Elsaesser, Thomas. “European Cinema and the Post-heroic Narrative: Claire Denis and Beau Travail.” New Literary History vol. 43, no. 4 (Autumn 2012): 703–725.

European Cinema and the Post-heroic Narrative: Claire Denis and Beau Travail

Thomas Elsaesser

from New Literary History 43, no. 4

Let me begin with a series of observations about the state of European cinema. First: European cinema does not exist, except as a bureaucratic dream or a promotional tool for national producers and distributors of art house films. Second: insofar as it is willed into existence, European cinema has over the past three decades been funded mainly by governmental subsidy schemes, public service television, or via the European Union, that is, the tax payer. Such largesse is politically justified in the name of either preserving a national cultural heritage or promoting European integration, the latter of which obliges recipients of such funds to enter into transnational coproduction agreements or joint distribution arrangements. It is not unusual, for instance, to find up to a dozen different funding bodies and production companies listed in the credits of a Michael Haneke or Lars von Trier film. Third: since the end of World War II, national new waves or film movements (along with the auteurs associated with them) have been created by Europe’s leading festivals, such as Cannes, Venice, Berlin, and Rotterdam, rather than emerging organically from their national film cultures, where on the whole, such auteurs and new waves have been viewed by the film-going public as too difficult or elitist. Fourth: European cinema today, when considered as a counter-Hollywood, avant-garde, or auteur cinema (the common understanding of the term) is best subsumed under the umbrella categories of “world cinema,” “global art cinema,” or “international festival cinema.”1

These arguments are laid out at greater length and in more detail in a book I published in 2005, European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood. There, I try to show, inter alia, that the favored view in the past, namely regarding European cinema collectively as the good object (art, sophistication, and cultural value), against the foil of Hollywood’s bad object (commerce, formula, and box office), has become untenable. Such a view fails to recognize the crucial role played by film festivals, publicly funded television, and government agencies, as well as a world market in media products that serve the cultural tastes of privileged minorities. Together, these conditions make (national as well as transnational) art cinemas aesthetically possible, economically viable, and ideologically necessary. In the process, European cinema has also established many kinds of indirect cooperation, invisible interfaces, and covert complicities with Hollywood, ranging from megastars on the red carpet in Cannes or Venice and the promotion of American directors such as Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, or Quentin Tarantino as (European-style) auteurs. The Hollywood interface also includes talent transfer from Europe to the United States (Roman Polanski, Louis Malle, Volker Schlöndorff, Wolfgang Petersen, Paul Verhoeven, Bille August, Tom Tykwer) and US distribution deals for European films, with Miramax (for Amélie), Sony Picture Classics (for The Lives of Others) or the Weinstein company (for The Artist).

Because these (and other) forms of cooperation and collusion are necessary at the structural level, while often negated or disavowed at the level of discourse, I have coined for them the term “antagonistic mutuality,” as well as arguing that European cinema—no different from Europe in this respect—is “doubly occupied.” That is to say, it always already contains what it considers its “other,” while stabilizing its identity by suppressing difference, and by excluding that which is already part of its own internal makeup.2

Given the pressure to incorporate film and media into the curriculum of European literature and modern language departments at universities, especially in the United States and United Kingdom, there have, in recent years, been notable attempts to forge something like a consensus around how to study and teach European cinema, and how to coordinate the appropriate research networks.3 At the most recent count, at least six readers and as many monographs with “European” and “cinema” in their titles are competing for attention on students’ reading lists.4 It would be interesting to sift through this material in order to distill a new definition of and for European cinema in the twenty-first century, based on scholarly debates about how to teach what refuses to be a single history or a coherent body of films, and to compare this material to the discourse of policy makers in charge of media, culture, tourism, and heritage. The underlying ideology of such attempts to define European film and culture might well mirror the priorities of the more pragmatic promoters of an integrated Europe, which is increasingly under pressure to follow up the creation of the single market and the seventeen-nation currency union with a political union, one which does not undermine the linguistic diversity and cultural distinctiveness of the member states.

What follows is an attempt to build upon the arguments aired in European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood about the precarious self-construction of European auteur and national cinemas as the good “other” in one of the many binaries that pits art against commerce, auteur against star, critical prestige against box office. Here I am interested in putting forward a more philosophical case for why and how the cinema might indeed be an important, if not indispensable, actor in bringing about a different self-understanding of what it means to be part of “Europe Now.” How, especially, can cinema contribute to the understanding and reshaping of notions of community that have political consequences for the future of Europe?

The background for my discussion is the situation of contemporary (non-Hollywood) cinema more generally, what is usually called “independent cinema.” That this is something of a misnomer becomes evident when one bears in mind how films are made in contemporary Europe: via coproductions and television money; how they are distributed: mainly through the film festival circuit; and how they gain cultural capital: more than ever through the value attribution deriving from the notion of auteur-as-artist. If neither the label “national” nor “independent” can serve, are we therefore obliged to retain the contested concept of the auteur as the only defining criterion of what makes a film European? The auteur label, however, is no longer specifically European, doing duty at festivals and for directors all over the world.

Might there, then, be a common set of ethical values, philosophical principles, or common historical traumas, such as the Holocaust or colonialism (and the themes that derive from them) that unites Europe as a distinct filmmaking entity? What defines directors, films and cinema practices that can no longer depend on an opposition to Hollywood for their self-definition? Is it the awareness and wariness of the kind of self-exoticism or autoethnography that is the perpetual temptation of coproduced, festival show-cased “world cinema”? Or is what unites them merely the common dilemma of needing to assert their authorial independence, while being invariably identified with their nation of provenance when presenting themselves to international journalists? The dilemma is exacerbated when directors are pressed into the service of “representing” their country, especially where they are this country’s critical or dissenting voices. Directors from Iran, Israel, and Turkey have often had to face this predicament, while films from Central and Eastern Europe have had to meet expectations of how they dealt with their Communist past, while struggling to redefine their post-Communist “national identity” without becoming “nationalists.” The more sophisticated response to this impasse of how to speak to “the world” at festivals in a distinct language and voice, while not being beholden to either a nationalist or an antination agenda, is to surprise jaded, faded European palates with the taste of a cinema of contemplative purity, of images uncontaminated by narrative, genre, or message, and thus of a world washed clean again, reborn as it were, in the spirit of cinematic poetry and presence: the Hungarian director Béla Tarr, the Portuguese director Pedro Costa, and the Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan come to mind as favored poets of the pristine image. All this points, indeed, to the realization that European cinema is now an integral part of world cinema or global art cinema.

