In this detailed look at how Beau travail self-consciously "seduces" us away from our customary conduct as viewers, Elena del Río distinguishes Denis' cinema from the avant-garde and modernist traditions with which it is often associated.
The films of Claire Denis are often described as sensual, even surreal, in their lack of conformity to narrative and cognitive structures of classical cinema. From Denis' perspective, the cinema understands itself and the world less through the visual/one-dimensional grid of classical representation than through a multi-sensual prism that is as de-centred and chaotic as it is filled with intensity of affect. The uniqueness of Denis' cinema does not lie in the dismantling of traditional cinematic representation, a feat already achieved by many a filmmaker before her, but rather in the bold merging of the analytical—the privileged domain of Brechtian counter-cinema—with the physical and the sensual. I'd like to examine the film Beau travail (Good Work, 1999) as an instance of cinema that converts classical narrative into a performative event. Through such performative conversion, the film enacts its most cherished goal: the overt seduction of the spectator without the aid of characters as intermediary agents.
A non-localised sexuality
Beau travail's loose story concerns a group of French legionnaires stationed in the Eastern African country of Djibouti. By and large, the film's sensual focus is fixed upon the male body—its movements, gestures, routine habits, rough training exercises, communal ceremonies and communion with the earth and the sea. The height of male eroticism centres upon the seduction/repulsion relationship between sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant) and legionnaire Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin). In some of their moments of leisure, however, the men are seen dancing at the local nightclub with native women, and we are even led to believe that Galoup, the film's protagonist and narrator, is also involved in a steady relationship with Rahel (Adiatou Massidi), a stunningly beautiful and sensual woman.
But for Denis, the film's primary interest does not lie in sexual exchanges between characters, but rather in "the sexual charge that passes between the actors and the spectators." Accordingly, the film consistently chooses to orchestrate its sexual seduction of the spectator outside the sexual act itself— by maintaining male and female sexual and sensual activities separate, by placing the spectator in direct rapport with, and at the receiving end of, each of these sensual axes, and, most ingenuously, by displacing the indefinitely deferred erotic charge between Galoup and Sentain onto Galoup's final and unabashed offering of his body to the spectator. The traditional screen encounter between two bodies, so readily transformed into a fetish or cliché, thus gives way to a less constricted model that endows with sexual significance/sensation events and situations that are not deemed sexual in the vocabulary of classical cinema. In this regard, Denis' position is akin to Deleuze's belief that "real cinema achieves another violence, another sexuality, molecular rather than localized."
This kind of "molecular" sexuality/sensuality results from a transformation of the ordinary image into an image capable of generating extraordinary effects and sensations. The inherent physicality of the legionnaires' lives offers the ideal ground for this transformation. Not only in the more formal choreographies sporadically interspersed in the film, but also in the sustained erotic intensity underpinning the camera's look at the legionnaires' bodies, Beau travail endows the everyday gestures of the male body with a ceremonial, ritualistic quality reminiscent of Walter Benjamin's thoughts on the aura.
The becoming-performance of narrative
Beau travail's insertion of military life into a performative framework reaches its highest dramatic point in the scene where Galoup and Sentain perform their rivalry in front of their fellow legionnaires. To the sound of Benjamin Britten's operatic rendition of Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Galoup and Sentain walk on opposite sides of an imaginary circle with rather slow and purposeful steps, eyeing each other mercilessly as if to test who might be better equipped to master the evil eye (a theme which resurfaces later in the film after Galoup sends Sentain away to his death in the desert).
Aesthetically, Galoup and Sentain's formal enactment of their aggressive relationship does not strike us as a jarring oddity, but rather as a smooth continuation of the film's overall design. If it is possible to integrate such a stylised performative moment within the film's narrative, it is no doubt because from the outset the film seems intent on downplaying the differences between the more realistic physical activities occupying the men and the moments more explicitly framed and staged as performances. After all, as Denis remarks of the scene just discussed, Galoup and Sentain's outlandish performance is a real martial arts exercise where the opponents test their psychological endurance by locking eyes with each other.
Even if consistently informed by a sense of performance, the images of the legionnaires' communal training and leisure activities represent the more straightforward narrative axis of the film. By contrast, the images of Galoup engaged in purely narcissistic acts—ironing his shirt, but also combing and wetting his hair and looking into the mirror, not to mention his last dance—exceed all parameters of narrative design and logic. Galoup's isolation from the group in these instances, together with the ostensible lack of dramatic purpose attached to his actions, signal in a direction other than classical narrative. Further, the moments focusing on Galoup's narcissistic acts can neither be situated in the African space of the legion's communal life, nor can they easily and assuredly be placed in the post-legion world of Marseilles.
