This Is the Rhythm of My Life: Failure in Claire Denis’ Beau Travail

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Julia Cooper is the managing editor of cléo.

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Beau Travail
Image credit: Pyramide Distribution

“To fail in everything, it is true, will always remain possible.”
–Derrida, Specters of Marx

In Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1999), the eminence of doom is almost palpable; from the foregrounded terrain of war, to the protagonist Galoup’s (Denis Lavant) exclusion from the taut brotherhood of legionnaires and his reflections on mortality, it is a text concerned with endings, limits, and the finite nature of being. Based loosely on Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, Beau Travail tells the story of French soldiers stationed abroad and the power struggle (both hierarchical and libidinal) between Chief Master Sergeant Galoup and his subordinate Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin). The geographic specificity of the legion in Djibouti, Eastern Africa places the men in a country defined as a border itself, straddling the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and couched between the limits of Eritrea and Somalia. In this sense, the film is concerned with the finite—with the ends of things—and the formal elements substantiate the film’s refusal to succumb to a totalizing narrative, particularly that which is so often associated with war films: patriotism.

Fixated on questions of mortality, Beau Travail confronts the instinctual intermingling of what Freud named Thanatos and Eros—death and desire. Galoup’s voiceover narration says that his story is a simple one: it is “the story of a man who left France for too long. A soldier who left the army as a sergeant…Unfit for life. Unfit for civil life.” But what does it mean to be unfit for life? Galoup’s story is represented in long reflections as he writes in his journal from a spartan apartment in Marseilles, casting himself back into his army days and his homoerotic struggle with Sentain. While Galoup wants a sense of fraternity with his men and praise from his Commandant Forestier (Michel Subor), his desire to be loved is taboo within the strict military structure he occupies. He must sustain the hierarchy of his rank by affirming patriarchy rather than brotherhood, and must serve the good cause not as an individual worthy of distinct praise, but as a synecdoche for France’s military acumen. However, it is not Galoup’s queer desire for Sentain that marks him as an outcast; this is a film that celebrates the homoeroticism of male bodies in constant contact. Rather, he is signalled as a body out of joint, one that simply does not belong.

This homoerotic bond between the soldiers—that definitively excludes Galoup and is focalized through his desire for belonging—is often represented without dialogue, and the camera provides an unadulterated focus on their moving bodies in space. Recall, for example, when the men take turns carrying each other on their collective shoulders down a Djibouti alley at dawn, or when they swim together in a scene reminiscent of the 28 bathing young men in Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself—moments of close collectivity from which the marginal Galoup is excluded. Yet instead of considering the ways he could overcome his alienation from the brotherhood he so longs for, or the ways in which he could move beyond his isolation and embrace a form of sociality, I want to ask in what way Galoup’s repeated failures (to fit in with his troops, to lead them courageously, to sert la bonne cause et meurt, as his tattoo declares) give him satisfaction? Considering the ecstatic, singular dance that comprises the final scene of the film and extends into the credits, how does the doomed subject Galoup find pleasure in his failure?

This closing dance sequence, set to the sounds of the late 1980s dance club classic “Rhythm of the Night” by Corona, marks the film’s temporal limits while simultaneously turning back to the previous 88 minutes, inviting new engagement with what’s come before. As the final image of the film, preceded by a scene heavy with the threat of suicide, Galoup’s dance represents the end of the narrative as well as the limits of his own being. Although we see Galoup writing his story and reflecting on his time in the legion once he has returned, shame-faced, to France, the film does not follow a clear chronology, and the final scene showing Galoup’s flailing and fabulous dance is atemporal—that is, perched out of time. The scene unfolds in the Djibouti nightclub first shown in the film’s opening sequence, when it was crowded with bodies dancing to the Turkish pop song “Kiss Kiss.” Now the space is empty except for Galoup, dressed all in black and smoking a cigarette. This scene stands apart from the film’s narrative and any clear linear pattern of time, and the figure we have known as “Galoup” simultaneously becomes the performing body of the actor Lavant, as well as an unnamed body detached from a teleological reading of history.

In this sense, Beau Travail is an example of what critic Todd McGowan, in Out of Time (2011), calls “atemporal cinema,” a mode that brings “cinema’s ability to disrupt time into the foreground.”i McGowan suggests that we turn to time and attempt the coherent structuring of temporality “in order to be able to hope that we will overcome loss.” To move, as it were, beyond our lack. But no matter how hard we hope or how fastidious we construct our chronologies, “no amount of time allows us to escape the hold that loss has over us.”ii McGowan is here echoing a central tenet of psychoanalytic theory—that loss is at the core of our being; it is in the tincture of the self. And rather than attempt to escape the loss that inheres within, McGowan argues that we reenact it, over and over again. We incessantly repeat and re-embody the loss that constitutes who we are, “because this repetition, even though it isn’t pleasing to us, holds the secret to our enjoyment.”iii Put another way, the subject—compelled by Thanatos and an innate attachment to loss—finds satisfaction not by escaping time and forgetting what he does not have, but by repeating his failure as its own form of fulfillment.