Unsocial Sociability

What would be an alternative ground from which to critically assess all of these positions on the state of European cinema? How might filmmakers, instead of showing to the “other” those images that the “other” wants to see, sustain difference, dissensus, and antagonism, while nevertheless articulating such singularity in a context of mutuality, solidarity, and commonality? Besides acknowledging “antagonistic mutuality” and “double occupancy” as the foundational gestures of such a commonality-in-difference, one might consider Immanuel Kant’s locution of “the unsocial sociability of men” (“die ungesellige Geselligkeit des Menschen”) and compare or contrast it with Jean-Luc Nancy’s “being singular plural.” A relevant passage from Kant’s “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Perspective [weltbürgerlicher Sicht]” goes as follows:

The unsocial sociability of men, i.e., their propensity to enter into society, bound together with a mutual opposition which constantly threatens to break up this society. Man has an inclination to associate with others, because in society he feels himself to be . . . more than the developed form of his natural capacities. But he also has a strong propensity to isolate himself from others, because he finds in himself at the same time the unsocial characteristic of wishing to have everything go according to his own desires. . . . He expects opposition on all sides because . . . he knows that, for his own part, he is inclined to oppose others. This opposition . . . awakens all his powers, brings him to conquer his inclination to laziness and, propelled by vainglory, lust for power and avarice, [leads him] to achieve a rank among his fellows whom he cannot tolerate but from whom he cannot withdraw. . . . Man wishes concord; but Nature knows better what is good for the race; she wills discord. . . . [Thus,] the sources of . . . mutual opposition from which so many evils arise, drive men to new exertions of their forces and thus to the manifold development of their capacities.

This is one of those brief, seminal “anthropological” texts on which much of Europe’s political and social thinking has been based. Its idea of a providential world history, using men’s moral weakness rather than their moral strength, provoked Hegel into developing his own dialectic of the World Spirit, which in turn inspired Marx’s thinking—very much with Kant in mind—about the struggle of antagonistic forces in society leading to greater perfection of the human race. However unfashionable both Hegel and Marx might currently be, one can return to Kant’s passage today, at another political juncture, not in order to revive these teleological schemas of progress, but to highlight the dilemmas of “unsocial sociability” to which Kant refers. Two issues prove especially significant: first, that of the relation between the singular and the plural, the individual not merging with the collective while still being dependent on and a part of the collective, and second: the shift from perfectibility to an emphasis on immanence and finitude.

The “European” Community: Heroic and Postheroic Narratives

Traditionally, Kant’s version of mutual antagonism and unsocial sociability has been seen as belonging to one of the heroic accounts of how to think political divisions productively, while acknowledging that the self will always be bound to the community in a fruitful as well as fateful tension. My own interest would be to imagine a postheroic version of these divisions and tensions, more appropriate for our age, but where Kant’s observations about antagonism as mutually beneficial, if not providential, are still relevant and pertinent.

What do I mean by heroic and postheroic narratives? It is almost a cliché by now that the fall of Communism, the unification of Germany, and the subsequent enlargement of the EU since 1990, instead of strengthening Europe in the global context, seem to have accelerated the decentering of the continent in relation to the Americas, China, and other Asian nations. An aging population, the burden of an unaffordable welfare state, and a reluctance to accept and integrate immigrants were among the reasons blamed for Europe’s loss of self-confidence and initiative, even before the debt crisis created new tensions between the still affluent North and the struggling South. As a consequence, Europe no longer has a heroic narrative of self-identity. The French and American Revolution, Rousseau and Hobbes’s social contract leading to democracy, the critical hermeneutics of the Enlightenment, which established empirical knowledge, techno logical improvement of life and the prospect of unlimited progress: all represented narratives of heroic collective self-creation and self-realization. Now that we realize how much this heroic narrative was also based on imperialism, slavery, and colonialism, on exploitation and exclusion, Europeans are no longer quite so proud of it. Yet Europe has also failed to consider the possibility of a postheroic narrative—whatever this might turn out to be—and instead, it has turned obsessively towards the past, towards commemoration and collective nostalgia.

At the same time, the fracturing of the social contract, accompanied by a growing deficit in democracy, because of government by technocratic elites, has—so the argument goes—been aided and abetted by European intellectuals, mostly on the left, who have undermined Europe philosophically through secularization, skepticism, nihilism, critical theory, and deconstruction. These intellectuals have systematically cast doubt on Europe’s moral, epistemological, and ontological foundations, most notably by challenging the values of Enlightenment humanism, and in the process, they have embraced forms of social constructivism that ended up distrusting the legitimacy of its political institutions, breeding both cynicism and apathy.5

These supposedly corrosive effects of postmetaphysical philosophy could, however, be the starting point for postheroic narratives, which accommodate both Europe’s much diminished role in the age of globalization, and formulate a different basis for a social contract on the far side of either nostalgia or nihilism, of either resurgent nationalisms or fundamentalist religions. By reviving Kant’s “unsocial sociability” and bringing it together with Nancy’s thinking on singularities and collectives, I hope to explore notions of community after the demise of the great utopian or progressive social projects that have dominated European political thinking over the past two hundred years. Such a reconception of community could help delineate a postheroic narrative of a postnational EU and could in turn find in the cinema its imaginative test-bed or laboratory.

