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Everybody Loves Beau Travail

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On occasion of Beau Travail's screening at The Beacon on Sunday, what follows are all of the reviews and comments The Stranger has reverently placed at the feet of this exceptional film for over two decades. by Jas Keimig
Make war love...
Make war-love... Courtesy of Criterion

The Stranger's love affair with Claire Denis's masterpiece Beau Travail began in 2000 with this sentence by the film critic who in Seattle still has no equal, Bruce Reid: "Beauty is a dangerous thing." From that point on, the attraction of this mid-career work has never failed to capture the highest praise from Stranger after Stranger critic. Indeed, this unbreakable relationship has been less of a love affair than a marriage.

Our critics have, over the years, disagreed about so many films—A.I. (Sean Nelson and myself are, on record, the only fans of this Spielberg film), The Tree of Life (pure garbage; not pure garbage; some garbage), The Florida Project (all of those mouthy minors; what a great ending; and so on)—but such has not been the case with Beau Travail, a film about a unit of the French Foreign Legion based in Djibouti at the end of the millennium. Denis's materiality, whose medium is sensuality, finds its most successful expression in this film, which blooms into a kind of United Nations of young male bodies: Arab, African, European. Also, the Legion's military exercises are not violent but shamelessly erotic. There is the sun, the sea, and the material Denis loves most, the skin.

On occasion of Beau Travail's screening at The Beacon on Sunday, what follows are all of the reviews and comments The Stranger has reverently placed at the feet of this exceptional film for over two decades. —Charles Mudede


Beau Travail's first mention on Slog is a 2000 review of the film called "The Element of Beauty in Beau Travail" written by critic Bruce Reid:
Beauty is a dangerous thing. Not because, as we are often told, it is superficial or deceptive or skin deep; nor for any of the other tepid half-truths we admire because they flatter our own awareness of how far from beautiful most of us are. It's dangerous because it is so easy to surrender to, because devotion to beauty can so easily become an obsession. Which is to say, beauty is harmful not in itself, but for what it spawns in others. Claire Denis understands this fact. In Beau Travail, Denis has made her greatest examination of beauty yet—at least of the films we've been able to catch stateside. It is also, of course, her most beautiful.

Adapted from Herman Melville's Billy Budd but rewritten (by Denis and Jean-Paul Fargeau) and relocated to fit in with Denis's trademark concerns, Beau Travail unfolds in a French Foreign Legion post in North Africa. The tale is narrated by Billy Budd's Claggart character, here re-cast as the squad's sergeant, Galoup (Denis Lavant). Galoup watches as his men exercise, frolic in the surf, jest with one another at the dinner table. His distance from the Legionnaires is partly explained by his age ("I'm rusty, eaten away by acid," he tells us, and immediately we see shot after shot of soldiers scurrying under razor wire with the impatient zeal of young men), but also by his ugliness. Pockmarked and squinting, his nose broadening against sunken cheeks, Galoup stands apart from the gleaming men—all shaved bald, many decorously bruised—under his command.

Galoup manages to maintain his pride against that sea of beauty by strictly adhering to discipline, which counts above all else in the Legion. The arrival of a new recruit, the tender, rail-thin Sentain (Grégoire Colin), seems to threaten this order for Galoup, not least because of the attention the new soldier has attracted from the Commander (Michel Subor). When Sentain bravely rescues the crew of a downed helicopter, making himself even more beloved by all, Galoup goes to greater lengths to defeat his self-selected nemesis, even re-posting the men to a remote site far from the Commander on the pretext that a distant road needs repair.

Like its protagonist, Beau Travail isolates the object of its focus to the exclusion of all else. Beyond the three central players, the Legionnaires and eternally observant natives remain primarily nameless and characterless, as irrelevant to us as they are to the increasingly obsessed Galoup. The plot is telegraphed in short voiceovers or brutally disorienting edits. What is left are some of the loveliest studies of men and landscapes ever filmed.

