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Reconsidering The Landscape of the Homoerotic Body in Claire Denis’s Beau Travail


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By Gwendolyn Audrey Foster.

I begin, as my title suggests, with a quote from Agnès Godard, the cinematographer of Beau Travail (1999): “The most inexhaustible landscapes for me remain faces and bodies” (Vincentelli  2000: 166). The inexhaustible possibilities for cinematically inhabiting the homoeroticized male body are remarkable in Beau Travail, a tale told largely in aestheticized shots of male bodies. As Claire Denis states, the abstract nature of the film relies on performativity. “The abstraction was in the meeting of the landscape and the rules, and all those bodies doing the same thing” (Taubin 2000: 126).

Jim Hoberman argued that “in its hypnotic ritual, Beau Travail suggests a John Ford cavalry western interpreted by Marguerite Duras” (2000: 121), and the comparison seems extremely apt. It is a film that relies on memory editing techniques, memories of bodies sutured together by the voice-over of the central protagonist, Galoup. Denis also relies on performances rendered through the subjective re-membered gaze of a narrator whose mental landscape is rife with homoeroticized images of faces and bodies.

Beau Travail is loosely based on Herman Melville’s allegorical novella, Billy Budd, set in 1797 in the British Navy. The original is an account of an innocent sailor, Billy Budd, who is destroyed by a petty officer, John Claggart. Director Claire Denis also draws upon the Benjamin Britten opera of the same name. Both sources are key in their homoeroticism, which is tied, in these cases, to danger, isolation, and injustice.

beau_travail21But in Beau Travail, Claire Denis sets the story in the French Foreign Legion. The Billy Budd character, Sentain, is played by Grégoire Colin. Colin is muscular, lithe and attractive, and he captures the attention of the commanding officer, Bruno Forestier, played by Michel Subor. Interestingly, Michel Subor appeared in Jean-Luc Godard’s classic film Le Petit soldat [1960] as a character also named Bruno Forestier. He also appears in Denis’s film, Bastards, 2013. Denis is wise to use Subor, as he is a fantastic actor who underplays his roles in a Bressonian manner. He is also as interesting to look at as a landscape painting; something inexplicable about him draws your gaze to his facial features and body. He is weathered and he has seen too much in life.

Denis Lavant plays the Claggart-like villain, the central narrator (Galoup), who appears to be in love with Bruno Forestier, and jealous of newcomer Sentain. Galoup’s jealousy destroys him, and it is this self-ruination that we watch in a rather complicated flash-back subjective POV narrative, punctuated by Galoup’s voice-over as he reads from his diary and retraces his voyage of self-destruction, and removal from the Legion. “Maybe freedom begins with remorse,” he writes. Indeed the joyously ambiguous ending suggests that Galoup may ultimately escape a prison of closeted homosexuality and the limited and ritualized life of the exiled Legionnaire as he dances to the strains of the classic gay anthem, Corona’s “The Rhythm of the Night.”

Harsh Life in Beau TravailBeau Travail has very little dialogue. It has more in common with dance or opera than narrative film. It is punctuated by highly stylized, repetitive performances of masculinity through ritual behavior in the confines of the all-male Foreign Legion. The manner in which Denis introduces the men of the Legion suggests that they are indeed wordless homoeroticized vehicles of repetitive, often tortuous, masculine routines that are observed from a distance, almost as if they are excruciating dance numbers. In one of the first of many physically demanding “drills” we watch from above as the men shimmy across the desert floor like lizards beneath barbed wire. We see many bare male upper bodies, often through the objectifying gaze of Galoup’s wolfish flashbacks and fantasies.

Indeed, because the tale is told through Galoup’s subjective imagination, an imagination that is clearly informed by homophobia and denial of his own sexuality, we are forced into the subjectivity of a closeted homosexual who is an embodiment of excess and desire. Our narrator is completely lacking in objectivity. He is so consumed with jealousy and self-loathing that he can only share with us his tortured and sensual memories. As the camera pans along men’s chests and beautiful faces, we share Galoup’s subjectivity as we share his confusion. We share in the objectification of male bodies as much as we share in the aestheticization of their performances of masculinity and homosocial desire.

