Colonial fictions: Le Petit Soldat and its revisionist sequel, Beau Travail
by Justin Vicari
If The Little Soldier is Eurocentric, with the true Third World totally absent from the film and not allowed to speak for itself, Denis corrects this oversight by setting her revisionist sequel entirely in Africa, where the European Legionnaires are themselves outsiders, classic Others. She redraws the map even further; there is one early sequence that begins with the soldiers — already visibly diverse in their racial backgrounds — training on a beach. We cannot help but note that their stolidly muscular bodies have an equal strength and presence regardless of their differences in skin tone.
Then, in a scene which symbolically dismantles the role of the canonic author as privileged figure, Denis cuts to a close-up of a disembodied hand writing verse in French on the white pages of a notebook, superimposed over ocean waves sparkling and rolling underneath. This striking image is reminiscent of a similar shot of “writing-over-the-ocean” in Francois Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H. (1975), about Victor Hugo’s troubled daughter and her obsessive love for a soldier. That scene's context fits Denis’ purposes (since Galoup’s obsession with Gilles will come to dominate the film), but what is decisive about the shot in her film is the unmistakable political implication in its reversal of privileged points-of-view. Truffaut's Adele Hugo (played by Isabel Adjani) writes many letters in the film, which we see her reciting into the camera as she composes them; at one point we see an image of her face reciting/composing superimposed over ocean waves. But whereas Truffaut attaches this “writing-across-the-waves” to the specific surname of France’s most famous author, thereby underscoring the writer's individualism as such, Denis makes writing poetry wholly anonymous; anyone’s hand could be writing it. Thus, the academic fetish (so familiar from Godard) of name-dropping, of canon formation, is teased here, but ultimately sent away unfulfilled. Denis overrules the mythos of the Great Author in favor of a nameless “writing.”
However, only moments later, when the African Rahel is showing off one of her rugs, she is asked, “Where did you get this?” She proudly answers, “I made it myself.” Denis allows Rahel to be the acclaimed artist, to be given her signatory due. Within these two moments, Denis overturns centuries of scholastic Eurocentric thinking in which poetry is treated as a specialized individualistic achievement and rug-weaving as the random expression of a collective tribal ritual.
Nameless, authorless writing, whether cultural artifact or cultural symptom, suggests a nameless, authorless cinema, whose unfolding messages will be random and raw, not necessarily guided by the eye of a master-craftsman but culled from a species of life-being-lived. Indeed there are times in Beau Travail when Denis achieves this. Some of her scenes mingle dream and documentary in a way that seems to eavesdrop or directly absorb life rather than existing as compositional links in a methodically super-constructed work. Such a decentralized visual and narrative style has its specific uses, not all of which are idealistic in themselves. Sometimes, when artists repudiate high or “imperial” culture, it is not only because that culture is deemed as ineluctably oppressive, allied with an ancien regime or with corrupt power; it is also because that culture, in spite of its legitimate selling points, may no longer be able to save us from lurking threats. Something more genuine and immediate, less insular and more shared, more open and communal, must be evolved at certain historical, turning-point moments.
One is reminded of Godard's young Bruno Forestier trying to understand political chaos through the limited prism of western culture, speculating at one point, “And Veronica, are her eyes Velasquez gray or Renoir gray?” while the world he knows is being torn apart by terrorism, torture and warfare. He is helplessly using the staid canon of imperial culture to try to fathom a changing world in which power itself has begun to be less concentrated, and in which marginalized voices need to be assimilated by the center for the true composition of the world to make sense.
Thus, as a kind of harbinger of new, non-imperial manhood, Beau Travail’s Gilles stands in contrast to the older, more classical and Eurocentric way of thinking. He is on friendly terms with the blacks in the regiment. A semi-surreal sequence shows Gilles and some other young soldiers carrying a nearly naked African through the dusky streets of Djibouti in a kind of victory processional; at one point, they set the African down and he, in turn, carries Gilles on his shoulders. Galoup says, “They carried one of their own,” while we see Gilles doffing his cap and waving like a heroic conqueror. But Gilles’ “conquest” here is fraternal and compassionate — he is pointedly accepted by the natives as “one of their own.” In another scene, we see an African painstakingly pulling sea-urchin needles from Gilles’ foot. Finally, Gilles attacks Galoup precisely to defend another black soldier from being abused.
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