Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Beau Travail - Claire Denis (1999)

Long on my list of most revelatory films directed by women, re-visiting Beau Travail resulted in a decidedly less effusive appraisal. Before articulating the reasons for my reevaluation, lets recall why the film was singled out for accolade in the first place: exotic North African landscapes stunningly photographed under pellucid skies, an elliptical narrative style, a moody, quasi-tribal staging of a homosocial hierarchy of soldiers to the beat of primitive choral music; the mesmerizing pulse of events. Thematically inspired by Billy Budd, Beau Travail celebrates the aboriginal virility of men cultured to be instruments of destruction in the context of a first-person confessional narrative that lends the unfolding episodes the feel of memories (the past perfected). At once elemental and stylized, the film's construction reflects the thematic synchrony of a sublimely desolate natural order and the rituals of legionnaires stationed in it. For all its stylistic sophistication, Beau Travail propagates a bracing, oneiric primitivism.That is and will remain the secret of it undeniable power.

On second viewing its intriguingly enigmatic quality seemed more oppressive-lugubrious than mesmerizing, as if I were passing blinkered through a beautiful landscape. There is a sense of being removed from the events captured, our access tightly controlled. The sense of abstraction and ritualism the pervades the sequences in the desert follows upon an opening scene in a discotheque in which the music's carefree flirtatiousness cannot quite distract from its almost claustrophobically constraining close-ups of politely revelrous dancers. This establishing mood functions as foil for a bizarre seaside ritual of sun-worshipping soldiers to a brooding chorus of male voices. The music-video episode becomes emblematic of the whole film, encoding our memory of it at the expense of its less stylized dimensions. 

The beauty of revisiting a film is that it restores the context of the memorable (i.e., the forgetable) while forcing a confrontation with one's own initial appreciation, as filtered through one's recollections. The process allows one to discover how deceptive first impressions can be. Memory is like a shorthand system of dictation, it preserves by way of an often grossly schematic simplification--a process of stereotyping that facilitates retrieval at the cost of detail. That fact alone is sufficient argument against the business of reviewing films as they come out. That unavoidable necessity is not conducive to genuine understanding, the ripening of which requires the distance of time. 

The formerly intoxicating sense that we and the characters are dreaming, feels more coerced; the elliptical sequencing almost totalitarian in its rigor. (This may simply reflect the adjusted expectation of revisiting the film; the switch from focusing on plot to how an effect is generated. Focus on technique is subject to its own distortions.) Nothing is allowed to break the spell of the diseased soul narrating the film and the mood of fated events. The film is too mono-thematic and closed for the convergence of perspectives effected by two articulate minds. (Compare the relationship of Galoup and Sentain to that of ... in Ronald Neame's Tunes of Glory.) Denis eschews the relaxed, open cadence of dialogically driven cinema, squeezing out the cacophony of the shared, public world of persons even as she thematizes the community of French legionnaires. Everything passes through the filter of recollection. By isolating the singularity of the individual in his interirority she lends him mythical significance. Her rhythm mimics the evocative-laconic meter of lyrical poetry in which impulse and form converge under the auspices of compelling but inscrutable vision. 

Remembered for its sovereign simplicity, Beau Travail now seems almost fussy with its hand-held camera-work and repetitious juxtapositions of native female against hyper-masculine imperialist army cultures. The soundtrack too, a mix of popular music, subterranean choral droning, and ambient sounds, obliterates the silence I remembered as reigning supreme. I had in fact been recollecting the vast desolate landscape dwarfing the exertions of fighters circling warily around one another like adversaries in a rut. That impression suggests that Denis succeeded in creating an overwhelming sense of isolation, which I, understandably, equated with silence. 

The narration also seemed excessive the second time through. But this too must be qualified by the observation that what is requisite for a first impression is bound to seem conspicuous absent its original orienting function. Denis is too enchanted by surfaces and the adventitious to be considered minimalistic. There is a nervousness and menacing loadedness that builds through the film, which coils about its center of gravity like a serpent. The film I'd remembered as being of Bressonian austerity now abounds in stylistic inflections and feels somehow ‘off’ in its rhythm. A state of affairs that reflects the increased scrutiny of a second viewing, freighted as it is with fulfilled expectations. The majesty of total coherence seems to have gone missing in the plethora of structural detail made conspicuous by critical distance.  

My most basic criticism is regarding the use of the hand-held camera, which seems to be in conflict with the dream-like, enigmatic character of the film. As the tracking-shot, the moving picture-frame connotes relativity and sensation over reflection, canceling contemplative distance and, by implication, authorial omniscience. It represents the attempt to embed the viewer in the happenings as they unfold, therewith removing him from his zone of privilege and comfort. It also suggests a film-maker's immersion in real events, whence 'verit√©.' But the technique has become a mannerism, stylistically de rigueur yet somehow gratuitous. To me it is less cutting-edge than a sign of disingenuous film-making. It betrays what feels like a lack of faith in the intrinsic interest of the actions filmed; an imposition of disequilibrium as end-in-itself. The static framing of events can be just as disorienting without making the viewer feel like he is at the mercy of mechanical whimsey. 

