Friday, March 05, 2021

Beau travail (1999)

France, 92 minutes
Director: Claire Denis
Writers: Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, Herman Melville
Photography: Agnes Godard
Music: Charles Henri de Pierrefeu, Eran Zur, Tarkan, Neil Young, Corona
Editor: Nelly Quettier
Cast: Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, Gregoire Colin, Richard Courcet

It occurred to me, puzzling once again over this strange little picture and conventional critical wisdom, that Beau travail is likely a key exhibit by those arguing for 1999 as the greatest single year in film history. A Washington Post piece from a few years ago assessed the case for 2018 and listed other candidates as 1939, 1946, 1955, 1974, 1982, 1999, and 2007. There has to be one for every decade, see, yet somehow, breaking the self-evident rule (I want to put 1948 in the mix), they skipped the 1959-1962 period, possibly splitting votes across 1959, 1960, and 1962. For my part, I know I wouldn't put 1999 anywhere near the top of that list. I would probably go with 1946 or maybe 2007 myself and the only reason I flatly don't think 1999 is the weakest is because 1955 somehow found its way in and I don't know.

I also don't know about director and cowriter Claire Denis, frankly. I loved White Material (2009), had a pretty good time with 35 Shots of Rum (2008), and still want to look again at Chocolat (1988) as I remember liking it quite well at the time it came out (note: it is absolutely not to be confused with the 2000 Chocolat, an entirely different movie). More often Denis's physically liquid yet emotionally brittle style is something I have to fight against. I left High Life (2018) early because I just wasn't in the mood. I was indifferent to Friday Night (2002) and Nenette and Boni (1996). And I thought her vampire movie, Trouble Every Day (2001), was wrongheaded and ineffective (which is also where I thought High Life was headed). That brings us finally to Beau travail, at #115 her highest-ranked picture on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? (her only other picture presently on that list is The Intruder from 2004, at #823, which I haven't seen).

Here's the thing. I don't know about Beau travail either. I've seen it a few times now, and admit it seems to get a little better every time, but "third time's the charm" is a tall order for any picture, even one as relatively compact as this. It's based on Billy Budd, the short and unfinished novel by Herman Melville, which I haven't read, and it's set in a surprisingly old-school romantic way in the French Foreign Legion, whose legends I learned about from Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons. Unfortunately that means I find any romance of the French Foreign Legion a little comical at best and note how much I enjoy slinging around the term "French Foreign Legion" in defiance of all its dignity.

Typically for Denis, it is not easy to make out the narrative in Beau travail, which on its surface seems to be focused more on training exercises and hard labor. The battery of images of buff shirtless men with shaved heads sweating and working out inevitably tends to suggest homoerotics, which I take as deliberate. Yes, there is a dramatic narrative here, involving conflicts between men and their superiors in the harsh French Foreign Legion desert mission conditions, but it's not easy to catch the storyline, such as it is, and I'm not even sure knowing the Melville would help much. It took me a while even to figure out who the narrator is and I'm not 100% positive on that yet.

Scenes of men training and ironing their clothes with masculine precision are intercut with nightclub action and exciting dance music. Neil Young's "Safeway Cart" makes it in to score a long hike. Near the end, in a break from credits, Denis Lavant cuts the rug impressively to "Rhythm of the Night." Beau travail comes most alive for me in these musical moments, but they are also unplugged from the dour general tone and feel mechanically injected for effect, like seeing a good commercial for insurance when you're watching TV.

Speaking of TV, another aspect that could well be at play here for me is that Beau travail is not a movie designed in any way for the TV screen, which is the only place I've ever seen it. Some movies—Lawrence of Arabia and Play Time come to mind quickly—are almost not worth seeing any way except on a big screen. Beau travail with its harsh landscapes and erotic interludes probably works much better at such visual scales. The last third shares some affinities with the finish of von Stroheim's Greed, which should also probably be seen only on a big screen.

Even given that, I remain suspicious of what this movie is up to, particularly as it takes such pains to flatten the dramatic conflicts onto the surface with everything else. I think of Fight Club, Bringing Out the Dead, Being John Malkovich, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Iron Giant, and Eyes Wide Shut (the latter two the only ones of all of these '99 winners I unambiguously love) and I wonder if 1999 wasn't a bit altogether tetched, particularly on the topic of fetishes and death. Call it millennium fever. Yet Beau travail does not feel as apocalyptic as the others. They are all quivering on the verge of the 21st century in various incoherent ways whereas Beau travail is more anchored in 19th-century French Foreign Legion visions of adventure, colonialism, and romance. The hope of ever seeing it on a big screen has to be accounted slim, unfortunately, all things considered.

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