As I have already hinted, the renewed concern with the idea of community has complex driving motives, some of which come from an awareness of global citizenship and a shared sense of interdependence and responsibility not only for our fellow humans, but for other sentient beings in nature, the “parliament of things” (Bruno Latour) and the environment. But one can also show how the evacuation of traditional politics, and the uneven disarticulation and rearticulation of the nation-state implied by the concept of a postnational Europe, has given rise to the centrality of human rights as the foundational logic that legitimates political action—including external interference and military intervention. This logic implies that we delegate to supranational bodies the task of prosecuting political crimes, negotiating over minority rights, or seeking justice for “crimes against humanity.” It has led to the so-called “ethical turn”: the return to religion and the emergence of a postideological politics of the moral emotions. All of which are indicative, it is argued, of the failed or exhausted politics of representation and of identity politics, whose horizon was social justice in a world of difference, rather than the assertion of a common humanity.

If human rights are now the platform for the articulation of universally agreed values in the political sphere, then the popularity of neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, and cognitivism would indicate that the search is also on for a new set of innate universals, tempering the Enlightenment belief in reason with the emotional brain, replacing the mind-body split with the embodied mind and challenging rationality with the mirror-neurons of hardwired empathy.

A postheroic narrative—in contrast to recovering such old or new universals that seek to find common ground between the religions or posit shared mutual responsibilities and interests—is more likely to affirm (in the spirit of Kant) antagonism, incompatible interests, and incommensurable values and still insist that there are things that bind singularities into a community. As already suggested, much of contemporary European philosophy is concerned with foundational questions, including the foundations of democracy and the “social contract.” This concern has rightly been seen against the background of the failures of socialism, communism, and the disaster of the fascist communities of male bonding, as well as the failure of other theories of the “we,” such as the Marxist revolutionary subject and the working class as a collective agent of struggle and change. In light of the various tribalisms, sectarianisms, and communities based on race and ethnicity, which seem to have reemerged on the back of these failures, the question of whether there are different ways of relating to one another has become urgent, and highly political.

“Community Work”

This new thinking of the “we” after the collective and after the subject is what we are concerned with, while also acknowledging the necessary but insufficient basis of human rights as a foundational gesture of this “we.” Prominent among the (mainly French) philosophers rethinking community are several former Marxists, such as Jacques Rancière and Alain Badiou, but also “libertarian socialist” thinkers such as Claude Lefort, and the already cited Jean-Luc Nancy, a philosopher more closely allied with the Heidegger-Derrida tradition, and relevant in the present context thanks to two books, The Inoperative Community (1986) and Being Singular Plural (2000). Together with Maurice Blanchot’s The Unavowable Community (1983, 1988) and Giorgio Agamben’s The Coming Community (1993), Nancy’s work has opened up the concept of community to a broader politico-ethical and philosophico-ontological context.

The project of a community-to-come as devised by Nancy, Blanchot, and Agamben can, on the one hand, be interpreted as giving a positive turn to the very phenomena that are usually condemned as exemplifying the “distintegration of social bonds,” such as—at one end of the social spectrum—economic elites or tax exiles that feel no loyalty to nation or state, and—at the other end—second generation immigrants who feel excluded and have no stake in the country that hosts them and of which they are legal citizens. Rather than read this atomization or anomie merely as symptoms of the decay of the social contract and the decline of the “public sphere,” the challenge would be to accept a degree of contingency in the way humans come together and have commerce with each other, once one acknowledges that traditional notions of community and collective bonds have become “inoperative.” On the other hand, the Nancy/Blanchot/Agamben inoperative/unavowable community is also conceived (or functions) as an alternative to another idea of community now widely embraced in cultural studies, one that reacts to the dissolution of the nation-state by reinvestigating its origins. I am referring to the adoption and appropriation of the analyses of Benedict Anderson, who—after seeing how the idea of community began to separate from the nation state—began to speak about “imagined communities.” Using Indonesia as his chief example of postcolonial nationhood, Anderson describes the nation as a cultural and political artifact that provides a previously heterogeneous collectivity with a sense of geographical unity, historical continuity, and emotional consistency through media such as print journalism or disciplinary regimes such as universal schooling. Anderson’s main thesis was that nationalism was a project developed and understood not simply through political systems of power, but rather through cultural systems of sign and image production.

Although anthropological in its initial formulations, Anderson’s concept of imagined communities was avidly seized upon by cultural critics to validate the new media of the late twentieth century like television and the Internet, with their transient but intense, volatile but ubiquitous, communities. If anything, this thinking of communities as self-generated and culturally constructed has grown in recent years, wherever online or virtual communities of social networking are promoted as the natural successors to the bourgeois public spheres of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As the new global cultural avant-gardes, they are said not only to demonstrate the wisdom of crowds, but also to understand themselves as a politically progressive force—as seen, most recently, in the Facebook and Twitter communities during the unrest in Iran, or the even more successfully mediatic “Arab Spring.” But the Internet also allows for the gathering of less desirable communities: reactionary, bigoted groups—whether they are neo-Nazis, jihadists, pedophiles, or what have you. These ambiguities or contradictions inherent in the concept of imagined communities, once taken out of Anderson’s anthropological-historical framework and applied to swarm phenomena or social networks, require the more philosophical and skeptical rethinking of the idea of community proposed by Nancy and others.

Yet in what ways are any of these reconstruction efforts, whether the post-Marxist (Anderson) or post-Heideggerian (Nancy) theories of community that have emerged since the 1980s and been under discussion since the 1990s, relevant to my inquiry into postnational Europe and its cinema? If I am right in arguing that a postheroic European cinema would have to liberate itself from self-other schemata in whatever form, in its thematics as well as its modes of representation, then the independent cinema-to-come would not only have to think its way past traditional notions of identity and difference. It would also have to rethink itself in cinematic terms and no longer assume the screen to be functioning as either “window” or “mirror”: the two abiding epistemologies of classical popular cinema (window and objective realism) and of modern art cinema (mirror and subjectivity). Rather, it would deploy the screen as a surface that is neither transparent nor reflecting back, but whose elements are in constant movement and flux, distinct and singular, yet capable of forming new ensembles, configurations, and attributes-in-common.