Whether observing them working, fighting, or at play, Denis and her cinematographer Agnès Godard gaze at the men with a passionate scrutiny. The men dance in unison at a disco, blowing kisses at their dates when the song tells them to, or drift underwater in a hushed moment of rapture (knives tightly clenched in their fists, the lazy menace makes them all the more lovely). Their daily calisthenics are a stylized series of embraces, throw-downs, and slow, languorous gestures, set to the buzzing, percussive choruses of British composer Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd. Their right legs tucked beneath them, their others jack-knifed to the side, the men gracefully lean back in the hot desert sand. Such ritualized behavior, so erotic in its military rigor, recalls Fassbinder's Querelle; but the excesses of that supremely artificial movie are avoided here by firmly placing these wordless studies of masculine beauty in a world as real and hard as the black rocks that jut from the earth. The wind-rippling clothes hung to dry or the natural light that bathes over the Legionnaires become characters in their own right.

Not that Beau Travail ever flirts with the pantheistic; but from the way the handheld camera bobbles gently along in a boat as it watches the men along the shore, you know right at the beginning that this will be an uncommonly excellent film. And from the way it ends—an ecstatic solo dance that captures all the freedom that had been bridled heretofore, cunningly intercut with titles that fill the cast's names in like bricks in a wall—you realize you've been watching a great one.

Critic David Thompson speculated that Melville might never translate to the screen, being "too elemental for photography." Claire Denis follows in a long line of French artists enamored of Herman Melville; we may not know the root of her attraction, but she has honored it with a masterpiece as elemental as its source.


Screen_Shot_2022-04-27_at_1.34.41_PM.png
Courtesy of Criterion

Next, in a 2003 essay entitled "Two Beautiful People Gazing at Each Other: The Beaux Travails of Claire Denis," Charles Mudede discussed the film in relation to beauty in Denis's cinema. Here's an excerpt on Beau Travail:
Beau Travail (1999), on the other hand, does not end in violence but in long-term sorrow. Set on a French military base in Djibouti (formerly French Somaliland) composed of 15 or so multiracial young soldiers (whose bodies have been sculpted to perfection by rigorous exercises that would better prepare them for a modern dance piece than an actual battle), the film concerns the arrival of a new recruit (Grégoire Colin) whose extraordinary beauty attracts everyone—and everyone submits to this attraction except the sergeant (Denis Lavant). Instead of surrendering, the compromised sergeant stages a bitter psychological offensive against what he and the other soldiers see: the young man's dreamy movements in the sun, in the desert, at the seaside; the impeccable truth of his flesh, chest, nose, and, of course, eyes. Finally, the sergeant commits a crime (abandoning the young soldier in the desert, where he is rescued by an angelic African woman)—and for this crime he is expelled from the land of sunshine and condemned to spend the rest of his days in a subterranean afterworld that's as torpid as the one in I Can't Sleep.

The poster for Beau Travail may very well be the poster for Claire Denis's cinema: two beautiful people (Grégoire Colin and Denis Lavant) gazing at each other. The question posed by this extended gaze is the key question in all Denis films: Can attraction have a happy ending? Though the characters may beg to differ, the existence of Denis's body of work answers the question with a resounding yes.

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Courtesy of Criterion

And in 2006, former Stranger film critic Annie Wagner commented on Denis's use of bodies in Beau Travail and some of her other movies:
[T]here's something uncanny about the way Beau Travail and Trouble Every Day and Friday Night (all of which were photographed by Agnès Godard) heighten visual texture to the point where it almost spills over into physical sensation. They're often about bodies—being one, fucking one, wanting one, eating one—and they demand that you pay attention with your nerve endings as well as your gaze.

