Beau Travail (1999) – Neither Validation Nor Transgression

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.

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