Beau travail features a gradual displacement from the everyday body to the ceremonial body. Such displacement may also be understood as a conversion of narrative (eg, the legionnaires ironing their uniforms) into the meta-narrative level of performance (eg, Galoup ironing his "dancing attire" in preparation for his final "date" with us). Several details attest to this conversion: the shirt Galoup is seen ironing several times throughout the film is not the khaki shirt of his military uniform, but a black civilian garment.
Together with its matching black pants and black and white shoes, it is the only civilian attire he wears in the film, and he does so at two peak moments: on the night the legionnaires carry Sentain upon their shoulders (the night Galoup feels the first pangs of the rage to come), and during the film's closing moments, when he lets his body become a pure vehicle of rhythm and movement. Galoup's black shirt is thus the sign of his undoing as a military man and of the possibility that, contrary to his belief, he may in fact be "fit for (civil) life." Galoup's undoing as a legionnaire begins precisely on the night just mentioned, and the proof of his fitness for life lies in his final explosive performance when, as Denis implies, Galoup escapes from himself.
These two scenes are linked by highly incongruous continuities. That is, although both scenes share certain elements of the mise-en-scene, this continuity is "impossible" from a rational or realistic standpoint. On the night he follows the group of legionnaires carrying a fellow soldier, and then Sentain, on their shoulders, Galoup "changes" clothes halfway through the scene, shedding the military uniform of authority to don the clothes of seduction.
As Galoup enters frame right behind the group's steps, in the role of unseen and jealous voyeur, he is no longer wearing the khaki uniform he's seen in prior to this moment in the same scene. Instead, he is dressed with the black shirt and pants of his dazzling solo dance at the film's conclusion. Interestingly, too, Galoup lights a cigarette and turns away from the group of soldiers with the same sensuous ease and graceful movements that he displays at the beginning of his final performance—exhibiting in both instances a bodily comportment that is inconsistent with his straight-jacketed behaviour in the rest of the film. The fact that the incipient seduction suggested in this scene is only fulfilled, in a displaced manner, at the film's conclusion, justifies the illogical continuities that link and unlink the two scenes.
Following Deleuze's notion of the time-image as an image severed from realistic ties to time, space and causality, one might say that the spatio-temporality of these moments is informed by a kind of virtual, rather than actual, reality. These moments belong to other moments in the film, but do not possess a particular spatio-temporal axis of their own. More specifically, the images of Galoup seem to voice the film's most self-referential pronouncement: its own libidinal inclination to seduce the spectator. That is, only by the end of the film do we get to understand that Galoup has been preparing himself all along for his final date with us.
Galoup will not dance with Sentain, with Rahel, or with any other character in the film, hence his preparations are entirely divorced from a narrative context. In a very real sense, then, it is the film, via Galoup, which has been preparing itself throughout for the unique event of seducing us. Keeping the reason for those preparations a secret until the very end, the film shows full compliance with the element of surprise essential to the act of seduction. Galoup's "dress rehearsal" exemplifies the easy transmutation of the everyday body, engaged in seemingly inconsequential acts of daily routine, into the ceremonial body of ritual. As Deleuze notes, "In the best instances, the everyday body might…be said to lend itself to a ceremony which, perhaps, will never arrive, to prepare itself for a ceremony which, perhaps, will consist of waiting."
The scene just discussed may be said to have openings or cracks that allow parts of other scenes or moments in the film to seep in and inhabit its precarious borders. In so doing, it constitutes a perfect example of Deleuze's account of the spatial configuration of the cinema of the time-image: "Disparate sets…fit over each other, in an overlapping of perspectives." In Beau travail, the sets formed by the city streets and the night-club call on each other from the depths of Galoup's memory and desire, but they also reverberate with each other in an affective realm that goes beyond subjectivity and character to involve the film body as a sensation-producing machine. It is as if the film were sending ripples of affect and thought across a diversity of its moments.
Deleuze speaks of these affective charges as having the function of linking the film's parts. In other words, affective forces take over situations where space and time are no longer reliable or determinate: "Space is no longer determined, it has become the any-space-whatever which is identical to the power of the spirit, to the perpetually renewed spiritual decision: it is this decision which constitutes the affect, or the 'auto-affection', and which takes upon itself the linking of parts." From this perspective, the film's final scene takes on a whole new meaning. It indeed becomes the timeless, placeless setting where Galoup's (and the film's) decision to seduce and yield to seduction is embodied and performed in the boldest, most surprising way.