After a lengthy, wordless, gorgeously shot, balletic introduction to the men performing Tai-chi, to underscore this shared subjectivity between Galoup and audience, the camera stops finally to gaze at Galoup. He is the only one of all the men squeezed into the frame who is clearly gazing at the other men in sexual adoration. He begins reading from his diary. He is now in Marseilles; he’s been thrown out of the Legion. He’s been deemed “unfit for life.” The use of voice-over and the intimacy with which Galoup reads his diary also pushes the audience further into a joined subjectivity with Galoup. (Blessedly, Denis lets the audience do the work here to figure out the narrative. It is one of the distinct pleasures of her best work and Beau Travail is, arguably, her finest work to date.)

beau-travail3-e1317693071811“Unfit for civil life,” he repeats, like a character out of Hiroshima, mon amour. In another highly aestheticized and homoerotic shot, he remembers a naked man swimming underwater. Through memory editing, his memory of the naked swimmer is interrupted by the face of his obsession, his superior Commandant, Bruno Forestier. But he immediately associates him with Gilles Sentain and the performance of a rather dangerous homoerotic love triangle begins to be emerge. The jealousy begins, “I felt something vague and menacing take hold of me,” he says, as he thinks about Sentain. In his memories, Galoup sees the men perform a balletic series of maneuvers. The camera tracks along with the men as they are seen performing various drills. It is visually stunning. This sequence is rife with the homoeroticism of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will or Olympia.

1206Almost sotto voce, in the style of Le Petit soldat, Galoup sings the Legionnaire’s theme song, “Loving one’s superior, obeying him, that’s the essence of our tradition.” Ironically, we know that Galoup disobeys the will of the law and his beloved Forestier when he arranges for the murder of Sentain. Galoup is carefully constructed as an exile. He can never really belong to the Legion because he is humanized by his erotic attachments. Humanization runs counter to the mechanization of the performing male bodies of the war machine. Empathy and humanity are not allowable in the confines of the strict unspoken code of masculinity here. It is very interesting that Galoup is not demonized in the manner in which Claggart is in the novel. He is instead seen as a pathetic grotesque outsider with whom we develop a sort of empathy. For example, in a scene in which the soldiers perform a simulated siege of an abandoned building, Galoup is emotionally and physically removed from the others by camera movement and shot composition. He is often a man alone or a man apart from the other men.

It is primarily through performativity and gaze exchanges that we begin to tumble to the fact that Galoup is infatuated with Bruno Forestier. Galoup is utterly closeted and unable to face the fact that he is deeply in love with his superior. As he obsessively cleans and irons we hear him reminisce about Forestier in his voice-over. “Bruno. Bruno Forestier. I feel so alone when I think of my superior. I respected him a lot. I liked him.” “I liked him,” seems like an unusual phrase of dangerous repressed same sex desire gone unfulfilled. It is clear in his gestures and behavior that Galoup lives to please Forestier. We see a photograph of the young Forestier. Galoup tells us, “A rumor dogged him after the Algerian War. He never confided in me.” That is all Denis needs to give us, nothing more.

Gradually, we come to understand that Forestier has likely been the subject of rumors of homosexuality. Indeed, in Galoup’s flashbacks Forestier behaves very much in keeping with an aesthete who loves to gaze at his own men. Forestier’s closeted homosexuality and narcissism is briefly glimpsed, but nonetheless apparent. He, like Galoup, spends much time carefully combing his hair and carefully grooming himself in a mirror before he greets his men. Coupled with his longing, languorous erotic looks at the men themselves, it becomes clear that Forestier is quite comfortable aestheticizing his beautiful men.

cap252Galoup says of Forestier, “I admired him without knowing why.” Perhaps this can be read as a growing recognition and acceptance of their shared homosexuality. Yet this thought is broken by anger and the memory of an unreciprocated love. “He knew I was a perfect Legionnaire. And he didn’t give a damn.” Again Galoup repeats the name “Bruno, Bruno Forestier.” Galoup is a man without a country, a man without a clearly defined sexuality and a man without family.

