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#24: Beau travail
(France, 1999; dir. Claire Denis; scr. Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau; cin. Agnès Godard; with Denis Lavant, Grégoire Colin, Michel Subor, Richard Courcet)
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Beau travail has more in common with Naked Lunch than their shared status as chapter anchors in my book The Desiring-Image... which I promise I'm not trying to shill to you. (You'll hear little else about it as we move more rungs up this list.) If I responded at first to Naked Lunch with intrigued ambivalence, I actively disliked Beau travail and left the cinema in a fit of pique. The reasons have almost everything to do with my having been an English major and specifically a Herman Melville fan, and with arriving to the movie early in my second year of graduate school eager to see a cross-cultural, differently historicized, rhapsodically reviewed staging of Billy Budd. Beau travail is and isn't this. If you know Melville, you'll catch plenty of overlaps, from the general to the specific, but you'll also clock how the unfathomable Claggart figure, here named Sgt. Galoup, has been gifted, of all people, with a multilayered interiority and thus the lion's share of point of view. The Vere surrogate, here named Forestier, has been made peripheral at best and restyled as lethargic and distracted. The Billy parallel, rechristened Sentain, has been made laconic and affectless, fatally banished from view rather than fatally hoisted as mass spectacle, and not even all that fatally. If that's all opaque to you, go read Billy Budd (one of my favorite American novels), then read Eve Sedgwick on Billy Budd (one of my two or three all-time favorite scholarly essays), and then come back.

Normally all this transmogrification would speak right to my tastes. As several Favorites entries further down have attested, as will a handful further up, I savor disobedient adaptations, especially those that contextualize established themes and characters in altered but pertinent cultural contexts. My initial distaste for Beau travail, bordering on animus, had less to do with its mutinies against Melville (though, more inclined than I realized toward literalism, I harbored some of that response) than with Denis's preferred aesthetic. Taciturn, not just light on plot but seemingly bored by the prospect, Beau travail constructs itself through cryptic montage, sketching but not clarifying the presence and mission of French legionnaires in Djibouti, indicating but not honoring its literary pretext, generating but muffling standard forms of dramatic tension. It's wrong to say the film wants you to read its images rather than its narrative, because "reading" is even more incongruous in this case than "narrative." The film is a hard, beveled object, suggestive more of the jeweler's craft than the novelist's, multifaceted but not transparent, highly communicative at the levels of embodied gestalt, historical affect, and postcolonial epistemology, but otherwise impervious to standard spectatorial queries like Who are these people? What are they thinking? Why did what happened happen?

The turn to scholarly terms like "affect and "postcolonialism" is no accident, tipping my hand as to my current, ardent feelings for Beau travail but also to my prior rejection of it. Arriving into a Ph.D. program in English, I was saturated with feelings I now know to be common at that juncture: the sense that my colleagues and mentors, while claiming to value creative texts, seemed rankled by form (they kept calling it "formalism"), disdainful of anything as bourgeois as storytelling, and much more mobilized by political questions than aesthetic ones. I was suspicious of the values they championed, mostly because I didn't understand them and was under-qualified to share them. Irate at how they seemed to dichotomize art and politics, condescending to the former except when it served the latter, I was prone to lopsided or ungenerous readings not just of artworks they embraced but of them, especially because "they" were a vague and probably false construct. Just as many Americans hate Congress but approve their local incumbents, I liked almost everyone I met early in graduate school but disliked Graduate School, as an acephalous, nonspecific massif. Increasingly put through the wringers of several film-studies articles that were barely legible to me and seemed almost purposeful in their illegibility, I was not in a good space to see in Beau travail anything but a reflection of my own fears, doubts, and preoccupations. Here was a movie based on a famous story that had gutted much of the story, bothering less and less to establish basic ligatures among its sequences, and ending fabulously but also incomprehensibly. This, I thought, was a film marshaled against analysis, selling inscrutability as a virtue. I didn't enjoy it, and as I caught myself not enjoying it, I (mis)recognized it as an emblematic object of Ivory Tower adulation, weaponized against enjoyment. The fawning reviews I read suggested that movie critics were as prone as academics to lionizing texts that defied embrace or interpretation. The frequent parading of sculpted, bare-chested men in suggestive configurations made me feel even worse, like the film and its advertising had dangled sensual appeals as a false lure into an arid field, possibly imagining a spectator who would put up with all manner of narrative withholding if palliated by panoramas of beautiful flesh.

It's amazing to me how easily I recall my surly response, and how much it mirrors Galoup's in the film: sour, paranoid, narcissistic and inclined toward projection, vengeful toward exactly what excites it. Thankfully, having posted a churlish review to this site, in its third year of life, I did not continue fetishizing my own off-consensus opinion but came back two years later for another try. At that point, the film seemed incisive, askance, and appealingly mysterious on virtually all fronts where I had previously received it as flat-footed or aloof. The photography, so crystalline and creatively framed, so richly colored except when pointedly not, had more sensuous appeal than the bodies of the men; I won't feign indifference to their sculptural self-displays, but Beau travail presents their assiduous hardbodiedness melancholically. All those calisthenics, all that self-instrumentalizing: for what? Had I remained as petulant about my own vocation and community by the middle of graduate school as I was at the start, I might have recognized Beau travail as friend rather than foe. Replace the legionnaires with young scholars, training like the dickens for rewards that may never arrive, in service of a mission both leaderless and diffuse, and the film's critique (though it's not just critical) might, if anything, have resonated more the first time than the second. And that was before the third viewing, the fourth, fifth, and sixth, the first conference paper, the phantom-limb dissertation chapter I meant to include but never finished, and the book chapter that now circulates in the world in which I volubly champion the film's ideas, its aesthetics, and its ellipticism on both counts.

I realize this entry is readable as a captivity narrative. The self who resented and rejected Beau travail in 2000 would likely read this piece the way Katharine Ross regards Paula Prentiss in her Stepford kitchen: oh no, they got you, too. That's not the dynamic I'm intending to describe, but I suppose it's not for me to say. Moreover, though Beau travail generously demands the viewer's involvement, inducing so many pregnant gaps in its construction that it's surely inviting us to fill them as we will, I don't want to make the film wholly about me. As permeable as the movie now feels, it also feels formidably Other. The glints of Djiboutian society, the dancelike workouts, the gnarled weight of Galoup's frown, the uncanny nighttime testament of the foundling, the unreadable finales betwixt life and death: there is so much in Beau travail that feels shaped by persons or forces uninvested in being readable, even as they solicit your partial perspectives, your tentative connections among shadowy and sun-blasted dots. Denis's film exists for you to do what you will with it; at the same time, it feels not "for you" at all. I soon learned this same lesson about academia, about other people's ideas, and about the world, if that isn't too grandiose. I came to see them all as soliciting my involvement rather than shutting it down, even (or especially) when they most resisted my reflexes. I still don't understand the workouts in Beau travail, but I relish the workouts the movie has given me, which I now recirculate to students as part of my wonderful job, my own beau travail of making things that are hard for me hard for other people as well, but also helping them as best I can, and coming to agreements or disagreements together. Nice work if you can get it.


Hey, Reader: Have you seen Beau travail? Did you share my first reaction or my later ones? And even if it wasn't this one, have you ever so completely about-faced on a now-favorite film? Tell me about it!

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