In its emphatic choreographic dimension, Beau travail conforms to what Deleuze calls "the requirement of the cinema of bodies," which is that "the character [be] reduced to his own bodily attitudes." The character becomes a summation of gestures rather than a preconceived and abstract compendium of psychological traits. Gestures and their affective effects build up in time, reinforcing, negating or multiplying each other. In fact, Deleuze refers to bodily attitudes as "categories which put time into the body."
It is out of this mindful consideration for time and the body and their mutual bond that the possibility arises for a character in a film to work as an element of surprise or as an agent of seduction. And therein lies precisely the seductive power Galoup wields in his final solo dance. When a character is not fixed in advance, it can undo itself without warning. In time, identity becomes other and the body crystallises this transformation. What we thus witness in Beau travail is not straightforward storytelling, but the development and transformation of bodily attitudes in both Sentain and, even more interestingly, in Galoup.
Sentain's open, spontaneous, slightly cocky, but basically unself-conscious body becomes, through the pressure of Galoup's judgemental eye, a withdrawn, hesitant and self-doubting body. Galoup's regimented and productive gestures—his sheltered and repressed military body—give way in the end to a body of jouissance, maddeningly sterile, blissfully dissipated. Following the same bodily turn, Galoup the remorseful, quiet and rusty-muscled narrator becomes Galoup the crazy dancer whose body seems capable of breaking free from its own frame.
"A resurrection from death"
In accord with Beau travail's consistent use of discontinuous continuities, the scene that precedes the film's conclusion forms an intriguing bridge with the ending, joining both moments at an affective level while severing all rational ties between them. In this scene, Galoup pulls a gun out of a drawer and lies on his bed. He places the gun right on his stomach. The camera then gives us a close-up look at the sentence tattooed on the left side of his chest: "Sert la bonne cause et meurt" ("Serve the good cause and die"), which Galoup's voice-over also speaks in an almost whispering, caressing tone. An extreme close-up of his left bicep shows the rhythmical beating of his pulse. Amid an otherwise static and silent shot, the film thereby draws deliberate attention to the pulsing of Galoup's vein.
Rational thoughts or intimations of suicide thus collide with a life-beat that stands outside control and ratiocination. The opening lyrics of a song ("this is the rhythm of my life") begin to be heard over this most literal image of life itself, both emphasising the literalness of the pulsating vein and bridging one scene into the next. Situated between the lingering stasis that paralyses Galoup's body and the incipient moments of his dance, this brief but affectively intense shot fuses a kind of death drive with a most primitive and persistent vitality, thereby confounding such a fundamental binary as life and death. Accordingly, the dance that ensues is neither an inscription of life (as the opposite of death), nor an inscription of death (as the opposite of life). It is, rather, a moment of jouissance dislocated from any intelligible series of causes and effects, intentions and results.
By means of an "irrational cut," that takes us from Galoup's recumbent body to his dancing body, Beau travail thwarts the principle of causality— thoughts of suicide/death as outcome— and welcomes the interference of a physical vitality that is capable of overturning the predictable course of the film's final images. One might borrow Antonin Artaud's words regarding the power of the brain to "turn towards the invisible" and "to resume a resurrection from death" by way of explaining the way the film's brain locks into this vital pulse to effect a resurrection from the death of rational linearity—the scripted ending of suicide that would logically follow.
Galoup's acrobatic dance appears to take place in the same Dijbouti disco/nightclub featured throughout the film— the same back-wall mirror, the same flashing lights. And yet, the space no longer serves the same narrative purpose, nor is it filled with the same crowd. Deleuze identifies the indeterminacy of location in modern cinema—achieved in the proliferation of the "any-space-whatever"—with the ability of space to change co-ordinates suddenly and without apparent justification. In these instances, space may be said to change faces, to disguise itself under an array of masks or cloaks that render it as seductive as it is unfathomable.
During his final performance, Galoup/Lavant increasingly lets his body be overtaken by the rhythm and abandons himself to a kinetic pattern whereby he seems to lose control of everything except his ability to be immersed in the rhythm. Unlike the Lacanian model of specular (mis)recognition, which describes the child as deriving a sense of jubilation from the illusory coordination and wholeness projected in front of his uncoordinated body, Galoup/Lavant seems to derive jouissance from a maddening loss of control, perhaps not so much of a corporeal centre as of a fixed sense of corporeal limits or boundaries.