Family is the promise of the Foreign Legion, but Galoup is not welcomed or loved by his superior or even his own men. He follows them in the city on their night off, as if desiring to share in their camaraderie. He has given himself to the legion but he cannot contain his desires. He longs for the homosocial bonds shared by his men. He is mad with jealousy. He’s also jealous of his superior, but he still doesn’t know why. His memories demonstrate exactly why. His memories inhabit a landscape of homoerotic bodies enjoyed by the clearly sexualized gaze of Forestier.

A trenchant example of these vague, subjective memories presents itself to the audience in the form of a stunning simulated underwater knife-fight that is saturated with the display of the beautiful musculature of naked male bodies. A flashback cuts to a shot of Forestier lounging on his side and smoking, clearly entranced by the visual display of homoeroticism. And in Galoup’s memory, he is suddenly made aware of his intense jealousy for Sentain. “Sentain seduced everyone. He attracted stares. People were attracted to his calmness, his openness. Deep down I felt a sort of rancor, a rage brimming.”

This rage is connected to Galoup’s feelings of sexual inadequacy and insecurity about his own rough appearance. Stuart Klawans describes him as “a homely veteran (dog face on top of fireplug body)” (2000: 34). In contrast, Sentain (Gregoire Colin) is very beautiful, even more so after an enforced head shaving; he is a beautiful young man with rather lush, large eyes and large mouth. After Sentain captures the eye of Forestier, Galoup decides to murder him. His flashbacks here are punctuated by objectified male bodies in various postures, formations and drills. We see Galoup and Sentain face off in a circular fashion like animals sniffing one another’s scent. These scenes represent Denis at her best as a director; Bressonian, stripped down, yet suffused with power and engagement with the narrative and the players.

1311962696Beau_Travail_1Here, the Benjamin Britten score crashes in an otherwise quiet setting underscored by the natural sound of the waves lapping at the shore. This sequence is clearly a fantasy sequence, rather than memory, and the narrative returns to find Galoup forcing Sentain to punch him. It is another of Denis’s stunning scenes that realistically render masculine codes of behavior as they are enacted through ritualized violence. Later, Sentain is punished by being sent out into the salt desert with a broken compass. When that compass is later found, Forestier informs Galoup that he will be court-martialed. “Your Legion days are over.” Amazingly, Sentain survives.

Back in France, Galoup, even in civilian clothing, is unable to stop overcompensating for his insecurities with compulsive behavior we observe very critically, at a distance. He spends what seems like an endless amount of time obsessively cornering his sheets in military fashion. Wordlessly, he pulls out a gun and places it on his muscled torso. He remembers his men fondly as we see a tattoo on his skin that reads “Serve the good cause and die.” As he fondles the gun we flashcut to a final fantasy sequence where we see him dancing to “The Rhythm of the Night.” We are left with a typically ambiguous Denis ending where “maybe freedom begins with remorse.” It is only after leaving the Legion that Galoup allows himself to engage in a fantasy that seems to be an embrace of his homosexuality.

oefm_beau-travail_01_lowThis final scene, read within the context of performativity theory, allows for a recontextualization of Galoup’s sexual identity. For, as Judith Butler writes, “the reconceptualization of identity as an effect, that is, as produced or generated, opens up possibilities of ‘agency’” (1999: 187). Galoup may indeed be renegotiating his body in a scene of agency, agency that allows Galoup to escape the confines of a constructed body that has been imprisoned in the homoerotic yet homophobic French Foreign Legion. This is a considerably different ending and message than any found in Melville’s Billy Budd. The gap between our understanding of Galoup’s memories and his own seeming inability to understand those same flashbacks leaves a space for the many repetitive and stylized performances of male bodies in battle with and in context with masculinity, desire, and homosociality.

That gap is the abstract space of the possibility of agency and the impermanence of existence. Despite readings to the contrary, Denis leaves us with the distinct possibility of an upbeat ending in the famous final scene of dancing to a gay anthem in a space and time configuration where homosexuality can be embraced. It is a stunning turnabout, and it has given rise to endless debate about the meaning of that deliciously ambiguous last fantasy or dream of a scene. Just where does this fantasy take place? In our imagination? In Galoup’s imagination? In the imagination of Claire Denis? In the end, it does not matter; this enigmatic conclusion exists as a powerful rendering of homosexual liberation and freedom.

I wish to thank Michael Brand for his incisive and brilliant remarks in our discussions of Beau Travail.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster writes frequently for Film International.