In European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood, I may have been too optimistic in suggesting the formation of new communities when discussing the crucial importance of film festivals for the survival of European cinema as part of world cinema. Wanting to construct a bridge between the idea of the postnational and its relevance for the cinema, I put forward the point that at film festivals, films address themselves to a community, which is no longer either the national audience of popular genre cinema, nor the art cinema audience following the careers of the great auteurs, but an international, transnational festival audience, made up of very different segments and constituencies, from critics and fellow filmmakers, to cinephiles, local audiences, and agenda-setting interest groups. Such a festival audience might be addressed by a film “performing” its own version of the “national” to the exoticizing (curious, voyeuristic) gaze of the other, in a gesture of ingratiation, by giving the other what it thinks the other wants or expects. Alternatively, however, it might be able to present and promote issues for which the context of a festival offers a unique window of attention and a serious forum for debate. This is why I put forward the idea of the film festival potentially serving as a surrogate NGO, an alternative public sphere, or at least as a kind of placeholder for an “agora of a community to come.”6

Jean-Luc Nancy and the Inoperative Community

Such talk of “imagined communities,” social networks, or “agora of the future” would, one imagines, be anathema to Jean-Luc Nancy, whose ideas I would, however, now like to consider as being complementary to, or even more productive for, the aesthetics of specific films in the postheroic mode of “being singular plural.” For his part, Nancy has called for the disbanding of any kind of substantive community, but also for its opposite, the swarm communities of technological mediation. According to him, community as the dominant Western political formation is founded upon a totalizing, exclusionary myth, basing itself on a presumed national, racial, or religious unity. It must be “unworked” (made inoperative) in order to accommodate more inclusive, but also dissensual, forms of being-in-common, of dwelling-together in the world, under conditions of “mondialisation”—“world-making.”7 Coming from a Heideggerian tradition, Nancy argues within a very complex and precise field of conceptualization, which I can only sketch and paraphrase here. But I take the core statement of his work to be a critique of Heidegger’s notion of Dasein, conceived primarily around the singular being, against which Nancy pleads for an extension of Dasein towards community (understood as what comes after “nation” and “the people,” but also what can counter globalization as homogenization). This community is thus founded not on the immanence of individuals being-in-common (Dasein), but on an “unworking” (desoeuvrement) of togetherness into a being-with (Mit-sein).

This Mit-sein (Being-With), also taken from Heidegger, is explicated by Nancy as follows in a roundtable discussion with Avital Ronell:

The “With” is a quasi-empty category for all philosophy. The whole scheme of our culture knows very well what is to be in or out, to identify with something or to be totally exterior to it, to be homogeneous or to be heterogeneous. But to Be-With, this is the same thing as to say that the glass is with the pen on the table and [that] to “be on” (the table) is a way to “be with” . . . . What is that? In a certain way this is nothing, because . . . “the glass and the pen” . . . have nothing to do with the other. . . . If the pen is hidden behind the glass, you can’t say that they are “with.” Or if I hide myself behind [you] there is no longer [“me” “with you.”] So, “With” implies proximity and distance, precisely the distance of the impossibility to come together in a common being. That is the core of the question of community; community doesn’t have a common being, a common substance, but consists in “being-in-common.” From the starting point it’s a sharing, but sharing what? Sharing nothing, sharing the space between.8

With these thoughts, which posit at once a radical contiguity-in-commonness and a radical separateness-in-singularity, Nancy is yet another thinker at the forefront of the philosophical debate against multiculturalism and any kind of identity politics, where a group can speak for individuals, or constitute itself as a fusion of tolerated differences. In line with my own questioning of the “face-to-face” as a stabilizing construction of identity, Nancy acknowledges, like Levinas or Derrida, the inherent violence of any face-to-face. Yet Nancy also generally defends a position similar to that of Alain Badiou—that radical Otherness or alterity, such as advocated by Levinas, is caught in the same epistemological trap as the Cartesian subject/object split. The “other” always ends up somehow being the good other, or the Big Other, which is to say, the same as me (or the idealized, projected-introjected “me”), bringing us back to the mirroring dynamics of subjectivity, the very concept that Mit-sein is designed to do away with.

Nancy’s main targets of attack, however, are the socialist-communist ideals of collectivity and the bourgeois-liberal insistence on the individual. Both of these apparent opposites are for him figures of heroic immanence, of the self-realization through work and works, through production and labor—which are to Nancy ways of trying to avoid finitude or to cheat death by sacralizing it. Hence his choice of the word desoeuvré (idle, out of work, inoperable, unproductive) for the true community. As the byline of The Inoperative Community emphasizes: “Contrary to popular Western notions of community, Nancy shows that it is neither a project of fusion nor production.”9

Needless to say, Nancy also avoids thinking in terms of binary oppositions or contrasting pairs. Conceptions of community, nation, or individual that work on the divide of self/other, me/you, I/thou, subject/object are inimical to the Mit-sein, as defined by him.10 Mit-sein would thus be a constantly shifting relation of distance and proximity, of contiguity and presence, of the field of vision and its effacement or invisibility, of the single point of view and its multiple, impossible refractions. Mit-sein would be a way of being in the world and among human beings, but stopping short of any suggestion of mutuality, reciprocity, or cooperation, as well as any necessary interdependence along the lines of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. As Nancy points out: in the West, we operate with the categories of inside/outside, before/after, up/down, in front of/behind (all the spatial body-based “container” metaphors that regulate our epistemology and our language—if we believe Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By). But we have little experience of what “being-with” means and what it does not mean, and how it is more than in-between, and less (that is, more specific) than “entanglement,” “hybridity,” or other metaphors of choice in postcolonial and multicultural discourses.

