Desiring Bodies: Claire Denis and Beau Travail

by Ellen Smith

Since her semi-autobiographical debut feature Chocolat in 1988, Claire Denis has established herself as one of the greatest working filmmakers in global cinema. Her work possesses a distinctive and sensual cinematic language, one that navigates the poetics of desire and violence, crossing borders and confronting taboos. Often eschewing conventional storytelling in favour of ellipsis, she allows the bodies of her characters to command the abstract rhythms of her work, returning to figures who are displaced, marginalised or foreign in some way. Continuing a career that defies expectation and rejects associations with a single genre, Denis’ upcoming science fiction film and English language debut High Life boasts an all star cast and futuristic spaceship setting. Despite this unfamiliar location and scale, however, even on first glance this does not seem like a complete departure for Denis. After all, when you have repeatedly addressed ideas of foreignness, identification, and colonialism on Earth, what is the appropriate next step but to try and negotiate these debates in space? Bodies displaced and isolated in a prison-like spaceship purgatory seems like the ideal Denis milieu, in fact, if we consider space travel as perhaps the ultimate act of border crossing, of colonisation.

But before we make the expedition into space with High Life, it seems only right to first revisit the film in which Denis’ approach seems most in tune with the Earth’s landscape, her greatest examination of desire and the body: Beau Travail. This 1999 work, loosely based on Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, sees a remote African desert become its own sun-baked purgatory for Denis’ subjects. At the centre is a disgraced French Foreign Legion commandant, played by the magnificent Denis Lavant, who is perhaps the director’s greatest vessel for unchecked and unanswered desire. The bodies of the troops he once led also come under interrogation by the tactile cinematography of Agnes Godard, a regular collaborator of Denis’. The men and their repressed afflictions are laid bare under the gaze of these filmmakers, as the repetitive drills and insular dynamics of the Legion are transformed into an operatic spectacle, a hypnotic ballet. Denis explores what happens to the body when it is unable to articulate its desire, unable to reinscribe itself on the land, framing the Legionnaires like ghosts trapped between life and death, land and sea, war and peace. Beau Travail’s strange, sensual rhythm and the quiet devastation of its unforgettable finale lingers long after viewing. This is a master director at her most elliptical, her most austere, but also her most poetic, her most desiring. And nobody does desire like Denis.

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