What was a movie about men doing in the Walker's women's film festival last March? And what's a good feminist like Claire Denis doing making a war movie in the first place? How many war films by women can you name, anyway? Back in the days of the first women's film fests (as described in B. Ruby Rich's recent cinefeminist memoir Chick Flicks), Denis's Beau travail and its manly combatants would have raised eyebrows, if not hackles. But at this gender-mutable and masculinity-mad moment (marked by Boys Don't Cry and Fight Club alike), the better question may not be why Denis is now meditating on military manhood, but why somebody didn't do it sooner.
Then again, Beau travail is not, strictly speaking, a war movie. Inspired by Billy Budd, Melville's tragic homage to the "Handsome Sailor," it charts the erotic emotional warfare between three French legionnaires stationed in Djibouti, on the starkly beautiful East African coast. Our narrator, the platoon's weathered Chief Master Sergeant (Denis Lavant), nourishes a paranoiac hatred of a fresh recruit (Gregoire Colin) who has earned the affection of the cryptic commanding officer (Michel Subor). Denis ingeniously shows men-of-war not at war: There's no (apparent) enemy, no explosions, no bloodbath, and no inspiring ideal--only drill practice, domestic routines, and slow-brimming rage. That and naked men, half-dressed men, men in uniform, shaved men, tattooed men, men at work, men at ease, men among men (even when they're with women), and men against men.
Of course, you don't have to read Susan Faludi's Stiffed to know that gender shapes men as well as women. Even so, many film critics have failed to place Denis in the feminist fold--perhaps due to her unwavering focus on men. In Chocolat, her 1988 semi-autobiographical debut set in Cameroon, Denis stares at African men, first through the admiring eyes of a French director, and then through the adoring eyes of a French-colonial child. Her disquieting No Fear, No Die concerned men and their bloody male rituals, pitting West Indian cockfighters against a Parisian godfather, and, ultimately, against each other. Ditto I Can't Sleep, an eerily intimate anti-thriller featuring alienated men as serial killers, lovers, fathers, and brothers.
Beau travail follows suit, eroticizing men among men so fervently that Village Voice critic Elliott Stein recently counted it among his favorite "gay" films of the year. Denis turns the combat drill into a slow dance, an ode to the male physique filmed to the rhythm of grunts, scuffles, and flesh against flesh. Where Stanley Kubrick and his sadistic drill sergeant made boot camp unadulterated psychological hell in Full Metal Jacket, Denis demonstrates paternal power as polymorphously painful and delicious. Her sergeant, for one, craves and punishes his charges in equal measure.
Likewise, Denis mystifies domestic drills: The soldiers cook, iron, and shave with the same intense precision--and erotic charge--as they practice combat moves, and their rituals echo local religious rites. Honor involves crisp bedsheets, therefore, as much as heroic service. As the commander explains this domestic code: "We're taught elegance in and under our uniforms. Perfect creases are part of this elegance." In short, Denis does for soldiers what Chantal Akerman did for housewives in Jeanne Dielman, revealing men's quotidian gestures in precise, loving detail. She, like the local women she portrays observing the platoon with amusement and awe alike, is both impressed by and alarmed at what she sees. In Beau travail, military madness mirrors domestic derangement. And what better feminist statement than that the military, in the sergeant's words, "unfits" a soldier for civilian life?
Beau travail starts Friday at the Parkway Theater.