A group from the Foreign Legion forgotten, abandoned somewhere in the gulf of Djibouti. Remnants of a ghost army which pays war and mends roads. In Marseille, the ex-warrant officer Galoup reminds him of this happy time, of this well orchestrated life, of his men, his dear herd. But eventually what he really lost is his commander. His commander he didn’t want to share with a young legionary.
About the film
This is not about homosexuality, or at least not in a central or even important way, it is about a basic need to exist in the eyes of another, for example, the adjutant’s need to exist in the eyes of his commander; and it is also about the devastating pain of being ousted by the arrival of a newcomer. Against the commander, nothing will be destructive enough, even if it means self-destruction at the same time. Rarely have beauty and violence gone so tightly hand in hand, in a dance that is slow, hot and unforgettable, like these exercises in the midst of throbbing sands, these bodies of men made to kill, which Claire Denis manages to look at without indulgence, but also without hatred or superiority.
As often in her films, several sources mingle to produce an unusual work, which will turn out to be much more than the mixture of these origins. Here, the narrative comes from Herman Melville and his novel Billy Budd. The framework, transposed from sea to desert, is comparable, and the likeness is heightened by the use of musical passages borrowed from Benjamin Britten’s opera of the same title. But the narrative is refocused by the return of the commander Forestier, a role reprised by Michel Subor, who created the character 40 years earlier in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (1961). At the end of that film, the deserter Bruno Forestier – the then young Subor – leaves France and the silver screen, after failing in his mission and letting his love, Veronica Dreyer (Anna Karina), be tortured to death. With the genealogy of a fictional character, the Forestier of those times, laden with secrets, had become this officer in the Foreign Legion, a sign of complicity, over decades, with a great cinematic adventure. But Claire Denis’s direction owes nothing to anyone, including Godard, and the choreography of the violent male bodies created in the desert by the dancer Bernardo Monte and the camera work of Agnès Godard (no relation to the film-maker) open up the private passions of men, supposedly become machines, to quite different vanishing lines, in the middle of a world which is not theirs, and which they torment by the very fact of their intrusion.
Her films bear their viewers away, towards a hidden place: to the heart of darkness, it might be said, and all the more readily because African sources play a decisive part for her. But this darkness is not necessarily that of inextricable jungle or the blackness of the human soul. It is the darkness of the mysteries of our existence, of our desires, and our fears, here, now, and everywhere. It would be a futile quest to seek out among French filmmakers someone as filled with a sense of the world, in all its geographical and human complexity, as Claire Denis. As the grand-daughter of an inhabitant of Amazonia, and daughter of a colonial administrator, she was brought up at the mercy of her father’s postings in an Africa which has directly inspired several of her films (CHOCOLATE, GOOD WORK, WHITE MATERIAL), and haunts them all. She came to film somewhat haphazardly, after being an IDHEC (film school) student with no particular bent, and discovered the degree of her affinity with the language of film as a result of other journeys, aesthetic and geographical alike. Listen to the noise of the large Korean port in THE INTRUDER after the mediaeval chill of the Haut Doubs region of eastern France, feel the dry, white heat of WHITE MATERIAL, hear the harmonics of three continents around the cock-fighting pit in NO FEAR, NO DIE: this particular cinema is highly sensitive to the powers of places, to the political stakes of meetings, to the joyous and dangerous enigmas of the differences between languages, cultures, quality of light and music. Other journeys, other encounters, in Asia especially, in South America and in the Arab world too, would then continue to make Claire Denis the most cosmopolitan of French filmmakers, of either gender. © From Claire Denis—A Sense of the World By Jean-Michel Frodon