Monday, June 24, 2013

When You Hear the Words Foreign Film, Think of France

Okay, so you've all heard the distinction between films and movies, I'm sure. As a filmmaker, I define film as pure cinema. My basis for this definition consists of three broad groupings. The categories are as follows: the Alfred Hitchcock style of pure cinema (Hollywood), the Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard, and Claire Denis respective styles of pure cinema (France), and the Terrence Malick style of pure cinema (The New Hollywood). There are subtle variations inherent in these distinctions.

Sometime around the early to mid aughts I had repeatedly skimmed the title Beau travail (1999, Claire Denis) in print articles found in the New York Film Society at Lincoln Center's monthly "Film Comment," often in best of lists. I'd also been hounding David Thomson's The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and come across his monograph of Claire Denis--he specifically refers to her biggest fans being "the 'Film Comment' critics." So, I finally gave Beau travail a chance around 2009.

Claire Denis is probably my most recent discovery that has allowed me to find that elusive scent I hunt down so desperately--that of creative aesthetic brilliance. (Actually, Bruno Dumont is the most recent, to be accurate.) Beau travail won me over firstly with its short running time, splendid Benjamin Britten score, and insurmountably calculated final shot.

I love Beau travail as a foreign film. It's foreign in many senses of the word, especially for me. Denis uses tiny details to establish the Djibouti location in ways that evoke its people, markets, landscapes, transportation systems, and merciless barren deserts along with marvelously azure coastal planes. When I watch this, I always appreciate the quality of being transported to Africa for an hour and a half--and I've never been to Africa, but it strikes me as the most foreign of continents because I have the hardest time imagining what it would actually be like to visit.

The iconic French veteran actor Denis Lavant (he's got a mug like a French Dafoe) stars as Sgt. Galoup, an inwardly-turmoiled French Foreign Legionnaire who struggles with his jealousy over the new thin recruit Sentain. So the foreigner stacking piles up here: Galoup is a Frenchman in Africa, appears to be either a closeted homosexual or conflicted similarly with a dark impulse that arises out of his jealousy over Sentain, and all of this was filmed by a 43 year old French woman who AD'd for Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch throughout the 80s (Don't tell me you can't think of Wenders' Paris, Texas (1984) or Jarumusch's Stranger Than Paradise (1984), or Down by Law (1986) as having a similarly foreign protagonist in a foreign place, typically encountering other foreigners).

The Djibouti discotech scenes are easily some of the finest craftsmanship Denis has arranged, infusing the bleak desert locale with lively colors, seductively corporal gyrations, darkness and energy. This counterpoint evokes part of the mysterious inner life of Galoup.

It was Godard who famously said that, "a film needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But, not necessarily in that order." Beau travail's famous final shot has been reported numerous times to have been found at another point in the script initially; only in post did Denis realize where she wanted to put it. But, this holds as a vital example to Godard's original intent.

This is the rhythm of the night.

Galoup's queer demeanor is a locked door. Perhaps we will never really know him. However, it is clear that he lives for the corps--the Foreign Legion, his body, their bodies, Sentain's body, and even Rahel's (Galoup's African mistress) body. But, the final shot nearly guarantees to us that there is something locked up behind that door that is bursting forth to get out--the subjective responsibility of the audience is to spend a moment trying to think about it.

Last night getting to watch this in 35mm (the print was a little scratchy) was a welcome and refreshing oasis in my week of watching big budget effects movies.


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