The “inoperative community” means, in other words, that a community is not the result of a production, be it social, economic, or political. It is neither constructed and a work, nor a discourse and a creation, whether heroic and man-made or natural and God-given. Nancy thus opposes the idea of the state as a work of art, or even the nation as either chosen or self-created: “The community that becomes a single thing (body, mind, fatherland, Leader . . .) necessarily loses the ‘in’ of being-in-common. Or, it loses the ‘with’ that defines our ‘being-with.’ It gives up its being-together to a being of togetherness.”11 In view of the imagined communities of the media, one might add: they give up their being-together in exchange for a being of togetherness, with all the temptations of fusion, merging, or the ecstasy of communion that reaches from popular culture to political activism, from American Idol to Occupy Wall Street.

These are harsh injunctions, and at first sight they sit uneasily with any idea of a more perfect, that is, politically integrated, European Union, and they seem equally hostile or inapplicable to any concept of European cinema as the expression of creative endeavor or aesthetic autonomy. And no doubt, Nancy has little patience for the ways in which European summits try to patch together “rescue packages” for debtor nations and preach austerity to their citizens, while being held hostage by banks and corporations, whose loyalty is neither to a government, state, nor nation, but to their bonuses and perhaps to their shareholders. No doubt, the entire ideology of a common market, of fiscal union or moral hazard and debt mutualization, would strike Nancy as the very perversion of his idea of community. Yet, when it comes to the cinema, Nancy has named several directors, in whose work he recognizes concerns similar to his own. One prominent auteur is Abbas Kiarostami, to whom Nancy has devoted an extensive study, The Evidence of Film—a theory of the cinema that makes much of Mit-sein, and that he sees translated into practice especially in Kiarostami’s so-called Koker trilogy, and in particular, its second part, Life and Nothing More (1991).

The Cinema of Claire Denis

However, I have chosen a different film by a different director as my concluding case study, in order to test what might be an example of postheroic European cinema in the spirit of the inoperable community. The director is Claire Denis, and the film Beau Travail (1999). This choice is only in part determined by the fact that Denis is a personal friend of Nancy, that she has made several films with and about him, and that in turn Nancy has written on her films, including Beau Travail. Rather, Denis’s work and Beau Travail in particular also fit into what earlier I called a cinema that treats the screen as neither window nor mirror, and that distributes its elements, its protagonists, their bodies, gestures, and spaces differently. But Beau Travail also features, quite explicitly, a very unusual set of people, held together and prised apart by both mutuality and antagonism, by an imposed code of discipline and a self-chosen separateness, around which the idea of an “inoperative community” might be tested and given shape, especially when placed against the background of a notion of “singular-plural.”

Claire Denis is both marginal and central to French cinema as a national cinema. Marginal, in that her autobiographical background is quintessentially postcolonial; she was brought up in the parts of North Africa that feature in Chocolat and Beau Travail, the area around the Horn of Africa. But she is also central to French cinema, thanks to her stints as an assistant director to several of the canonical directors of the nouvelle vague, notably her friendship with Jacques Rivette, and with the ciné-fils par excellence, Serge Daney. Yet Denis is also in-between two generations of French filmmakers: she came too late onto the scene to be part of the generation that rejected the nouvelle vague in the 1970s, but she is too old to belong to the cinema du look, or the more recent New French extremity cinema (though a case can be made for her setting that movement’s agenda).12 Because of her personal background, she also is in tune with the more recent, hyphenated generation of filmmakers that touches on the topics of multiracial Europe and postcolonial France.13

French cinema, until the 1990s, when Denis came on the scene, had had relatively little to say about either postcolonialism or the ideology of multiculturalism. Since the Third Republic generally considered its colonial past as part of its “civilizing mission” and downplayed its consequences for the nation’s self-image even after the protracted and very brutal Algerian War of Liberation, the cinema rarely broke this consensus, with the possible exception of Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat, to which Beau Travail explicitly refers. As to the question of national identity and national community, the French state’s approach to immigrants from Africa and the Maghreb region coming to France, either as cheap labor or as permanent immigrants, has been predominantly one of assimilation: that is, as long as they spoke French and abided by French laws (and cultural Franco-centrism), there was little official acknowledgment of, or political mandate for, debating racial or religious discrimination. With no discussions about the relative merits of the “melting-pot” or the “salad-bowl,” of “separate development” versus a multicultural and multiethnic society, such as have informed social life in Britain or the United States, the cinema, too, remained predominantly white, heterosexual, and Catholic. To vary a famous saying, the motto in France seems to have been “You can be whoever you like to be, as long as you’re French.” France’s strongly centralized bureaucracy and educational system and its fierce belief in republican laicity and the strict division of church and state has shaped attitudes towards both immigrants and towards the narratives of French colonialism. This may also explain why the debates about the Muslim headscarf have been so bitter, why the riots of the banlieux in the 1980s caused such a shock, and also why there have been comparatively many films about schools and school life. Now that the multiracial society is a fact also in France, films like Être et avoir (Nicolas Philibert, 2002), L’esquive (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2003), Les Choristes (Christophe Barratier, 2004), Entre les murs (Laurent Cantet, 2008) provide a kind of microcosm of the current state of French thinking about its republican values.

Beau Travail, made in 1999, was a very well-received film; it garnered prizes at the Berlin Film Festival, Rotterdam Film Festival, Chicago Film Critics’ Award, and received many more nominations. Since its issue as a DVD, it has been a favorite on the academic circuit, being written up by just about everyone working in French cinema. Without going into the various stances taken by the critics, one can nonetheless identify recurring critical positions, among which the examination of the complex weaving of the narrative is perhaps the most prominent. The film’s temporal structure is indeed striking, mingling flashback, time-present, and flash-forwards, and also including scenes that seem both timeless in their pictorial beauty, and atemporal in relation to the narrative intrigue. These differential temporalities are motivated by the inner and outer world of a former officer of the French Foreign Legion, now living in Marseille. A brief encounter in the streets with a detachment of legionnaires reminds him of his past in the legion, which ended ingloriously with his discharge, after jeopardizing the life of one of his subordinates in a premeditated plot to have him die in the desert.

