All drama is a process of digestion. The peristaltic processing of information and emotional states resulting in change. It is an on-going process. It never stops. The best dramas are those that choose their moment carefully, setting up the cameras or lighting the stage just as the emotional bowels twitch or the psychological constipation ends. For all of her tendencies towards hard-hitting topics and enigmatic story-telling techniques, Claire Denis is a genuinely world-class dramatist. Films such as 35 Shots of Rum (2008) and The Intruder (2004) are heady examinations of sudden changes that come after long periods of emotional constipation.
In The Intruder, we see an old man who has lived life entirely upon his own terms – his past a catalogue of burned bridges, old enmities and shady deals – suddenly realising that he has to reconnect with his estranged son. In 35 Shots of Rum we are introduced to a family that exists in perfect emotional balance. The son and the daughter live together while the father’s old girlfriend and the upstairs neighbour orbit round the household in enigmatic patterns, part of the family and yet denied any clear role in it. Both films deal with the inevitable change that must afflict these delicate psychological ecosystems. A process of change that is, according to Denis at least, a mixed-blessing.
The ending to 35 Shots of Rum can be read as either a wedding or a funeral. The father’s announcement that the time has come for him to drink the 35 shots can be seen as either a capitulation to unwanted forces or as a moment of spiritual rebirth. Like the Death tarot card, the film marks the end of a period of stasis, it does not explain whether this stasis is broken by an ending or a new beginning. Similarly, the ambiguous moral character of The Intruder’s protagonist cloaks his eventual death in dramaturgical vagueness. Is it sad that he never got to know his son? Or was his death deserved for the crimes he committed in order to artificially extend his own life? For Denis, this process of emotional change can also be terrifying, as demonstrated in her take on the vampire film Trouble Every Day (2001). In that film a doctor nails his wife up in her bedroom because she has changed into something Other while an American who harbours terrible violent fantasies stalks the world desperately trying to find a cure. When the pair come together it is erotic and terrifying, natural and unnatural, to be applauded and avoided.
Denis’ Beau Travail, an adaptation of Melville’s unfinished novella Billy Budd (1924) set against the backdrop of the modern-day French Foreign Legion, continues Denis’ interest in the complexities and ambiguities of emotional change and emotional constipation, demonstrating them with her characteristic grace and lack of pity.
Beau Travail is framed as a memoir. The memoir of former Sergeant-Major Galoup (Denis Lavant), once a pillar of the French Foreign Legion but now an unemployed civilian drifting aimlessly around Paris. The story begins near Djibouti, where Galoup trains new recruits under Commander Forestier (Michel Subor). Forestier is an addled and distant veteran of the Algerian War who spends his nights chewing on narcotic leaves in an attempt to dull his nerves. He has no interest or respect for the devotion shown to him by Galoup.
As you might expect, the life of the Legion is an intensely regimented one. Denis shows us Legionnaires marching, Legionnaires exercising, Legionnaires ironing and Legionnaires wearing their ridiculous uniforms in night clubs. The harshness and regimentation of their existence is only made more ridiculous and empty by the fact that the harshness seems not to be in the aid of any goal. There is no talk of the Legionnaires going to war or of what the rest of the Legion might be up to. In fact, the only evidence of actual fighting in the film is of long-destroyed artillery pieces and war games in which the Legionnaires sneak up on the skeletal remains of an abandoned building. The men simply exercise and iron their trousers because that is what they do. Theirs is a profoundly empty existence despite the fact that every aspect of it is carefully controlled, monitored and described in the lofty abstract language of honour and codes. The emptiness of a Legionnaire’s life is beautifully captured in the film’s backdrop of empty seascapes and blasted volcanic plains. The absurdity of the discipline they live under is demonstrated by the scenes in which the soldiers’ exercises become modern dance recitals set to music from Benjamin Britten’s opera based upon Billy Budd. All of this neatly establishes Galoup as a form of existential every-man : Trapped in a meaningless and repetitive existence he tries to imbue his life with meaning through an adherence to abstract moral codes and an attempt at ingratiating himself with a distant and disinterested god/father-figure.
Galoup’s state of emotional constipation is suddenly disrupted by the arrival of a new Legionnaire named Sentain (Gregoire Colin). Galoup takes an immediate dislike to Sentain but this dislike is never properly explained, Sentain is just one of a dozen muscular young men under the instructing eyes of Galoup and Forestier. The fact that Sentain’s crimes are imperceptible serve to make Galoup’s hatred seem irrational. Whatever frame of reference he is using to judge Sentain’s behaviour must be even more absurd and empty than the talk of Honour and Codes that cloak the pointless busy-work of the Legion.
Things turn ugly when Sentain distinguishes himself in the wake of a helicopter crash, attracting the interest and praise of the normally disinterested Forestier. Horrified and angry, Galoup responds by attempting to distance Sentain from Forestier by taking the men out into the middle of nowhere to build a road. In the heat of the desert, Galoup prepares a plan to permanently get rid of Sentain, stranding him in the middle of nowhere with a defective compass. When Galoup’s treachery is discovered, he is kicked out of the legion leaving him adrift in civilian life. Adrift and, seemingly, considering suicide.
When critics write about Denis’ work, they frequently find themselves relying upon the word enigmatic. This is, by and large, a fair assessment as Denis’ films generally deal in ambiguous subjects with a style that places a greater emphasis upon mood than it does upon cogent argumentation or intellectual analysis. Even the above existentialist reading of the film is more a reflection of my world-view than of that embodied by the film. In fact, one could just as easily follow the film’s Wikipedia entry by interpreting it as a story driven by intense sexual jealousy (a reading amply supported by the homoerotic fetishisation of the soldiers’ bodies).
However, while Beau Travail’s ultimate meaning remains intriguingly elusive, the film does depart in quite significant ways from the source material. Indeed, many scholarly reading of the novella have come to focus upon two particular aspects of the text that are both omitted in Denis adaptation. Firstly, one can read the source material is as a form of religious allegory in which a blameless Christ-like innocent is destroyed by a sociopathic antagonist who plays the role of Judas (feeding Christ into the hands of an unjust law) or of a fallen angel (who places ego above the moral law). Secondly, one can read the source material by emphasising Billy Budd’s trial. Such an interpretation suggests that the story is about the morality and value of the law as represented by the conflicted Captain Vere. Beau Travail escapes both interpretations by (i) refusing to explain why it is that Galoup hates Sentain and (ii) refusing to give us any insights into the laws that judge either Sentain’s minor transgression or Galoup’s larger crime. In effect, Beau Travail strips Billy Budd of its reliance upon meta-narratives. On codes, laws and moral orders. By doing so it casts Galoup not as a sociopath intent upon doing evil, but as a profoundly human character whose fragile world is suddenly shattered.
The shattering of Galoup’s world could well be due to sexual jealousy or a sudden bout of madness but in either case the shattering of the world produces an act of madness that is no more or less valid than the random codes and strictures that Galoup professes to live under. His attempt to murder Sentain is not an act that gives his life meaning as in Camus’ The Outsider (1942), but nor is it a violation of the correct moral order as in the original source material. Instead, Galoup’s action is just that… action. Action that is meaningful to him but appears senseless and deranged to those of us living under different codes and systems of meaning.