References

Butler, Judith (1999), Gender Trouble, New York: Routledge.

Hoberman, Jim (2000), “Work in Progress,” The Village Voice, April 4, p. 121.

Klawans, Stuart (2000), “Legionnaire’s Disease,” The Nation, April 17, pp. 34-36.

Mazur, Matt (2010), “Control: An In-Depth Look at Claire Denis’ Beau Travail”, International Cinephile Society, 4 November. Accessed November 10, 2010.

Taubin, Amy (2000), “Claire Denis’s Band of Outsiders,” The Village Voice, April 4, pp. 126.

Vincentelli, Elisabeth (2000), “Agnès Godard’s Candid Camera,” The Village Voice, April 11, p. 166.

9 Comments for “Reconsidering The Landscape of the Homoerotic Body in Claire Denis’s Beau Travail

  1. This is a very interesting essay, and makes me think about a kind of interweaving of fantasy and memory for the audience. As Denis’s camera puts viewers in the p.o.v. of Galoup, for example, gazing–admiring–male bodies, the fantasy of the cinematic narrative becomes for audiences lived memory as well. Simply put, that’s what we do when we experience narrative, or even non-narrative, art. Now of course that’s an obvious statement, the very basics of filmviewing. But it’s nice, for me, to be reminded that as we view fantasies of fantasies and fantasies of memories, we experience the same kind of self-fashioning we undergo ourselves. In the case of this film, the struggle for agency and expression in the confines of normative social codes hits home on several levels. Well, a jumbled and half-formed collection of thoughts here….which itself is a compliment for an essay well done.

  2. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

    You eloquently capture the very essence of some pretty complex ideas of both performance and spectatorship theory.

    Two quotes I’d like to pull and think more about:
    “….the fantasy of the cinematic narrative becomes for audiences lived memory as well,” and that when “we view fantasies of fantasies and fantasies of memories, we experience the same kind of self-fashioning we undergo ourselves.”

    Sometimes I have trouble getting my students to admit that we are all, as viewers, self-fashioning active participants in the making of meaning — that all meaning isn’t “in” the film. The director doesn’t have complete control over meaning at all. We all are making a movie (and a memory) in our mind’s eye when we watch a film. Students sometimes find that idea impossible to grasp.

    I remind them that when something is missing or obviously censored in a film, often our subconscious immediately conjures that which is missing in our mind’s eye, (that film running in our head) and this made-up imagery is often more effective, beautiful or moving, than if we actually saw what is missing from the narrative. It is one of the first rules you learn about how to make a good horror film. What you don’t show is always much more powerful, but the practice is certainly not limited to horror films.

    I do not know if Galoup finds agency in this film’s ending or if I am projecting it onto him because I’d prefer to give him an upbeat ending of sorts – even if it is only metaphysical. Matt Mazur makes a compelling argument that Denis may actually be sending Galoup to a straight person’s version of “gay hell.” I have noticed people read the ending in any number of ways. I am drawn to ambiguity, but I know it repels others. What is significant to me is that Denis allows the viewer to finish the film with our own take on that inscrutable image of Galoup dancing into the night. It is the only time he seems free.

    Thanks for your comment, Will.

  3. What an insightful and detailed exploration of this work of art…Beau Travail has always struck me as a severely minimalist study in stark contrasts. Homoeroticized male physiques against a brutal desert landscape, ritual violence clashing with the desire for homosocial bonds, war games with a longing for romance, homosexuality with homophobia. The visual cues create a symphony of cognitive dissonance, terrifying but beautiful, inviting the viewer deep inside agonized soul of Galoup.

    Maybe how you interpret the final scene depends on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist! I had thought that Galoup dancing alone implied that inability to overcome his inner conflict about his sexuality would doom him to liberate his true self in fantasy only. His only partner: himself in a mirror. His only dance floor: the dark interior of his own mind as he lays in bed alone, never to know the loving embrace of a man. He may have had this dream every night most of his life, but it appears only at the end of the film as a brutal final curtain on his inability to change. Am I completely wrong in my darker interpretation? I guess it says a lot about me!

