Everything was expressed in that dance. Claire Denis on Beau Travail.

by Jason Wood

Originally published in Enthusiams, the following interview with Claire Denis is reproduced with thanks to Jason Wood, Creative Director: Film and Culture at HOME and Professor of Film at Manchester Metropolitan University. Tickets to Bigger Than Life’s 35mm screening of Beau Travail at HOME on Thursday 23 May are on sale now.

Born in Paris, Claire Denis was raised in Africa until she was fourteen. She studied film in France and graduated from the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques in 1972. Denis learned about filmmaking as an assistant to a number of notable directors including Costa-Graves, Jacques Rivette, Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch. Wenders helped to secure funding for Denis’ directorial debut Chocolat (1987), an exploration of colonial life and emotional conflicts in 1950s West Africa as viewed through the eyes of a young French girl. Denis would go on to explore outsiderism and themes of racial and sexual conflict and familial dysfunction in films such as S’en fout la mort (1989), I Can’t Sleep (1993), TV’s US Go Home (1994) and Nenette et Boni (1996).

Denis won lasting international acclaim with Beau Travail (1999), in which Herman Melville’s Billy Budd is relocated to the African nation of Djibouti. Starring Grégoire Colin, Michel Subor and Dennis Levant, the film follows the obsessive rituals and male-bonding routines of French Legionnaires. Artificial Eye acquired the film and had success with it but many other U.K distributors passed on the opportunity to release it. Including the distributor I was with at the time. I was innocent in this matter. The distributor should for reasons of modesty remain nameless. It was Lionsgate. Then trading as Redbus.

Working with a group of long-time collaborators, including cinematographer Agnès Godard, editor Nelly Quettier and sound designer Jean-Louis Ughetto, Denis has developed a highly individualistic style, replacing the conventional devices of narrative storytelling – dialogue, psychological realism and scenic continuity – by favouring optical and sound elements in order to tell a story in purely visual and aural terms.

Since Beau Travail Denis has completed Trouble Every Day (2001), Vendredi Soir (2002), The Intruder (2004), the documentary Towards Mathilde (2005), 35 Shots of Rum (2008), White Material (2009) and Bastards (2013) Denis also contributed a segment to the portmanteau picture, Ten Minutes Older: The Cello (2002). One of the greatest practicising filmmakers at work anywhere in the world, she is a gift to cinema.

I end this interview, originally published in a different form in edition 03 of Enthusiasm, by describing Beau Travail as being whispered of as one of the great films of its decade. I was chastised for hyperbole. I would now go further, as I consider the film perhaps the finest work cinema has produced in the last twenty years. It endures like no other film I can think of.

The interview below is the full transcript with Denis, minus the input of Subor and Levant. I think they had been drinking. Some notable details from Denis were also omitted. Which I am very pleased to re-insert.

When journalists introduce a deeply personal element to their interviews or subject associations I tend to stop reading out of embarrassment. I have interviewed Denis on a number of subsequent occasions and we have got along well enough. However, this interview resonates for me because it was the first time I had been given the opportunity to conduct an at length piece with a filmmmaker I very much admired. I remain grateful for the opportunity.

Jason Wood: How did you set about adapting Melville’s Billy Budd?

Clare Denis: The project didn’t start through a desire to adapt Billy Budd. It was proposed that I would do some work for the French/German TV station Arte, and the best answer to their proposal was to make a film in Djibouti about the Foreign Legion. The proposal revolved around the question of how it feels to be a stranger, and then I found out that what I knew best about the world of men with its ways, its rules, its organisations are the things I have read in Melville, perhaps without even knowing it. I would never have thought of adapting Billy Budd, never for one moment. One reason is because I was not much interested in Billy Budd, but I immensely liked Claggart.

JW: You were also inspired by Melville’s poem, The Night-March.

CD: I gave Denis Lavant a book of Melville’s poetry that I was reading constantly to prepare for the film and I think we shared that instead of sharing a lot of psychological talk about the part, which I hate.

JW: The film is very sensuous, with a perfect synthesis between man and nature. This synthesis is largely achieved through the choreography.

CD: I knew Bernard Montet and I had wanted to work with him before but had never had the opportunity. We agreed that this was the right moment for us to work together. Two years ago I took Denis to a ballet choreographed by Bernardo. We didn’t even have a script then. I didn’t have dance in mind. I asked Bernardo to help me to create a group that would be of today and believable. We never mentioned the word dance or ballet. We spent hours together in a place in Paris performing physical exercises that any soldier would do. Slowly, little by little, we had the music, we added to the exercises. We used the same music whilst shooting. We had playback on set, in the middle of the desert.

JW: Let’s talk about the astonishing dance that Denis Lavant performs to Corona’s Rhythm of the Night at the very end of the film.

CD: When I saw Denis with the gun, it was then I thought that the dance should be at the end. We all felt like Denis, we knew Galoup’s dance was going to be the answer to everything, because of the construction of the film, the soldiers exercising during the day and the girls dancing in the club during the night, the pattern of day/night, day/night. In fact, the only reason we did two takes of the dance, was because we could not see dailies and to be safe in case something went wrong in the first take. But in that first take, in just one take everything was said, for Denis, for the crew, for all the actors. That one take was the end of Djibouti. It was finished. Everything was expressed in that dance.

JW: How did you settle upon Djibouti as the location for the film?

