You’re a director and someone gives you the script for Beau Travail. You read it and see that it’s only about 50 pages. At the common page/minute you assume this is not for a feature film. Then you think about the material, which consists of a retired Army officer Galoup (the incredible, leather-faced Denis Lavant) as he recalls his time served and his odd relationship with another solder, Sentain (Gregoire Colin). You realize that there is little true drama, that there is no discernible conflict, that the resolution is obscure and that this may in fact be one of those films where “nothing happens.” But you also just so happen to be Claire Denis, so you decide to make the film. And it’s incredible.
Claire Denis has a style that’s difficult to define. We often talk about the uninflected shot (at least David Mamet often does), and Denis’ style appears to be as uninflected as possible, where uninflected = no obvious implication for interpretation. This shot does not mean that things are happy, or tense, because of the camera position. Instead, it’s as neutral as possible. Maybe on first viewing she even feels close to Robert Bresson (there are certainly similarities, largely in sound, but they are very different filmmakers).
With some filmmakers it is rather easy to talk about their style. This isn’t a good or bad thing. Spike Lee has the “Spike Lee shot.” Ozu places his camera low and in deep focus. But Denis is in fact, not very neutral at all. She pulls so much tension out of Beau Travail that it’s almost unbearable at times. She does this largely through panning audio, playful usage of point-of-view shots, and other subtle techniques to make us squirm, though maybe we are unsure why.
Panning audio. Audio moves the same way the image does. I’m not saying anything new here. Next time you’re in a theater pay attention to the way the sound travels from speaker to speaker. The most common example is of a car passing. If it moves from right to left the audio will usually follow. Denis’ audio is constantly panning and moving. It made my ears pop once. It functions to really place us squarely within a dusty, scratchy environment where sounds like men’s boots scraping in the dry dirt and a sheet being pulled against a bed are loud, at the forefront of the mix, and intentionally grating. Even the score moves, at times, in circles around the audience. The feel of all of this is disorienting and disquieting.
Point-of-view. Denis is the modern master of the POV. Quick film theory: POV is three shots. 1) Shot of the person looking. 2) Shot of what the person is looking at. 3) Shot of the person reacting. There are many counter-examples to this, but classically speaking, this gives us the full cinematic realization of a point-of-view. Denis manipulates this formula quiet frequently. At times she seems to break the fourth wall. Characters will stare into the camera. She’ll let the frame linger for 5 seconds, 10 seconds, and only then reveal that the character is not in fact looking into the camera and in effect at us, but at another character off-screen. Beau Travail is littered with similar instances: a woman throws rocks at a moving camera – or is it a moving car? A woman dances in a static wide-shot for 25 seconds. Are we watching her? Or is, as the next cut implies, Galoup watching her? A soldier forced to dig a whole looks up at us in pain and pity as “we” look condescendingly down on him, only for Denis to reveal that he is indeed looking at another soldier.
The effect of these POV shots? As with the sound they often make us uncomfortable. Did she mean to look at the camera there? Why are we holding for so long? We feel voyeuristic, more than observational. But the POVs also serve as a cinematic lesson. You can be the eyes of a character and not realize until the edit. The edit makes me aware of what I “just was” for 25 seconds. We’re pulled into the film as the character while simultaneously wondering why we’re being pulled in. It’s 1st and 3rd person combined. There’s a fantastic shot in her earlier film Chocolat (no, not the Jonny Depp vehicle) where Denis, in one shot, moves from the POV of a character, through space and time, and into a bridge from the air and the past, to the ground and the present. It’s incredible.
Other subtle techniques. This isn’t meant to be a film theory blog and anyone that’s reading this likely already knows about the 180 line. In shot, and hopefully this isn’t boring, the 180 line is an imaginary line in filmmaking that allows us to ensure that characters appear to be looking at one another, and not off in the same direction, among other things. Denis intentionally breaks the 180 line. This is something done in the past (John Ford), and Denis doesn’t necessarily do it in a new way, but its place within the film combines with the aforementioned techniques to further make us feel something as “off,” though maybe we can’t put our finger on it.
Claire Denis has a delicate eye for characters and faces, and her film is filled with people with craggy lines, worn eyes, and delicate features. Her cinema, though not uninflected as described above, still does at times manage to feel observational. Many of the moments in the film only serve to give us a glimpse at something fleeting and pretty. A woman hangs fluttering sheets to dry. Two soldiers remove clothes from a line while one teaches the other French. In a shot where all we see is sky and two horizontal lines, soldiers rush through the frame climbing on the horizontal wires in a training drill. These glimpses at what composition, sound and character can be when combined are the poetic moments of her films.
The film ends with a shot that only works because of how much effort Denis puts into POV throughout. Galoud, not disgraced, but discharged, is on the dance floor of a club we have seen before. The camera is wide. He begins to dance. It has a Saturday Night Fever feel to it. No one else is in frame. Is he alone? Is he being watched? Are we watching him?