One of the most compelling features of Galoup/Lavant's dance is that it doesn't follow a smooth or consistent rhythmic pattern. Instead, it can be described as a hesitant pattern of fits and starts, and of abrupt, deliberate stops. Such kinetic fragmentation is nonetheless consistent with Galoup's character, which wavers between a militarised and rigid control of the body and the final, seemingly unaccountable, release of affect.
The most striking contrast between stasis and movement occurs right after the first final credits roll. We see Lavant standing in pretty much the same position a legionnaire might stand in military formation—head and shoulders erect, gaze unfocused yet frontally aimed, arms and hands close to the sides of the body in a relaxed posture. After some twelve seconds in this position, Lavant suddenly propels his body upwards and to his left side, reaching the full height of his body in the air and then landing unscathed and with ease in a recumbent position, only to lift his body immediately up again and continue with his acrobatic demonstrations. Although the juxtaposition of immobility with excessive movement in this scene may be regarded as contradictory, as François Lyotard suggests, "it is only for thought that these two modes are incompatible." In the domain of the sensual, by contrast, these kinetic extremities work to produce the "blissful intensities" of unmotivated jouissance.
It would be misleading to consider Galoup's final dance the justifiable outcome of a conventional pursuit of narrative closure/fulfillment (the scene, after all, is triumphant, to say the least). The reason why Denis placed the scene at the end may be instructive in this respect. In an interview with Sight and Sound, she explains: "In an early draft of the screenplay the dance fell before the scene where he takes the revolver, contemplating suicide. But when I was editing I put the dance at the end because I wanted to give the sense that Galoup could escape himself."
Regardless of whether Galoup commits suicide or not at a narrative level—something intimated, but never actually consummated or shown—his decision is to let his body be carried away by its own vital force. From this angle, the decision stands out of discernible time and space because the possibility lies within him all along. To place it thus at the film's conclusion only responds to the film's, and Denis', own desire to uphold Galoup's escape as an immanent possibility. As for our desire to know what happens to Galoup's character from a conventional narrative standpoint, this may be utterly irrelevant. As Deleuze remarks, "We no longer know what is imaginary or real, physical or mental, in the situation, not because they are confused, but because we do not have to know and there is no longer even a place from which to ask."
Let the film love you
In its entirety, but particularly in its last scene, Beau travail presents an interesting, and slightly reconfigured, example of what Deleuze calls the "pure optical and sound situations" of modern cinema. In the cinema of the time-image, Deleuze writes, "characters [are] found less and less in sensory-motor motivating situations, but rather in a state of strolling, of sauntering or of rambling which define[s] pure optical and sound situations."
Although Deleuze tends to associate sensory-motor activity with classical narrative cinema—the cinema of the movement-image—it seems to me that the crucial difference between the two kinds of cinema does not lie in the divide between sensory-motor activity versus pure vision or pure sound. Rather, the difference lies in whether these categories of images are narratively or psychologically motivated, or, conversely, whether they dispense with motivation altogether. Thus, while the sensory-motor activity of classical narrative cinema is on the whole dependent upon motivation, we may find other examples of sensory-motor activity in modern cinema completely severed from any motivating links. To borrow and recast Deleuzian terminology, moments such as Galoup/Lavant's dance unfold as "pure kinetic situations."
Undoubtedly, Denis' cinema (and here I'm thinking particularly of Chocolat , Nenette et Boni  and Beau travail) brings about a "disorder of the senses" that places upon viewers a different set of demands than those they are accustomed to— not only in terms of classical narrative patterns, but also in terms of counter-narrative and experimental strategies. The difficulty for the viewer, however, doesn't lie in coping with a distanciating/alienating agenda that the film may have deliberately assumed, as might be the case in many a modernist or avant-garde film. If Denis' films, in all their sensuality, are paradoxically experienced as abstract, or even inscrutable at times, it is, I would argue, because of our own cultural alienation from sensual and bodily experience.
From this perspective, Beau travail, as do all of Denis' films, takes on the project of seducing us away from our "proper" customary conduct as viewers. The film thwarts our dutiful and well-trained desire to "know," and offers instead to facilitate our entry into a realm of sensation and affect. In so doing, this kind of cinema constitutes itself as the most overt, self-conscious and exhibitionistic form of seduction. No longer, or at least not only, a "fetish that can be loved," but primarily, and passionately, a body that loves us back.
Elena del Río
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