Equally as disorientating as the temporal structure is the optical and aural point of view that the film adopts. Like many French films, Beau Travail has a voice-over commentary, as well as a hero who seems to be keeping a diary: we therefore assume that the perspective of the camera is not only that of the central protagonist, but also of the story’s hero. Yet the opening scenes quite specifically undermine any such perspectival alignment, and even when the voice and the body are introduced, we are made aware that the point of view we are sharing is not straightforward: our officer-hero, named Galoup, turns out to be the “bad guy,” in that he took revenge on another soldier, possibly out of unrequited homosexual love, possibly out of rivalry over the attention of his commanding officer, possibly because he took his duties too seriously.14 At the same time, we are also party to many scenes that could not have been witnessed by Galoup.

This modernist flouting of the sequential temporal register—one thinks of Gilles Deleuze’s crystal image—and the unlocalized and unlocatable point of view of many of the scenes has been discussed by several critics. Christine Noll Brinckmann, for instance, has pointed out that these features are the strong personal signature of Denis’s regular camerawoman, Agnès Godard, and has demonstrated how images in the film respond to each other, how they build up subtle patterns, visual rhymes and unexpected correspondences, in a way that might not have been possible if the images were more directly subservient to either the narrative or to Galoup’s point of view.15

Yet, these same stylistic features could also be read as making a quite persuasive case for Denis’s direction teaching the audience what it might mean to be-with someone, the Mit-sein discussed by Nancy, as neither identification nor projection, neither inside nor outside, neither in front of, nor hierarchically organized or fixed along perspectival sight lines. One of the remarkable features of Beau Travail is the fact that as spectators, we are uncannily (and sometimes uncomfortably) close to the main character (and not only to him), but without thereby having access to any kind of interiority. Even where we do share Galoup’s point of view, and even when we hear his voice-over or read his diary entries, he remains contiguous but distant, close but closed off. As with Camus’s L’Etranger (though we are also in the world of Jean Genet’s Querelle de Brest), one gets to know very little about this person’s inner life. Yet the camera also keeps us very close to his body, his pockmarked skin, and unruly hair. We are with him during banal everyday actions like washing his clothes, ironing his shirt, pruning a tree, writing in his notebook, cooking; we see the veins on his muscles—in short, we share a close physical intimacy without getting to know him. The ending of Beau Travail is a careful study of ambiguity: is Galoup going to commit suicide, has he already committed suicide, or has he found some self-liberation in his final ecstatic dance, which releases his pent-up energy and aggression but also leaves him vulnerable in his solitary singularity, making his acceptance of death the condition of reentry into the community that expelled him? In other words, Galoup would be something of an “abject” hero, while we, the audience, have to experience a sometimes awkward, sometimes bewilderingly intimate, and sometimes bafflingly remote condition of Mit-sein: a “being-with” that breaks with almost all the conventional spectator positions, such as voyeur or invisible fly on the wall, participant observer or aggressively implicated addressee. Instead, all possible forms of affective and perceptual responses to the protagonist have to be reassessed by the spectator.

Confirming this impression of a different way of spectators “being-with” the characters in the film is the space and the contact zone that the men share and occupy. What is striking is that the legionnaires, who hardly speak, often touch each other, bump into each other, and make physical contact with each other and the earth, as if to emphasize a certain direct sensory materialism in their lives, where people and things, object and gestures have equal weight and valency. Such moments would seem to illustrate Nancy’s point about humans in the inoperable community being both not-things and not-nothing: the film going to some length to build into the space and camera movements a strong lateral axis, in contrast to the usual top-down structure of a regimented military hierarchy. The community, where all the passions of love, admiration, jealousy seem to be alive, is shown as one where bodies inhabit the same undifferentiated space—whether water, desert, the exercise yard, or their living quarters—and make physical contact, without any special meaning being attached to it or manifesting any particular inner emotion that might lead to thought or action: they neither fuse nor do they participate in a common project.

Intriguingly enough, Nancy himself, in his essay on Beau Travail, takes a quite different line of argument, speaking as much, if not more, about Melville and Billy Budd as about Claire Denis’s film.16 Nonetheless, what he says is revealing in its own right. He first of all points to the film’s almost insupportable literalness and physicality, which he interprets as a bold and resolute refusal to interpret or to allocate sense. According to Nancy, while the phrase “beau travail” comes from Melville’s Billy Budd, and is said spitefully and ironically by Claggart (“nice work”), when Billy spills the dish, in Denis’s film it becomes a kind of credo, a call to work on beauty, to make the images so beautiful that they stand as a defiant answer to the moral iniquity of the story of jealousy, passion, and betrayal. In other words: not the aestheticization of naked bodies à la Leni Riefenstahl or the fascist mass ornament that Siegfried Kracauer detected in Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen, but rather the cinematic work on the physical materiality of sand, sea, body surface, texture—in a grandiose reduction of the soldiers’ lives and fates to a rhythm that both encloses them and exceeds their understanding and participation, that of the stark indifference of nature and the cosmos, once more the “groundless ground” of the community.

Beau Travail would then be the film that shows what such a world without a ground or horizon might look and feel like, and the fact that Denis makes it so breathtakingly beautiful is yet another aspect of its “terror.” In this sense, the cinema—of identification, of participation, of interaction—would then be profoundly Western, in that it wants the image to function as window or door or mirror—entities that are bounded and circumscribed—rather than simply opening up to the “beyond-sense,” to the (liberating, renewing) meaninglessness of the world, and our being-in-it.17 Such a reading would modify or even counter the generally preferred one, where Beau Travail is seen as a celebration of touch and tactility, of haptic vision and skin, of sensory plenitude—which sometimes veers dangerously close to a post-postcolonial version of the Orientalist seductions of Africa, with its colors, sounds, textures, tastes, and smells.