In 2012, The Stranger's former fashion columnist Marti Jonjak interviewed Robin Held—the former Reel Grrls executive director and chief curator at the Frye—highlighting the film's lusty sartorial aspect in her Worn Out column:

Claire Denis's solemn 1999 art movie Beau Travail is about the French Foreign Legion, and involves messy blends of emotional longing and precise military duties and corrupt leaders and sexiness and tensions and long wordless passages and sudden wild reactions. "I'm so mesmerized by the look and the feel of this film," says Robin Held, current executive director of Reel Grrls and former chief curator at the Frye Art Museum, who chose it for Seattle Met and Northwest Film Forum's recent Screen Style series. Other scenes include throbbing dance clubs, fluky helicopter crashes, crisply made beds, blood-dipped hands, beautiful young men marooned in deserts, and physical regimen montages loaded with so much rhythm and effort, they're "like a choreographed dance."

Throughout all this, men pair very tan skin with very shaved heads or very short shorts, or olive tank tops, or heavy boots, or skimpy swim trunks, or dust-colored pants, or open-side shirts held in place with straps. Says Robin, "The way [Denis] showed you uniforms was different than the way you usually see uniforms, whether in benign or frightening settings. Like when you'd see them in a parade. Or in a fascistic show of power. Or in an invasion. Or saving the day."

Instead, Beau Travail's focus shifts smoothly from one maintenance ritual to the next, with extended shots of men clipping laundered socks and underwear to a drying line, for instance. (Denis was uneasy about the "'erotic object' aspect of the film," what with all the luscious babes everywhere, and she imagined she could "maintain a distance" by showing these flattened garments as a "way of de-objectifying the bodies" they once so appetizingly encased, she told Jean-Marc Lalanne and Jérôme Larcher in a Cahiers du Cinéma interview.)

In another unexpectedly glamorous moment, men stationed at ironing boards are arranged "in formation, and [the master sergeant] is inspecting their ironing the same way he might inspect their push-ups or a hole they'd dug," says Robin. Although "they're in the middle of the desert, and the pleats are not going to hold," the image corresponds with the codes of a soldier's universe, with all the routine servitudes to readiness, force, alignments, and discipline. And later, Robin says, when the men wear their pressed uniforms and these shirts with the rigid collars and perfect creases and spotlessness, "you'd see muscled legs and asses and sweat coming through the order."

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Courtesy of Criterion

And in 2019, I, Jas Keimig, first blurbed Beau Travail for Unstreamable, a column I co-write with Chase Burns (plus guest blurbs from Matt Baume!) about films not available on major streaming services. I slightly rewrote the blurb for Slog's Great Films Directed by Women series in March 2020. I prefer that write up, so that's what I'm sharing with you today:
Never before have I wanted to etch the images of a film inside my eyeballs to play privately for me whenever I wanted before watching Beau travail. It's gorgeous and strange and made purely of dreams. Set in Djibouti and based off Herman Melville's Billy Budd, the story is told in an extended first-person flashback, narrated by ex-sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant) after he's kicked out of the French Legion for cruel mistreatment of the charismatic and promising new recruit Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin). While it's sort of vague why he disliked Sentain so much—ostensibly because the boss took a liking to the young man—Galoup's jealousy borders on obsessive. To me, all obsessions have a fetishistic or erotic quality to them and Sentain was likely a locus of unspoken desire for the sergeant.

Beau travail has very little dialogue save for Galoup's narration, instead favoring image over the spoken word. As viewers, story and emotion are revealed to us not as much through exposition, but in glances and snarled mouths. It's fun watching the soldiers do improbable workouts (in one scene, they violently hug each other repeatedly) in improbable places (on the craggy and volcanic ocean shore), but there's a sense of deep intimacy to it all. It's like they take the word "corps" seriously—the men move as if they are one body. Shaving, ironing, dancing together. There's a fascination with the beauty of men's bodies in relation to one another in both their softness and hardness thrown against their ocean-swept setting. Make sure to watch to the very, very end to witness one of the most heartbreaking dances I've seen. Beau travail is Denis at her best.

