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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