  4. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

    Daisy-

    Thanks for your incisive comments. I do think our interpretations of the “ending” say a lot about us, and now I am actually leaning far more towards your interpretation, which is very similar to that of Matt Mazur. On the other hand, I am now reconsidering our desire and insistence on interpreting the “ending” here and elsewhere. It is fascinating that we feel such a strong desire to know and even control the outcome of Galoup, because this proves we have a deep personal investment in a closeted gay outsider character, or, as you so aptly put it, we are indeed, “deep inside the agonized soul of Galoup.” This demonstrates to me the power of minimalist cinema as more than a tone poem or riff on the original novella, in that it opens up the narrative rather than seals it.

    I have been thinking a lot about the wildly controversial “ending” of Carlos Reygadas’s BATTLE IN HEAVEN (2005), which has some striking similarities to that of BEAU TRAVAIL. It is worth looking at the two side by side.

    To rapidly summarize, BATTLE IN HEAVEN is about a poverty stricken dark skinned working-class Mexican driver who is, in my interpretation, perhaps forced by a very wealthy young girl, the daughter of his wealthy employer, into the role of sexual servant. I note that most critics see it the other way around — but they do not take class relations into consideration. I find it surprising that no other critic even considers the idea that class can trump gender, or that a desperately poor man can easily be manipulated by a wealthy and privileged young woman, the daughter of a very powerful man who is also his employer.

    Critics despise the film, largely because, in my humble estimation, they automatically assume the oral sex is exploitative of the female and not the other way around. The film opens and closes with a scene of this young very lost bratty girl performing fellatio on the lower class figure. She apperas to be taking a lot more pleasure in the sex act. We learn that he is tragically caught up in a botched kidnapping of a baby, which appears to be his wife’s idea. He is utterly miserable and tortured with guilt; he takes no pleasure in the sex scenes with his employer’s daughter. He just stands there looking miserable and bored, especially for a man who is being fellated. It is really strange behavior; but not when you factor in class power relations.

    All human interaction in BATTLE IN HEAVEN, especially between the classes, is based on exploitation and an expression of capitalist alienation. I don’t want to fully give away the powerful multiple endings or other details of the film here. I hope you will watch it yourself. I want to cut here to the last “ending” of the film.

    After the driver’s death, we see a scene of the young girl again performing oral sex on him, but this time we must to be in heaven or a fantasy. It is the ONLY time he and the girl seem happy and connecting as human beings. The ending suggests that, because of the rigid class system – only in fantasy, or a filmic conjuring of a heaven of sorts, can there exist any class equality, much less any deeply human alliance or fulfilling sexuality.

    Similarly, in BEAU TRAVAIL, it is only through a fantasy that Galoup is able to escape the confines of the repressive environment of enforced heterosexuality. Through fantasy, he finally expresses the freedom of exploring his own homosexuality; but significantly, he is dancing alone, as you point out, Daisy, “never to know the loving embrace of a man.” Still, these are both powerful and, for many, almost inscrutable endings that invite our participatory interpretation and our return to the material. This drives many critics and audiences to distraction, but I find these endings both exhilarating and liberating.

    I bring up the ending of BATTLE IN HEAVEN here to explore and revisit the idea of the ending that really is not an “ending,” as is the case of BEAU TRAVAIL. These so-called “endings” are really, in effect, “openings” or beginnings that allow us to co-create a narrative that goes beyond what we have witnessed in the film.

    Thanks, Daisy, for inviting me to rethink the ending of BEAU TRAVAIL and the idea of “endings” in general.