While Nancy has more to say, for instance, about the all-male community in the film, which he likens to the monastic orders of medieval Christianity, even more appropriate for his notion of “being singular plural” would be the constitutive paradoxes at the heart of this uniquely French community: not only a military unit and an all-male community, but the French Foreign Legion. Denis has clearly given much thought to this aspect of her subject, and she magisterially sidesteps the usual cinematic image of the French Foreign Legion (Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich in Morocco, Gary Cooper again in Beau Geste, Jean Gabin in La Bandera, etc.). What emerges instead is an astute commentary on a French dilemma, but also on a typically “European” situation, where the very “successes” of the EU in overcoming the old nationalist enmities have also disarticulated the homology of state-nation-territory and military, where each could “stand for,” “reflect” or “represent” the other, and which together made up the strength of the nation-state.

Now, of course, the state has handed over much of its power to Brussels, with the consequence that civil society has been depoliticized, the state increasingly relies on culture and ritual to maintain a semblance of authority, and governments are mostly management teams that administer capital and the economy, while bureaucratically distributing welfare, health care, education, and other social services. The nation has become postnational, in that the media and popular culture recycle the folkloric, culinary, and touristic markers of nationhood, most visible in sports, the arts, the countryside, heritage, and history. The territory has become permeable: Germans are buying up the border regions of France and the Netherlands, while the British buy second homes in the abandoned peasant terroirs of France, and Swedes, French, Germans, and Britons buy up farmhouses in Tuscany. Finally, the military, that is, the formerly conscripted national armies, are delegated to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, where they are used as peacekeeping forces, to deliver humanitarian aid to stricken areas, or to lend logistic support to the US combat troops in Afghanistan. In other words, the military (in Europe, but also within NATO generally) no longer knows its purpose and function: it no longer seizes enemy land or defends national territory, it no longer knows whether it is an army or a police force, it is engaged in asymmetrical warfare with enemies where combatants are indistinguishable from civilians, it is involved in counterterrorism (traditionally handled by intelligence agencies), it is asked to help in nation building but has to blow up family homes, or it deals in counterinsurgency where the aims are vague, the legality doubtful, and no exit strategy is given by politicians. While soldiers who died in battle were once heroes who gave their lives for a just cause and thus sacralized war with their blood, now they are merely casualties that need to be hidden for fear of bad publicity at home. Indeed, one might venture the definition that a heroic war narrative is one in which the dead sacrifice themselves and thus empower you, while a postheroic war narrative is one in which the dead are casualties, and they have power over you.

Within this postnational, European perspective, the French Foreign Legion is especially symptomatic. In one sense, it is a mere remnant of an earlier, colonial age, replete with the paraphernalia of France’s heroic self-celebration. Yet from another vantage point, it can also be regarded as a vanguard for a new kind of community—one befitting a postheroic national narrative. Recall the ritual of initiation and entry: those enlisting in the Legion change their names, they leave behind their previous identity, their nationality, their religion. In exchange for erasing their previous selves, they not only gain a new name, but they are also sworn to serve and die for the glory of France, to become members of France’s elite corps, defending the Grand Nation, but also doing its dirty work, as it were, on the margins of the law and legality, just as they often come from the margins of their society, with criminal records or worse. In other words, they enter the Legion as bodies without inner substance in order to become the sacred body—the corps—of the Republic. A curious and deliberate transubstantiation takes place, which we could describe as the taking in of the world’s outcasts or abjects, in order to give them a sacred mission—to uphold the glory of France—but where, when required, they become once more France’s own abject, whenever the Legion has to carry out missions that the regular French Army either cannot or does not want to engage in. Beau Travail’s French Foreign Legion is made up of such bodies without subjects, who, once “inside” the legion, connect and collide, but do not fuse or form a single body. The tensions, jealousies, ways of being together and separate begin to form patterns of contact, touch, ritual, but there is nothing beyond in the way of sharing or give-and-take or mutuality or reciprocity. Without inwardness or subjectivity, they are the test case of Nancy’s communauté desoeuvrée, but they are also a test case for a new cinema: neither mirrors to our subjectivities nor windows opening up on an exotic other world/ world of the other.

Becoming Abject

Such a reading clarifies some of the ambiguities surrounding Galoup, and also justifies him as the film’s hero. His trajectory through the narrative is that of learning to become abject, half sacrificial, half self-elected, in that he opens himself up to the full contradictions of the legion, as made up of bodies that are at once abject and sacred, and to whom he initially does not belong, being a French officer rather than a legionnaire. Whereas his superior, Bruno, keeps himself separate and aloof, being a more ordinary cynic and nihilist who “doesn’t care” and who survives by chewing hash or cocoa-leaves, Galoup is “touched” by the beauty and grace of Sentain, the Billy Budd figure of the film, whose simultaneous intrusion and aloofness provokes Galoup into an obsession with his singularity that has him punish Sentain and send him to his death. But this deep engagement with Sentain’s radiant self-sufficiency and “not-belonging” also awakens Galoup to the reality of the Legion’s ontological mission, making his actions, despite their apparent criminality, once more “ethical” in relation to the full contradictions embodied in the Legion. Nancy seems to suggest almost as much when he calls Galoup a “lost savior, who loses the Savior”:

Whoever loses the savior belongs to the impeccable order that the Legion symbolizes here: military or monastic order (the equivalence already established in Melville), ritual order (the entire film is punctuated by the figures of ritual, its songs, its marches, its observances), and finally, to an order of beauty accomplished, powerful and harmonious, of which the body of men is the incarnation . . . . This body of legionnaires [is] unemployed or idle, at the edge of the desert, in the South, along the edge of misery, the edge of possible conflicts, suspended between having nothing to do and being constantly on guard, preoccupied with appearance: their bodies, clothing, virile gestures of battle, simulated in an empty edifice.18

Nancy here seems to recognize the affinity of Denis’s legionnaires with his communauté inemployée (“between having nothing to do and being constantly on guard”), whose enforced idleness and disjointed existence, he suggests, is their salvation. It explains why Sentain, the beautiful intruder, does not belong, because he is too active, too much in-the-world, without being with-the-world: a savior who can be sacrificed (or rescued) but not an abject who can become, in Agamben’s terms, a homo sacer, like Galoup. While the latter suffers a solitary entry into the postheroic, Sentain is someone who is finally still too much part of the heroic project of self-creation and self-sacrifice.

