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(Credit: Pyramide Distribution)

Film

How Claire Denis film 'Beau Travail' subverts the male gaze

Released in 1999 to much critical acclaim, Claire Denis’ Beau Travail is a gorgeously crafted and meditative exploration of masculinity, set against a backdrop of harsh sun and military regime. Taking place in Djibouti, French Foreign Legion soldiers are depicted training, participating in assault courses and exercising their bodies to extremes. The central character, Galoup (Denis Lavant) is an insecure and jealous member of the Legion who is obsessed with Commandant Bruno Forestier. However, the arrival of the handsome and popular Gilles Sentain makes Galoup extremely envious and angry, leading to events that result in the protagonist’s downfall.

The concept of the ‘male gaze’ was introduced in 1975 by feminist theorist Laura Mulvey, who used psychoanalysis to suggest that all films objectify female characters, and their existence only serves to satisfy the gaze of male, heterosexual viewers, since that is who governs the majority of Hollywood and therefore control what is produced for the screen. Yet Mulvey’s theory has been largely criticised due to its many flaws. Her theory fails to consider how psychoanalysis is in fact a largely male-dominated theory that prioritises the male psyche. Furthermore, as critiqued by bell hooks, Mulvey fails to consider the role of Black women in cinema, who are mainly excluded from the male gaze, thus leading hooks to propose the idea of ‘the oppositional gaze’, a concept that challenges the whiteness of cinema which typically perpetuates the othering of Black people.

However, the male gaze can be particularly useful to consider when looking at the representation of men, by men. So often are the archetypes of masculinity portrayed with toxicity, the ideal man seen as a cowboy, a strong, muscular fighter, or a sexually dominant figure. Yet Claire Denis’ Beau Travail utilises a potent female gaze in her exploration of masculinity that is both mesmerising and refreshing. Not only was Beau Travail directed by a woman, but the film’s cinematographer was also a woman – Agnes Godard, as well as its editor – Nelly Quettier. From its screenplay to post-production, Beau Travail was entirely shaped by the eyes of women, who proved to be more knowledgeable of masculinity than their male contemporaries.

In breathtaking close-ups, the chiselled bodies and shaved heads of soldiers rhythmically move around the screen, contrasted with the empty yet expansive stretches of desert. The movements resemble ballet in their precision and concentrated intensity, yet Denis stated: “One of the cast had actually been in the Legion, so we took all their real exercises and did them together every day. We never said we were going to choreograph the film. But afterwards, when we started shooting, using [Benjamin] Britten’s music, those exercises became like a dance”. The ballet-like quality of their routines starkly contrasts the stereotypes of masculinity, even further contrasted by the fact that the men are expected to be macho soldiers.

These enthralling sequences are the perfect introduction to the film’s exploration of masculinity, which focuses on repression, desire, insecurity, and jealousy. Denis’ film suggests that rigid ideas of macho masculinity can only cause tragedy. Each man, but especially Galoup, wants to be the strongest and most well-respected man in the troop. Societal expectation leads to repression of one’s authentic self, and Galoup is the perfect example of this. When the charming Sentain shows up, Galoup plots to destroy him, which can only suggest that he is threatened by his effortlessly masculine presentation. Yet it is interesting to note that Godard’s camera lingers significantly more on the small and ‘ugly’ Galoup in comparison to the sculpture-like defined and attractive Sentain.

Galoup’s plan works and, after tampering with Sentain’s compass, he finds himself lost and almost dies in the extreme conditions of the desert. It is assumed by Bruno that Galoup intended for Sentain to die, so he is sent back to France which ends his career in the legion. Galoup is lost and lonely. Without the rigidity of the Legion and the chance to exercise masculine power over others, Galoup no longer knows what to do with himself. Yet the ending scene highlights his humanity, the fact that despite everything, he is just confused, repressed, and unsure of what his purpose truly is. Taking to the dancefloor that was shown in previous scenes, Galoup pulls some impressive shapes, unleashing all of his pent-up repression and anger, and channelling it into something rather spectacular – all to the sound of Corona’s ‘The Rhythm of the Night’.

Denis’ feminine gaze is revolutionary. Beau Travail is a masterpiece that transfixes its audience with a hypnotic gaze that will inexplicably remain in the back of one’s mind long after viewing the film. No one has deconstructed masculinity quite like Denis, alongside an exploration of jealousy and repression that is both unique yet timeless. It is clear why such a film is considered the director’s magnum opus, from its transcendent long shots and intense close-ups, to a chilling score by Benjamin Britten, the film feels mysterious yet intensely provocative all at the same time.