Claire Denis’s latest film, Beau Travail, transposes the homoerotic triangle of Melville’s Billy Budd to the contemporary French Foreign Legion. The film has been acclaimed, not only by those who counted No Fear No Die, I Can’t Sleep, and Nenette and Boni among the greatest films of the ’90s, but also by those who have barely noticed Denis’s existence. Though it shares with those previous films the director’s fascination with and tenderness toward men who are outsiders—the black cock-fight handlers in No Fear No Die, the French African gay serial killer and his brother in I Can’t Sleep—Beau Travail is different in two striking ways. Although the setting is Africa, race is not a major factor. And compared to the neorealist clutter of the earlier films, Beau Travail seems almost abstract.
“You always have a moment in life when you’d like to start from zero,” observes Denis. “The Foreign Legion is a place where boys go to do that, where people who have no place to go can find a kind of family, especially because they’re not asked what they did before. The legionnaires became an erotic object in film and song—Edith Piaf’s song “Mon Legionnaire” is one of her most famous—but when I saw them walking in the street or going to clubs, their beauty was more sad to me than erotic. You could see that the Legion is about men together. These boys who never belonged before now belong to one another. It’s very touching.”
Denis was approached by ARTE, the most culturally progressive European TV channel, to make a film for a series about being a foreigner. “Since most of my films deal with that anyway, I worried about how I could avoid repeating myself.” Being foreign is a way of life to Denis, who spent most of her childhood in French West Africa and then moved to the suburbs of Paris when she was 13. She never felt as if she belonged in Africa, but in France she found her experience so different from that of her friends that she was doubly alienated. She attended film school and then worked as an assistant to various directors including Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders. Her first feature, Chocolat (1988), drew on her childhood in Africa. It made an art-house star of Isaach De Bankole and established her relationship with Agnès Godard, the cinematographer for all her films to date.
“For Beau Travail, I started with things I’d always wanted to try—working with a choreographer and with some Herman Melville poems. The word foreign suggested the Foreign Legion. I knew Djibouti, a piece of lava and salt in the Red Sea. The Legion trains there so that the men learn to withstand the extreme heat. I chose the landscape because it was so abstract and at the same time a real country. It’s iso-lated, a world in itself, like a sailing ship in Melville. People, camels, trucks, they each have their place, and the rules are very clear. The abstraction was in the meeting of the landscape and the rules, and all those bodies doing the same thing. So gradually these elements came together and it became a project.”
Since the budget was very small, Denis spent a month before the shoot working with the actors and the choreographer. “It was the only way to mold those 15 boys into one body. In the Legion, the head of the troop is the chef du corps, which means the head of the body. Then, in Djibouti, we shot it all in 15 days. We worked so fluently, always running, putting the camera, shooting, putting the camera somewhere else, shooting. Easy, easy, easy. It was only afterward that I realized it was abstract. I told the choreographer that the first time we see the legionnaires they should be like grass in the desert—burnt by the sun and slowly moving in the wind.”
Denis focused Beau Travail on Billy Budd‘s villain, Claggart. He became Galoup (Denis Lavant), the master of arms who, fearing that a newcomer (Grégoire Colin) has gained favor with his adored captain, goes mad with jealousy and destroys his own career. The spare story is told in flashback, as fragments of memory, narrated by the exiled Galoup. The style of the voice-over, which Denis describes as more a reflection than an explanation, came from Godard’s minimalist war film, Le Petit Soldat. Denis cast Michel Subor, the star of Le Petit Soldat, as the captain and gave him the same name—Bruno Forestier—as his character in the Godard film. She imagined that at the end of Le Petit Soldat, Bruno might indeed have joined the Foreign Legion.
“From the minute I decided that I would use Galoup’s voice-over, I wanted Denis Lavant to do it. His presence conveys that sense that it’s all too late. And that had an effect on us. We made an image and it was gone. We were shooting the past. When we shot the scene in Marseilles at the end when he’s making the bed, I was so much with him that I forgot I was standing next to a camera making a film.”