  5. I have not seen Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail,” however this article has left me intrigued (like much of the work on this website does!). I always love the idea of abstract film, though I feel so few directors can truly pull it of. Being subjected to beauty, especially in it’s most primal form as we see men in a military environment, is something that could, and apparently has in this film (and likely others), be explored in a deeply aesthetic and abstracted way. Of course, while the cinematography and, even more simplistically, the human form is on full display and perhaps the most vital part of this film; the loose lying narrative also plays a role in driving the movie forward and allowing the scenes of gratuitous homo-eroticism to serve a purpose. Indeed, the purpose itself may be abstract, and that is part of the fun in discussing a film of this nature. However, I can liken the loose narrative of this film (which could potentially be found as the basis for other films out there) to a painters representation of the night sky. No doubt countless artists have explored the cosmos in art form since human beings could think with artistic senses. The key, though, is acknowledging those pieces that rise above and provide us unique content, even if it is based on such a basic and maybe even worn out concept. When one thinks of the night sky in paintings, we often immediately think of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” There is a reason for this: it is a unique representation and one that stands out. “Beau Travail,” from what I can gather, is similar. We have seen many, many films pertaining to the military. Some with sequences examining the beauty of the men in the army. But, for it’s time, “Beau Travail” moves forward a notch and explores closeted homosexuality and the human form in this context. It makes it intriguing, even more so given the current political and general social climate wherein we see people from a variety of political vantage points weighing in on whether or not homosexuality is “good” or “bad,” morally acceptable or not, and even more specifically within the military: whether or not homosexuals should even discuss their own sexuality. So here we are, a viewer of a film, observing a passive aggressive closeted homosexual in the military (among others). This is, again, intriguing in the context of our social atmosphere. It appears that we are treated to a surface beauty in this film, but it carries with it an underlying brutality, though it appears that the violence is minimal from what I can gather in your article. However, violence comes in many forms. The psyche can take its toll without ever shooting a gun or stabbing a man to death. It would appear that a lack of acceptance for Galoup’s sexual feelings (both by himself and by others) lead to emotions so commonly found in others in “the real world.” In this context, man has become little more than a fetish. His uniform is appealing, his body is appealing, his suffering is a point of desire. It is not the homoeroticized male that I exclusively am looking at, but the inherent beauty in his struggle and suffering to accept his sexual desire, and to be accepted by others.

    Moving momentarily away from the actual thematic content of the film, I also would like to draw to mine some more modern contemporaries of this film that follow suit in an abstract and beautiful cinematographic style. Gaspar Noe’s “Enter the Void” treats us to a minimalistic narrative fueled by beautiful cinematography and imagery, much with a sexual overtone (or overtly sexual at some points). Similar in style is Refn’s recently released “Only God Forgives” which explores, in some ways, the Oedipus Complex paired with a fuel of violence and justice. These concepts, like those found in Denis’ “Beau Travail,” have certainly been explored before; but it is hard to deny the impact films like these can have on a viewing audience. Film becomes much more than art, it can become a social and philosophical commentary without even having the intention of social critique and discussion. For myself, the ultimate beauty of films like those discussed in this little comment of mine is really that: the Gestalt of all the sequences filmed, every body explored with the camera, every violent action, every touch of softness and sadness, etc. At the end of the day, it is truly difficult to discuss abstraction without watching my own words turn into abstract sentences as well. In the least, I can say that these films are meant to be viewed and explored with our visual sense, and for hyper visual people like myself, I do enjoy them.

  6. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

    Thanks for your thought provoking comments Chris. I hope you do get to see Beau Travail. Also check out some of her films such as,”Trouble Every day,” “I Can’t Sleep,” and “No Fear, No Die,”- if you can find it.

  7. Christopher Sharrett

    Thanks for this piece Gwendolyn. Indeed, Beau Travail is Denis’s most stunning work. Its sexual politics will always invite interrogation.

  8. Your titles are such an attention grabber, Gwendolyn… I keep finding films to add to my list based on your incredibly thorough articles! I tend to seek out films from the old days that I’ve never seen, but now and then there’s a meaningful gem to be found among the terrible remakes or the same seemingly recycled, mindless junk that manages to be released these days. Absolutely bookmarking your site and will be hunting down a DVD of Beau Travail to watch.

  9. Thank you Nora. I hope you were able to see Beau Travail.

    I happened upon the 1962 version of Billy Budd on TCM last night, directed by Peter Ustinov. Robert Ryan’s embodiment of Claggart as a self-loathing closeted figure who uses excessive violence to express himself is indeed remarkable. The film has been extensively analyzed by queer theorists, but it is interesting to see how it differs from Beau Travail. Terence Stamp is the young Billy Budd, and he is portrayed here as a Jesus figure whose beauty and purity of heart drives Claggart over the edge. Claggart is clearly in love with Budd, even as he openly despises him. It is amusing to read Bosley Crowther’s NYT review of 1962 which makes no mention of the queer subtext of Billy Budd. It is even more amazing to find contemporary reviews that similarly avoid the obvious.

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