The penultimate chapter of Beau Travail opens with Galoup lying on a bed in Djibouti, shirt open and skin glistening from perspiration, bedspread slightly askew, with one leg off the mattress. The door of the room is open and looks out onto the alleyway where his local girlfriend squats, cooks, and chats with her female friend. We then see Galoup alone at dusk, sitting outside at a table tapping his military hat, and hear his voiceover narration: “Goodbye and good riddance Frenchie.” At this moment, Galoup looks directly at the camera as his voice concludes: “Don’t ever come back.” This scene of his scathing and self-fashioned farewell cuts to him climbing a metro escalator up to the street, ascending back into the world of Marseilles. Drinking at a bar, his eyes focus on a tarnished metal bust of a legionnaire, which leads Galoup to a flashback of the actual farewell sung to him by a small group of the soldiers separated by a pane of glass at the airport.

We see the plane that will take Galoup away from Djibouti, and then the rambling bus that returns the almost-lifeless body of Sentain to it. Galoup has been expelled from the legion, we learn, for sending Sentain out on a near-fatal fool’s errand, casting him off into the desert with nothing more than his pack and a broken compass. Eventually rescued, Sentain is nursed by an African woman as he lay almost lifeless on a full bus. His head rests close to death under a green sheet on the seat next to the woman. As she lifts the sheet, she draws it beneath his neck, revealing his ghostlike disembodied head, reminiscent of the metal bust that first triggered Galoup’s memory. From his parched lips, Sentain repeats the utterance: “Perdu, perdu.”

In a parallel moment, the following scene shows Galoup lying down on his bed in contemplation. First, he makes the bed with military precision. Once it is made, he turns his back to the camera and stands with arms crossed behind him at the wrists, as if on guard over his finished work or his future sleep. The shot then cuts to him sitting on his bed where he makes a few minor adjustments to the wool blanket, and then a brief splice to a scene of the entire group of legionnaires posing together before the ocean in Africa, holding guns and smiling for an unseen camera.

This fleeting vision of a grinning tableau works counter to the aesthetic that dominates the film’s earlier sequences, of close-ups and tight compositions that frame and fixate on muscular and curving human bodies. In contrast to the film’s earlier close-ups, and the integral ones preceding this shot, we are offered a glance at the entire 13th Legion standing together on the ocean’s cusp. Kaja Silverman critiques the reiterated claim of most war films that “the ‘army unit’ is ‘like’ a ‘family,'” which is a facile gloss of relationality and desire that a film like Beau Travail resists.iv While this portrait seems to be in some ways reinforcing the familial bond between them, with the entirety of the group captured in one frame, it is an imposed moment of kinship far less intimate than the many scenes of their moving bodies.

This portrait disappears quickly, and we return to a suicidal Galoup in his room. He picks up a gun, lies down, and places it first by his side and then on his lower stomach just above the top button of his khaki pants. The camera focuses on a close-up of his hand holding the gun, the veins of his hand, the rise and fall of his stomach, and the sound of his breathing. The camera then moves to the tattoo above Galoup’s left pectoral muscle. His voiceover narration reads it aloud in a whisper: “Sert la bonne cause et meurt.” A vein on his bicep begins to pulse, almost bursting out of his skin, gradually in time with the encroaching techno beat of the next and final scene. The film transitions to Galoup leaning against the triangular mirrors of the empty nightclub where he slowly begins his dance with a foreign confidence and suavity. An almost blasé demeanour gives way to a spasmodic, triumphant release of the body, as Galoup (cigarette still impressively in hand) enacts, in un-choreographed movements, his failure to belong. This body out of joint and out of time does not escape itself, but rather finds pleasure, satisfaction, and even joy in its very failure to do so.

In an interview with Sight and Sound, Denis says: “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.”v Yet the scene’s atemporality is not an escape from the constitutive loss of being human, but a return to the individualism that is shaped by that loss. Following McGowan, it can be said that although “their experiences differ infinitely, all subjects share a basis in loss. Even though a fundamental loss isolates us within our subjectivity, it also provides the only possible basis for connection.”vi The film’s final cutback shows an unmoving Galoup standing gracefully in a brief moment of stillness before he throws himself limitlessly back into his dance with a renewed and insatiable vitality. That the camera cuts back to his dance after the final credits have begun to roll illustrates the irrepressibility of Galoup’s performing body. The film body enacts a twirl of its own, recalling the past and letting it arise and writhe anew—but in a moment that itself exists out of time, unadorned by memory or futurity. It is in this final scene of singularity, perched between life and death, couched between the film credits like the oceanic Djibouti is between land and sea, war and peace, that the doomed body belongs.


[i] Todd McGowan, Out Of Time: Desire In Atemporal Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota UP, 2011) 14.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Kaja Silverman, Flesh of My Flesh (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2009) 109.
[v] Quoted in Elena del Río, “Body Transformations in The Films of Claire Denis: From Ritual to Play.” Studies in French Cinema 3, issue 3, (2003): 185-197.
[vi] McGowan, 115.

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