Boot camp

She’s one of French cinema's best kept secrets; none of CLAIRE DENIS' films have been seen in the UK. But the mesmerising Beau Travail allows British audiences to see why she is so highly- regarded a filmmaker.

Words: Tom Dawson

Claire Denis became involved with Beau Travail (Good Work). a homoerotic tale of French Foreign Legionnaires. when she was asked by the European television network Arte to contribute to a series of films about ‘what it is to be a foreigner'.

‘I knew Djibouti in East

Africa.‘ explains the fiftysomething former

assistant to such directors as Jacques Rivette and Wim Wenders. and director of eight features including (‘lioeolat (her 1989 debut) and Ne’nerte e! Bani. ‘I had spent some of my childhood there. and I knew the Foreign Legion was exercising there. I did some location scouting and I thought that the sight of the soldiers training in this heat and dryness was unbelievable. But something was missing though. I didn‘t want to do a documentary. I wanted to express something that I was seeing through watching these men at a distance. I realised that what I knew about men together. about mens‘ worlds was from books like Herman Melville‘s Billy Budd. I decided that Melville‘s story would be a good angle with which to attack the project.‘

Aware from the outset that she might not receive any co-operation in making Beau Travail from either

50 THE lIST 6—20 Jul 2000

'I felt the French Army would freak outabouta legionnaire being sad and depressed and about to commit suicide.’

1 Claire Denis

Denis Lavent in Beau Travail, French filmmaker Claire Denis' first film to receive UK distribution

the French military authorities or the Djibouti government. Denis actually wrote two different scripts. ‘The first was the diary of Sergeant (‘ialoup (played by Denis Lavant). recollecting his life as a legionnaire. This was a long sequence of recollections. a monologue. that I knew would be the voice-over. which I combined with a description of the characters. The second script was very precise in terms of images. it was like a reflection or an echo of the diary. 1 showed Arte both scripts to give them an understanding of the project. but I told them not to give the diary part to the French army. I felt they would freak out about Galoup. a legionnaire. being so sad and depressed that he‘s about to commit suicide.‘

Shot in just 24 days on a low-budget. Beau Travail presented Denis with a host of logistical difficulties. 'Every day the Djibouti army would come along and say you cannot use that road or that location.‘ she remembers. ‘l was supposed to have a boat. but at the last minute they would say no. So we had to make changes to the script. but I think it’s important to be flexible.‘

And during shooting. Denis even took a leaf out of the handbook of maestro Sergio Leone. who famously blared Ennio Mori'icone’s score out of speakers on the set of Once Upon A 'I'i'me In Tllt’ W'st. ‘While I was writing my script. I was listening to Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd. because the song of the sailor helped me to feel the sense of those men together. For the scene where Sergeant (ialoup and his rival Sentain (played by Gregoire Colin) are circling one another. we had this Britten music on playback on the set. The wind was blowing so hard that you could hardly hear the music. But for a few minutes the wind slowed down and the music came through. and it was so beautiful.‘ Beau 'I‘rai'ail. indeed.

Beau Travail opens Fri 14 Jul. See review.

Rough cuts

Lights, camera, action . . .

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The Frog looks into the clockwork box