The camera seems to leer as it circles the scantily-clad legionnaires digging, exercising and saluting the sun. Members of the desert out-post, choreographed like puppets and paraded about for the roving eye of the camera, resemble dancers in a chorus-line. Their Sisyphean exertions seem absurd, not the movements of autonomous individuals, but virile, glistening automatons. Even the scene where F.’s bleeding foot is tended to foregrounds composition at the expense of spontaneity and verisimilitude. Denis seems to encase the men in nameless functionality. Their subliminal homoeroticism is more obscene than any straight-forward love-making could ever be. This, finally, is the most profound offense of Melville's story: its basic falsity lies in its betrayal of the erotic. This could be interpreted as its complicity with the anti-libidinalism of Galoup's invidious paranoia.

How much of this is thematic, and how much the effect of Denis’s stylization and vision, is a moot point. They are one and the same, whence the accusation of a totalitarian method. The elliptical and enigmatic quality is therewith  exposed as a veneer, a short-cut to the sophistication and ambiguity a totalitarian aesthetic excludes. 

This falsity in the portrayal of homsexual eros, it might be objected, simply mirrors the fate of eros in a martial environment, where it is both decried and exalted. While the erotic--as the original essence of gender-identificaion--is a component of all aggregations by gender (homosocial communities), the sublimation of its overtly sexual component is essential for the cohering of camaraderie. In that context all sexual acting-out gets represented as a “sexualization” of identity needs. But this ignores the symbolic dimension of such sublimation; a practice of reducing and banishing the homoerotic, paradoxically enough, by way of its centralization. The defusion of the homo-erotic by way of its playful enactment effectively applies the principle of homeopathy (a dose of poison to cure the infection). 

Non of this is contained in the monological world Denis has put before us, a realm in which individuals--shorn of the mask of personality, but also of their articulate individuality--are constituted by their hidden depths. Denis is less interested in the interface of two personalities than in the collision of two ciphers so loaded with evocation as to be individually mute. To criticize Denis for not transmitting the dimension of overt personality in favor of the unconscious and archetypcal is to fault her for not making a film she had no intention of making. Nonetheless, pointing out a dimension absent from her film helps distill the essence of the one she did make. By means of such negative criticism one turns back from judgment to perceptual immersion.

The enmity between Galoup and Sentain as communicated non-verbally through stares and physical combat, remains opaque, rendering it conducive to multiple interpretations. Such ambivalence is irritating and preoccupies the viewer. It is irritating in the same way that invidious enmity--the prelude of erotic idealization's magical transubstantiation--irritates. (An interpretation that presupposes that romantic love is preceded by hatred, as implied by La Rochefoucauld.) But the transformation never eventuates, leaving enmity untransformed. On this reading, Sentain's death by exposure in the desert represents the fate of the failure of a human heart (Galoup's) to expose itself by submitting to the excrutiating transformation that makes children of men. His elimination is the logical outcome of his failed incorporation.

The final scene, which shows Galoup  in an empty dance club tentatively ‘giving it up’ to the euphoric beat of a disco anthem (Rhythm of the Night), leaves a bitter after-taste. Galoup exalts remorselessly in the hedonistic yet sterile world of his own anti-libidinal narcissism. Unpunished evil exalts before us like a wild animal. 

Denis' refusal to sum-up or pass judgment is the seal of the post-modern aesthetic born of the French nouvelle vague--a movement that, in contrast to the British kitchen sink social realism, cultivates cinema for the sake of cinema. Tavernier's Coup de Torchon represents another example of celebration in default of judgment of human evil. Both thematize the violent potential lurking in the heart of men on the outskirts of civilization, where the moral universe assumes the guise of (reverts to) the ruthless consequentiality of the "jungle." But Tavernier's darker film was wittily conversational where Denis' muffles every utterance of unconstrained intelligence. 

Eros would have been the magic potion that transformed the enmity and envy of Galoup for Sentain into love, obviating the need to send him into the desert to die in punishment for his insubordination. Unlike Billy Budd, Sentain is not the victim of the letter of the law, but of Galoup’s purely personal enmity and envy. This suggests another way in which Denis alters the emphasis of her template: the personages of Melville’s tale are genuine individuals on collision course with the demands of justice (the universal), while Denis’ ciphers are, for all their cinematic individuality, embodiments of archetypal energies damned by one man’s perverse animosity. 

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