like a militaristic mad scientist regarding his sinister scheme before hatching it, “You’ll be sorry, Sentain, believe me. I see what you’re up to. We don’t need guys like you here. You’re in my power. I will destroy you. I’ll set my trap. The compass.” Naturally, Sentain soon gets lost and begins rotting in the desert while his unit assumes that he has fled to Ethiopia, but Galoup is soon found out when the Legionnaires go to a tribal trading post and a negro soldier named Tierno notices that a young black boy is selling the MIA soldier’s broken compass, which was found on a salty white beach. When Forestier summons Sentain to punish him upon learning of his treacherous behavior, the protagonist says to him, “Admit you hate me for it,” but he responds simply by stating in a stoic fashion, “You know the rules. You knew what you were in for. You have no choice now. Repatriation for disciplinary reasons. Court-martial. You’ll be convicted. Your Legion days are over. All over,” thus leaving the disgraced master sergeant to feel all the more rejected by the man he loves most.
While Sentain is found half-death and unconscious by some tribesmen, his fate is questionable and it is never revealed whether or not he reunites with his Legionnaire comrades. Before going back to France, Galoup hangs out with a young negress that he seems to think is his girlfriend as demonstrated by the fact he buys her gifts and is featured lying shirtless in her bed, though he is never actually depicted even so much as kissing her, let alone pounding her brown puss. With nothing left to live for and becoming a pathetic and craven disgrace in the eyes of his one true love, who he will probably never see again, Galoup decides to end it all and kill himself upon moving back to Marseilles. Indeed, upon obsessively making his bed like a true anally retentive queen as if it matters what his bed looks like after blowing out his brains all over the sheets, Galoup lies down (notably, with a tattoo on his arm reading “Serve the good cause and die” being shown prominently shown) and prepares to blow his brains out. In a simultaneously hilarious yet strangely humorous twist ending, Galoup is depicted smoking a fag like a suave fag in a dark club and then dancing by himself to the revoltingly kitschy song "The Rhythm of the Night" by Corona in a scene that the seems to reflect the character’s triumph of loneliness and, as Denis one described in an interview, his figurative, “dance between life and death.”
In his essay on the film entitled Unsatisfied Men: Beau travail, Jonathan Rosenbaum—probably the only living American film critic whose opinion I respect to some degree—notably wrote, “I know it sounds fancy to say this, but the difference between Claire Denis’s early work and BEAU TRAVAIL is quite simply the difference between making movies and making cinema.” While I do not totally argue with Rosenbaum’s remark as I think he underrates and/or is confused by a lot of her other work (notably, he complained in the same essay that Denis' film I Can't Sleep discomforted him because he felt it, “seemed to wallow in a kind of professional morbidity”), I have to admit that Beau Travail is indubitably Denis’ most innately immaculate, effortlessly poetic, and emotionally penetrating work to date. Surely, one will not find another film that combines the ‘body worship’ based homoeroticism of Leni Riefenstahl, the tragic and self-loathing yet macho and militaristic faggotry of Yukio Mishima, the pathological moodiness and landscape lyricism of Michelangelo Antonioni, darkly erotic avant-garde choreography in the spirit of Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men (1989), and the intricate sexual and racial critiques of Fassbinder. Admittedly, I would usually question that intent of any heterosexual woman that dares to direct either a war film or virtually any sort of cinematic work about male homosexuality yet, like with virtually all of her films, Beau Travail demonstrates that Denis is simply intrigued by and can relate to idiosyncratic people, especially of the hopelessly lonely sort, and can find something to like and loathe about all sorts of people, even latent cocksuckers of the lovelorn sort who act murderously malicious as a result of becoming jealous like petty teenage girls. While the film undoubtedly features antiwar themes and mocks militarism in general, Denis’ work is not like your average Hollywood war movie and thankfully does not feature sappy and emotionally manipulative sentimentalism like a big tough guy crying like a little girl after seeing his friend's head blow off. Instead, Denis seems to argue that the military is best run by a bunch of thoroughly sexually repressed closet queens who will accept nothing less than an all-male environment full of super spiffy and well ironed uniforms and bulging biceps, among other things.
Unquestionably Denis is a master of eloquent doom and gloom and in nowhere is this more apparent than in Beau Travail, which notably ultimately ends on a startlingly bittersweet and even joyous moment where a perennially lonely self-loathing fag’s self-slaughter is curiously celebrated as the last big act of a man that lived inwards and had a complete and utter incapacity to express himself outwards. In that sense, the film acts as a sort of antidote to the pseudo-arthouse posturing of fashion designer turned would-be-auteur Tom Ford’s obscenely overrated debut A Single Man (2009). Judging by her work, I can only assume that Denis is a lover of lonely losers and her obsession with this quasi-archetype is one of the reasons why Beau Travail is so particularly potent as she was able to make viewers of various stripes be able to identify with one of the most curious of men. When it comes down to it, Beau Travail is the ultimate tragic Männerbünde romance and a work that could be used as a recruitment film for a sort of neo-brownshirt Sturmabteilung, as it demonstrates that staying in the closet can lead to the most major of male sins, including treachery and dishonor, among other less than soldierly qualities that are more oftentimes associated with the feminine realm. Notably, Fassbinder once stated that one of the reasons that Alfred Döblin’s novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) was so important to him was because it inspired him to totally embraced his homosexuality lest he turn into an evil mensch as a result of repression like the antagonist Reinhold Hoffmann of the book, or as the auteur wrote himself, “...this reading helped me to admit to my tormenting fears, which were almost paralyzing me, my fear of my homosexual longings, to give in to my suppressed needs; this reading helped me avoid becoming completely and utterly sick, dishonest, desperate; it helped me avoid going under.” Of course, the protagonist of Denis' film pays the ultimate price as a result of being dishonest with both himself and his comrades. Maybe if the protagonist of Denis' film had seen Fassbinder's 15½ hour Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) adaptation, he might avoided the French Foreign Legion altogether and simply started frequenting a local cruising spot. Personally, after watching Beau Travail and seeing all the various African woman sporting exceedingly flamboyant tribal sheets and lurking at kitschy clubs where absolutely abhorrent Afro-pop is incessantly vomited out of the speakers, I can see why homosexuality might become prevalent among the Legionnaires. Of course, as Beau Travail makes quite clear, Frenchmen probably should not be in Africa in the first place but of course, as the post-poetry life of Arthur Rimbaud and countless other famous frog poets and artists demonstrates, the Dark Continent and third world in general has always been a homo haven of sorts where white aberrosexuals who were not able to escape from their minds and sexual desires were at least able to physically escape to a place where bourgeois mores were nonexistent. Indeed, while I do not think Denis' film blames crypto-homos for colonialism, it does make it quite clear that it was restless loners, rejects, and orphans were more likely to leave their homeland behind and travel to strange lands where the native women might lead an otherwise heterosexual man to homosexuality. After all, there are not many black women that can say that they are as pretty as Beau Travail star Nicolas Duvauchelle, which is something Denis seems to agree with as her casting of him in various sexual and unclad roles fairly clearly demonstrates.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 7:20 PM
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