Saturday, January 05, 2008

Claire Denis: Beau Travail

Claire Denis's The Intruder must be one of the most confounding films I have ever seen in (admittedly short) film-going life. After having seen her earlier effort Beau Travail ("Good Work") recently, I can now, to an extent, understand what was it that made the experience of watching The Intruder so difficult. It is a much simpler work than The Intruder, one reason being that that underlying narrative itself is very threadbare and obvious but the two films do have a lot in common in form and technique. Denis isn't interested in dialogues or in structuring her story in a conventional manner aiming for dramatic payoffs. She also avoids psychological realism, or in other words "character development", which is the main staple of conventional narrative cinema completely. And most importantly it is the way she edits the scenes. There is no continuity in time and space, again something that is assumed in a conventional objective storytelling. Instead there are disparate images bound together by a "poetic" narration (or rather a reverie) which may or may not have anything to do with the images on the screen. This is a radically different way of portraying subjectivity in cinema. Actually it somewhat reminded me of films like Last Year at Marienbad or even films of Terrence Mallick, specially his most recent The New World, which used similar narration to join disparate and discontinuous images together and at the same time functioning as a counterpoint to it. I was also thinking what would the screenplay of this film look like. It seemed to me manufactured entirely in the editing room.

The main problem I had with the film was that the underlying narrative didn't interest me much. Specially if you are going to do away with all dramatic structures, at least there should be some elemental ideas, which should keep you interested in the goings-on. Beau Travail doesn't have any such thing. The Intruder probably was more interesting in this respect. Now that I am a little wiser I should check it out again. Who knows, may be this time I will understand what is it really about? The way male bodies are eroticised in this film is also quite remarkable. It can be accused of eroticising militarism but that would be unfair in my opinion. The way she shoots the landscapes is also exquisite. Actually it is a bit of a sensory overload.

Two long essays on the film here and here.


anurag said...

Beau Travail is probably the best film that I saw in 2007 (along with Rebel Without a Cause, Killer of Sheep and some others).

I am very impressed by music and choreography of the film. Also, I have no problem with the thin narrative (which was not uninteresting to me), which, I think, is an excuse for Denis to do what she wants to ie poetry of images. given the thinness of narrative, its great that she is able to bring themes of jealously, colonialism, and even love and regret quite subtly, just by effective use of visuals and music.

I rented The Intruder for this week. I was reading an interview of Denis, it looks like a much more difficult film :)

Alok said...

I didn't think it had anything very serious or complex to say about those things - jealousy, male bonding, colonialism or the nature of memory. It touches these subjects but ultimately is too diffuse. At a purely formal level however the film is a extremely interesting. It makes you think about film-language in a new way. I am planning to see The Intruder again soon.

dan said...

Have you read Melville's "Billy Budd"? Beau Travail is based on that, if loosely - when I watched it, admittedly a while back, I had the sense that Denis had let Melville take care of the narrative, though she presumed that the viewer was familiar with that; kind of a prefabricated structure in which to work. That last scene is really beautiful - I can watch that again and again.

(Late Melville's really, really interesting, if you've never bothered to look . . . most people don't, but you'd probably find him worthwhile. Leos Carax made Pola X out of his Pierre - it's a weirdly straightforward version of the novel, and similarly deeply insane. The French seem to have picked up on him in the same way Baudelaire picked up Poe.)

Alok said...

I haven't read the Melville book yet. I realized that Denis assumed some familiarity with the original narrative - specially the way she elided some very crucial plot points, in a "blink and miss" sort of way.

French do like Melville a lot. Jean Pierre Melville even took his name from him!