Beau Travail is screening at The Beacon on Sunday, May 1.

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The Queen Had a Secret Rendezvous With Her Horses

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The Queen called off her appearance at the kick-off of the Royal Windsor Horse Show on Thursday, instead opting to have a secret rendezvous with her horses who were set to compete. According to Radar Online, she sent Princess Beatrice instead, which is an upgrade from sending Prince Charles, but a disappointment if people were hoping for someone with real cache, like Prince George. Buckingham Palace claims that the Queen’s absence wasn’t a mobility issue, she just “changed her mind” about showing up, which is almost worse.

Every horse in the Kingdom was understandably pissed. Not showing up to the House of Lords is one thing, but snubbing the Lord of Horses? That’s a “London Bridge” too far. “Neigh!” the steeds cried, imitating Scotsmen saying “no.”

And yet, as Friday dawned, the Queen steeled her stick and rolled up to the Royal Windsor Horse Show in her rockin’ cool Range Rover (murdered out with a Hello Kitty wheel cover, stick figure family decal on the back window dating back to Henry VII, custom vanity plate bearing the phrase “CIVIL LIST”). According to People, she watched three of her fell ponies compete from the comfort of the front seat. She probably idled the engine, just to make pseudo-environmentalist Prince Charles angry. Her horse Balmoral Leia won.

"She was in great spirits," a boot on the ground told People. "People she knows in the horse world were being brought to her to talk to her at the window. You can see she is in really good form."

Later, she sticked it on over to the grandstand to watch some mini horses slowly drag her granddaughter Lady Louise in a buggy from the days of Queen Boudica (60 A.D.). It’s unclear to me, from the perspective of an American person, if this was also an event or just a really boring parade.

All is forgiven on my end, Queen. The horses’ collective anger is a bit harder to reign in, though. Watch your back.

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lunah-goodbye:x

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Travel Velocity

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As the tourists return, the environment reels.
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Bloom Turns 10

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“The Proper Pronoun for When One Shares One’s Body With One’s New Friend”: A Transgender Reading of Star Trek: Picard

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Picard, S2, episode six, Two of One, Jurati and Borg Queen

The second season of Star Trek: Picard was rife with plot twists, but for my money, the biggest by far was when Agnes Jurati (Allison Pill) stole the entire series from right out below its title character and never gave it back. Picard may be my favourite Star Trek captain; Patrick Stewart may be one of the best living actors; but by the third episode, it was Agnes for whom I was tuning in.

That she was able to pull off this heist is remarkable. Although Allison Pill is an excellent actress, her turn as Jurati made very little impression upon me during the first season; what’s more, she spent the better part of this season paired off with the Borg Queen (played, in this iteration, by Annie Wersching)—a character that I had always found to be an unfortunate, if necessary, plot contrivance to humanize the Borg for casual filmgoers in the 1990s. And yet it worked. During every moment these two were on screen together, the chemistry between them was so overwhelming that it was scarcely possible for me to look away. Their bizarre relationship dynamics—enemies-to-toxic-quasi-lovers-to-enemies-to-the-same-person—were certainly captivating enough, and the resolution to their arc is easily the most interesting thing that Trek has done with the Borg in the last thirty years. But upon reflection, it occurs to me that what most caught my attention about Agnes’s character arc was how it resonated with my own personal experience as a transgender woman.

Now, of course, I have no reason to believe that Agnes, the character, is transgender; that’s not what this essay is about. But I hope that it’s uncontroversial to say that her arc across the second season is a transition narrative: the story of a character who starts out as one thing (a brilliant but neurotic and deeply unhappy human scientist) and ends up as something quite different (the freaking Queen of the Borg). What’s more, it is a story about Agnes coming into her power through a personal transformation that many would consider wrong or even monstrous; about finding where she belongs and becoming who she was (in this case literally) always destined to be. It is, in short, a story about one woman’s self-actualization through transition.