CD: I knew Djibouti since I was a child and when I was preparing the film I made five trips there for location scouting and took a lot of pictures. Certain locations like the nightclub I wanted – The Las Vegas – and parts of the country were not available for our film. There was a small town I wanted for a scene, Djoura, but there was the war with Eritrea and the army didn’t want us to go there. The owner of The Las Vegas did not want us there because he thought we were anti-legionnaire.

JW: Did that become a problem throughout the shoot? Or was it the homosexual aspect of the film that troubled the authorities?

CD: No. The Djiboutian Republic almost immediately accepted the project before they saw the script – even though they rather would have had a documentary, but ok, they would accept fiction – but right away the French Foreign Legion people were not at all happy about me doing a film about the French Foreign Legion. It is also true that the French Foreign Legion do not like the subject of homosexuality and no not like the homosexual image.

JW: You described homosexuality as being like ‘an invisible enemy’ to the Legion.

CD: That’s right. Exactly so. The rumour had also started in Djibouti that because the film was made with so little money it could only be some kind of porno. A rumour in a small town is something you cannot stop.

JW: Was the small budget and lack of co-operation from the authorities a contributing factor to the final look of the film?

CD: If I had had a big budget and not having the co-operation of the army, I could have gone elsewhere. But we realised that the most important part was to be in this place, in this part of the world, with this group of men, and that we would manage.

JW: In all your films you deal with issues relating to minorities and the dispossessed. Do you feel that this is part of your responsibility as a filmmaker or is this something that just comes naturally?

CD: It has to be natural. A political gesture would not last long enough to sustain a film. When you start feeling actors or people you have to have some solidarity or comradeship. I have tried sometimes to decide that one character will be the bad guy, and another the good guy, and then immediately find out, after writing, that both are equal: just two characters that conflict.

JW: Another theme that runs through your work is a sense of rootlesness and a focus on characters struggling to belong. Given your colonial childhood, do you see this as an autobiographical element?

CD: I had a great childhood and was very happy to grow up in such beautiful countries. You are lucky when you get to know other cultures. On the other hand, one has to cope with the world as it is. Cities are now full with people looking for a place to live, a place to work, cinema has to deal with what is going on while you are alive. I like reading science fiction, but I don’t imagine myself doing a science-fiction movie because there are so many things that I do not understand in my own times.

JW: You have made documentaries as well as fiction. Can you see yourself returning to the format?

CD: At the moment I have a documentary project that might happen. But sometimes it happens that one film or a project becomes more important or more urgent than another. Beau Travail for instance was not originated by me, but by Arte. A year later I would not have done anything other than Beau Travail. I would have refused every other project. That’s because my interest grew and I found the film in my mind. A project is only a project.

JW: You have collaborated with Abdullah Ibrahim and your films are marked by your work with Tindersticks. Similarly, Beau Travail has an eclectic soundtrack featuring the aforementioned Corona’s The Rhythm of the Night and Neil Young. Is it a conscious decision to incorporate music so fully in your work?

CD: To me music is not some kind of decoration you add in the editing room. It has to be part of the work; otherwise I would rather not use it. A film can work without music but when it is part of the space, you have to work it in. Music for me, even while writing a script, is to open a new space for the film. Abdullah really gave me the space I needed to recreate a part of Cameroon – he was also a musician in exile in New York – so it was like a key to re-enter. With Benjamin Britten it is different, because I think Britten has been the source of most musicians who have written for cinema. He has been looted. When you listen to Britten you recognise a lot of music that has been used in films. I think it is music that – especially Billy Budd – has the space of the ocean and that the voice of the sailor and the voice of Claggart are creating a complete world in themselves. It was not easy to obtain the rights to use Britten but I refused to give in because it was a harmony and it had so much to do with the film. It took a year to be certain we could use it. On the set we had the music playing. It gave us the dimension of the ocean within the desert.

JW: Melville once again seems popular for directors to adapt. Why do you think that is?

CD: Melville has always been a popular author with artists, obviously with Britten, with painters and filmmakers. Moby Dick has been made into a film, and now Billy Budd for the second time. Last year Leos Carax made Pola X (1999), which was also based on a work by Melville, Pierre or The Ambiguities, which was different because it was a work that had not been explored before. If Arte had not asked me I would never have done it, not another adaptation of Melville because I feel that Genet’s adaptation – Querelle – was the natural end to it. I think Melville’s reputation will simply grow and grow.

JW: You have worked with important filmmakers: Rivette – and you collaborated with Serge Daney to make the documentary Jacques Rivette, le Veilleur (1990) about him – Gavras, Jarmusch, Wenders. How important was it working with these people?

CD: Working on Paris, Texas (1984) was especially important, if only because of the work with landscapes which has affected how I have worked with landscapes in my own work. I never use the landscape separately from the characters. However, I do think that you can learn more or just as much about how to make films from simply watching them rather than from continually working with filmmakers, unless of course you are an actor or a technician.

JW: Beau Travail is enjoying some fantastic reviews. Some have even gone so far as to call it one of the greatest films of the last decade.

CD: If I were to be very honest, it is difficult to understand what happened. What I mean is, what makes a film that film and not another one? It is not a question of being humble, it is purely that sometimes you put a lot of energy and, yet, something is missing, and sometimes you put a lot of energy and something comes out of it. It is the mystery of sharing.

Bigger Than Life presents a 35mm screening of Beau Travail at HOME on Thursday 23rd May. Tickets available here.