Puer and Senex
There is plenty of Internet comment on Claire Denis’ film “Beau Travail,” with its ambiguous title, maybe better translated as “nice work” with its possible sarcasm than as “beautiful work” -- though the film itself is just that: arduous, male, and about what is meant to be men’s work, though it is really road-building through desolation. For the existential post-colonial and slightly wicked context of this version of “Billy Budd,” that’s entirely the point. Claire Denis, a woman directing a film about men in a foreign legion, confronts the strict, honor-bound, and ultimately tragic love/hate between what Jungians call the Senex (old man) and the Puer (young man). It is tragic when unacknowledged and unexpressed, therefore becomes destructive in the Senex’ cruel attempt to destroy the Puer, the youth he most wishes to possess, and the Puer’s innocent exposure to it.
The Senex has the backing of the Empire (yes, as in “Star Wars”) which tries to prevent the future, interpreting it as a loss of power. And there is the Abrahamic dilemma of whether to obey one’s ancient and all-powerful God (loyalty to the Legion) by murdering one’s son. Denis, the director, was born just as WWII ended, but she grew up in Africa, racially inclusive when it comes to skin, but acutely aware of male musculature, movement, and force. The series of military drills are very much dance-like, but never cross over until the final dance by the Senex, Galoup, a cabaret sort of dance like sophisticated old black tap dancers making it look so easy, a matter of skill and timing, until it builds to climax.
The whole film is on YouTube (also streams on Netflix) but an edited fan tribute is a bit shorter and includes women dancing -- dignified, simply moving shoulders while staying in place. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xET7QpKRmR8 I don’t know why, except to establish that these are men who desire women.
Here’s a trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u65lNJP5yik
Here’s some astute commentary: https://melvillian.wordpress.com/2010/02/01/beau-travails-dance-dance-revolution/ from the blog called “Existentialism is a Film.” In the background of the film sound-track are “bits” from the Benjamin Britten opera based on “Billy Budd.”
I take a specific point of view: Senex v. Puer as laid out in Jungian terms by James Hillman. There are many YouTube episodes about this but this one linked below is only three minutes and is sharply relevant. In this approach it is NOT the Oedipal rivalry that counts nor even the ownership of the son by the father that’s at the heart of Christianity, but simply the tragic fact that the human trajectory turns towards death at the end. Then the young can become a joy and a fulfillment, or they can become a taunt, a torture, by constantly pushing the old against their ending -- as judgment.
As Hillman says, in this specific snippet from a long series of lectures (all valuable) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99Zo2PxPXx4 the young man has a freedom and range that the old man has lost, unless he can go to a different level -- the imagination. IF he has been “working his gift”, it is a beau travail. Then he is free to truly dance. What wounds him, names him.
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), the composer of the opera based on “Billy Budd”, was a product of the SM British hierarchical and hegemaniacal education system. Whatever that did or didn’t have to do with it, he was always hounded by people ever-so-curious about whether he was gay or not. That was a time when same sex acts were criminal, so there was a maliciousness in the curiosity. Later in Britten’s life he had friendships with young men, early adolescent boys, which to the modern fucking-obsessed mind means he was a pedophile. Hillman would say he was a Senex interacting with the Puer Aeternus, and the boys themselves -- when grilled as though they were kindergarteners proving they knew their crayon colors -- said he was simply an excellent and kind friend. Some of them were singers in his works.
Denis Lavant who plays Galoup, has a ruined, scarred face and a rawhide body, both suggesting intense experience, now with no use. Grégoire Colin who plays Gilles Sentain, the Puer, appears in this bit of interview video with hair https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fAMHVN-jRZE The contrast reveals how much he was truly acting in the film, which calls for him to be almost featureless (head shaved) except for his body.
Here are some other comments by critics:
“The majority of Denis' oeuvre uses location work over studio work. She sometimes places her actors as if they were positioned for still photography. She uses longer takes with a stationary camera and frames things in long shot, resulting in fewer close ups. However, Denis' cinematic and topical focus always remains relentlessly on the faces and bodies of her protagonists. The subject's body in space, and how the particular terrain, weather, and color of the landscape influences and interacts with the human subjects of her films maintains cinematic dominance.
"Tim Palmer explores Denis' work as a self-declared formalist and brilliant film stylist per se; an approach the filmmaker herself has declared many times in interview to be as much about sounds, textures, colors and compositions as broader thematic concerns or social commitments.” (wikipedia)
“Denis is especially receptive to three things: human bodies (especially when they are semi-nude, and especially black touching white skin); bodies of water; and transit. Several of her films open with shots of bodies of water and end with close-ups of human figures. The most remarkable of her last shots comes without question in “Beau Travail.” Dennis Levant’s sadistic, repressed, rageful legionnaire Galoup, clad all in black in an empty black room, disco dancing alone to the ‘90s dance hit “Rhythm of the Night.” People talk about this ending like it’s a climax—in the New York Times, Stephen Holden described it as a “frenzied Dionysian release.” It is, sort of. Galoup is exploding. But it’s not disco heaven; it’s disco limbo. Levant’s frenzy has the feeling of being suspended out of time, somewhere beyond the laws of cause and effect.” (I’ve lost the source of this quote so I’ll let you have the fun of looking for it.) Some say he is dancing dead.
The dance at the end: fence or mirrors?
Don’t forget that Melville was the author of “Moby Dick” about that obsessed Senex pursuing a white whale to his own destruction. Melville didn’t finish writing “Billy Budd”, his last book, and his wife found she couldn’t either. There were unresolvable elements. Since the first published version, many changes have been made to achieve a coherent whole. I doubt any of the participants in this effort were fans of James Hillman. He comes from a different discipline than literary people. But Hillman is broadly useful in the humanities and his ideas ought to be more conscious for us all, if only because he is so funny in a happy appreciative way.
Repressed homosexuality as a motor for story has been done now with varying success and has become a catch-all like narcissism or bi-polar. Everyone thinks they know all about it and they keep the rubber stamp handy. Whap! Done!
The Puer/Senex dialogue is universal and complex enough to go beyond the little snap judgments of mean cocktail party jokers. It is cross-racial, cross-media, international, spiritual. Even ecological. Therefore, it is a force for understanding. When someone like Claire Denis gets hold of it, the beauty is transcendent.