(There’s an obvious objection to this claim: on a textual level, it may be difficult to see how a character who spends fully 30% of the season as a meat puppet for a malicious alien hive queen can be said to be achieving self-actualization. I can definitely see this point, but I’m going to stick a pin in it for now. We’ll come back to it later on.)

So. Agnes Jurati.

At the top of the season, we find Agnes somewhat worse for the wear than she was at the end of season one. She’s been found not criminally responsible for her Zhat Vash-induced murder of her ex-boyfriend Bruce Maddox, but her relationship with Cristóbal Rios (Santiago Cabrera) has fallen apart due to her inability to maintain interpersonal connections. Much is made of her loneliness: as a cyberneticist, she seems more at home with machines than she is with her fellow humans (as Rios puts it, “Synthetic cats; synthetic people; with them, you’re intimate. Other humans? They’re the problem”). The first time we see her, she’s drinking alone to excess, and she is later heavily implied to be dealing with suicidal ideation. She is, in short, a mess. More than that, she is the exact sort of a mess to which anyone who has ever suffered from social dysphoria can readily relate: the sort you become when you are haunted by the suspicion that you, fundamentally, do not fit amongst those who are supposedly “your people.”

She also has a more-than-strictly-academic fascination with the Borg. This particular trait was demonstrated as early as last season’s “The Impossible Box,” when she evinced an intimate knowledge of the details of Picard’s assimilation and seemed noticeably disappointed to be refused entry onto a derelict Borg Cube, but it really comes to the fore in the early episodes of this season. When a Borg ship (later revealed to be represented by Agnes’s own future self) emerges through a spacetime rift, Jurati’s is the main voice advising that their improbable request to join the Federation be given a fair hearing. When Q whisks them all away to a nightmarish alternate reality in which a fascist regime on Earth has somehow destroyed the Borg Collective, she is noticeably sympathetic to their captive Queen (who, interestingly, finds her just as fascinating). And when La Sirena’s crew take this Borg Queen with them back in time, Agnes enthusiastically volunteers for partial assimilation to access her memories, even over Picard’s objections.

I would like to dwell on this partial assimilation for a moment. First of all, it should be noted that it is only the first of several conscious decisions that Agnes makes that bring her progressively closer to becoming a Borg, each time rationalized with a flimsier excuse. “Letting the Borg Queen enter her mind because she needs to access the Watcher’s location” soon becomes “leaving the Borg Queen active in case she knows anything else,” which in turn becomes “letting the dying Borg Queen inject her with nanoprobes because she needs her to get home” and finally “not telling any of her crewmates that she has a Borg Queen living in her brain because they have a mission to complete.” I’m sure that every soon-to-hatch transgender egg who has ever started buying their target gender’s deodorant “because it smells better” can readily relate to Agnes here, and even the Queen calls her out on it.

But on a deeper level, the partial assimilation is significant because, in effect, it makes the Queen into a figure of Agnes’s own subconscious, rummaging around the “rooms” of her mind and forcing her to acknowledge things that she would rather keep buried: that she wishes Picard were her dad but also thinks that he’s an arrogant prick; that her humour is really just a mirror to hide her insecurity; and that she is overwhelmingly, soul-destroyingly lonely. Here, it is useful to invoke the Jungian concept of the shadow—the darker, hidden side of an individual’s psyche; those emotions, traits, and desires that are considered unacceptable to one’s conscious self and can only be acknowledged in another. Within the subtext of the narrative, the Borg Queen is Agnes’s shadow; at once both frightening and alluring, she embodies Agnes’s forbidden desires. The season’s visual language plays this to the absolute hilt as well, repeatedly framing Agnes in the foreground with the Queen in background, and contrasting their respective light and dark pallets. The downed La Sirena thus becomes a sort of a microcosm for Agnes’s own psyche, with her shadow literally bound-up at the back but ever demanding of attention, promising a transition that Agnes knows that it’sits unacceptable to want, but which she wants nonetheless.

Picard, S2, episode six, Two of One, Jurati and Borg Queen

Figure 1: Agnes and her shadow. From Picard, season 2, episode 6, “Two of One.” (Screenshot: Paramount)

It is noteworthy that, when Agnes finally does give-in to the Borg Queen at the end of “Fly Me to the Moon,” the immediate effect is a breakdown in her inhibitions. Formerly shy and somewhat mousey, Agnes finds herself surging with confidence, kissing Rios (albeit with the Borg Queen forcing the matter) and singing on stage. Interestingly, this new confidence corresponds not only to a change in pronoun (in this case, from I to we), but also to a marked change in gender expression. For most of the season and a half leading up to her injection with nanoprobes, Agnes had tended to wear conservative, unisex garments in tones of white or light blue. Here, though, she sports a blood-red cocktail dress with a plunging neckline (matching that of the Borg Queen’s own garment). For Agnes, confidence—and, indeed, euphoria—come with adopting a much more gendered style.

The euphoria is an interesting element here, because, as a part of the assimilation process, it appears completely novel to this season of Picard. Throughout the history of the Star Trek franchise, Borg assimilation has been almost exclusively portrayed as horrific: a violation of the body and an enslavement of the will. Even the one previous episode to take a more positive view of the subject, Voyager’s “Unity,” only really emphasized the potential benefits of a collective consciousness. But here, assimilation feels good—at least for Jurati. In fact, not only does it feel good, but endorphins catalyze the process; the happier Agnes feels, the more control that the Queen has over her—confidence giving way to rampaging id.

Feelings of euphoria are also a part of the transition process for many transgender people, particularly during the early stages. There is a joy in letting go of one’s inhibitions; of embracing truths about oneself and one’s desires that one has for so long denied. But embracing these truths can also be a process of negotiation of boundaries with oneself. When you’re building a new identity, it is very important to be cognizant of what you are comfortable with becoming, and above all, who, exactly, you want to be.

Agnes’s arc comes to a close with exactly such a negotiation. To the series’ credit—and somewhat to my surprise—she is never decoupled from the Borg Queen; her transition is the new status quo for her character. But she also does not surrender to her shadow: she refuses to simply become what the Borg Queen wants her to be. Instead, she assimilates the Queen just as surely as the Queen assimilated her, and together they forge a new identity, taking the best parts of each: the Borg Queen’s strength, confidence, and collective nature tempered with Agnes Jurati’s wisdom, compassion, and humanist ethic. Even better, Agnes—or, rather, the being that she’s become—finds belonging and a sense of purpose in her new identity by travelling the Galaxy to help those like herself: not by indiscriminately assimilating everyone she can, but by offering the benefits of a collective to those who really, truly want it. One might even liken this to transgender community building.

Star Trek: Picard, S2, Farwell, Jurati as Borg Queen

Figure 2: Transition pic: 400 years on nanoprobe therapy. From Picard, season 2, episode 10, “Farewell.” (Screenshot: Paramount)

At the end of the season, we get to see Agnes Jurati one last time, four hundred years in her subjective future. She’s pale and ashen and eldritch and generally weird-looking. And yet, for me at least, it was honestly one of the most heartwarming moments of the entire season. Because what she looked like was herself: what she had always wanted to be; what she was always meant to be. More than that, even though she’d been Borg for ten times longer than she had ever been human, the essence of what she had once been was still with her: the only difference was that now, she seemed genuinely content. Not euphoric; not putting up a bubbly façade to mask her sadness; but simply satisfied with herself and with her place in the Universe.

Whatever else can be said for this season, I am grateful to the writers for allowing Agnes to have this strange and beautiful fate.

Jaime Babb is a writer, editor, and lapsed physicist currently living in Montreal. She can be followed on Tumblr at quasi-normalcy.tumblr.com.

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