The paradox is underlined by a scene that acts as a foil to the Galoup-Sentain opposition: a soldier who dies in a helicopter crash is immediately reclaimed as “heroic” and given a burial with all the military honors, even though he died neither in combat nor by sacrificing himself, but through a stupid accident. By contrast, Galoup’s particular “heroism” (if that is what it is) cannot be recuperated: his is a solitary and singular death, but for all that, perhaps more authentic and ethical. Galoup’s journey would then embody the contemporary complement to the heroic—and increasingly phoney—narrative of the soldier’s accident-turned-sacrifice for and on behalf of the nation. He would be the one whose exclusion saves and purifies the community from which he is excluded, in sync with the larger narrative that allows the Legion to both perpetuate French colonialism and to cleanse it, by a form of sacralized disavowal. On the other hand, Galoup’s becoming abject in relation to the Legion would be an act of autosacralization, with his final dance a radical opening up, a voiding that is usually foreclosed by the telos of goals and projects that has had such an ideological hold on the Western political imaginary. Galoup, who appeared to us at first as the inscrutable antihero, or even the nonhero, of Beau Travail, turns out to have been the posthero of a community both exceptional in its extraterritoriality and exemplary in its paradoxes and contradictions, a community that is in transition between the old nation-state and the yet to be defined postnational community where individuals share a common space, but only on condition of their final, irremediable singularity.

Beau Travail is thus delicately poised between the nostalgia for noble sacrifice, for a pure gesture of erasing yourself in order to serve and die (“Sers la bonne cause et meurs” is the official motto of the Legion), and the realization (in the figure of Galoup) of a state of “abjection,” where the Legion functions as that in-between space, where a different kind of singularity in plurality can emerge, thereby prefiguring a postheroic community. What the Legion and Galoup’s trajectory demonstrate would be the zero-degree of a Mit-einander prior to all mutuality and reciprocity.

Although not unique among the films of Claire Denis, Beau Travail is nonetheless an exceptional case within European cinema in thematizing the idea of a community-to-come, its internal dynamics and its relation to others as explicitly as it does. Nonetheless, an important constellation of figures and tropes has emerged that can also be fruitfully explored in other films whose provenance is the European subsidy-cum-coproduction system, and whose directors try to come to terms with what I have called postheroic narratives of identity, nationhood, and community. I am thinking in particular of the tropes around the figure of the abject, briefly outlined above, as both outcast and sacred, as both singular and savior, as both no-longer-alive and not-yet-dead, who, by marking the margins of the community, is nonetheless an essential part of the community.

These abject bodies in European cinema take different forms, come in different genders, and are part of different narratives. But they are crucial, as already hinted, in the films of the Dardenne brothers (Rosetta, La promesse, L’enfant, Le fils, Le silence de Lorna, Le gamin au vélo), as well as for Aki Kaurismäki (The Match Factory Girl, Drifting Clouds, The Man without a Past, Le Havre). They traverse the cinema of Michael Haneke (The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video, Time of the Wolf, La Pianiste, Code Inconnu, Caché, and The White Ribbon) and turn up as the depressive female in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Antichrist, and Melancholia. They are predominantly indigenous, white and even often middle-class, but they stand for the “other” within the self, thereby avoiding the mirroring divisions and overcoming the dichotomy of self and other. They not only challenge the old ideas of progress and telos, but they also resist narratives of bureaucratic union as advocated by politicians and Euro-elites and the fusion of multitudes, as celebrated in sports events and Eurovision song contests. They are not victims, nor are they perpetrators, they do not embody power but neither are they powerless, and their singularity and sacredness could once more reveal the mysterious wisdom and hope that Kant identified in the unsocial sociability of humanity.




For “world cinema,” see Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, ed., The Oxford History of World Cinema (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999); John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson, eds., World Cinema: Critical Approaches (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000); Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (London: Routledge, 1994); Nataša ?urovi?ová and Kathleen Newman, eds., World Cinemas, Transnational Perspective (New York: Routledge AFI Film Readers, 2009); and Lúcia Nagib, Chris Perriam, and Rajinder Dudrah, eds., Theorizing World Cinema (London: I. B. Tauris, 2012). For trans-national cinema, see Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden, eds., Transnational Cinema, The Film Reader (London: Routledge, 2006). For global art cinema, see Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover, eds., Global Art Cinema: New Theories and Histories (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010). For festival cinema, see Marijke de Valck, Film Festivals: From European Geopolitics to Global Cinephilia (Amsterdam: Amsterdam Univ. Press, 2007).


Thomas Elsaesser, “Double Occupancy and Small Adjustments: Space, Place and Policy in the New European Cinema since the 1990s,” in European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood (Amsterdam: Amsterdam Univ. Press, 2005), 108–30.


Foremost among them is NECS, the European Network for European Cinema and Media Studies, with its own journal NECSUS,


Among the readers and monographs on European cinema are: Wendy Everett, ed., European Identity in Cinema (Bristol, UK: Intellect Books, 2005). Everett and Axel Goodbody, eds., Revisiting Space: Space and Place in European Cinema (Bruxelles: Peter Lang, 2005); Catherine Fowler, ed., The European Cinema Reader (London: Routledge, 2002); Rosalind Galt, The New European Cinema: Redrawing the Map (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2006); Myrto Konstantarkos, ed., Spaces in European Cinema (Exeter, UK: Intellect Books, 2000); Jo Labanyi, Luisa Passerini, and Karen Diel, eds., Europe and Love in Cinema (Bristol, UK: Intellect Books, 2012).


Leading spokespersons for this view are the German philosophers Peter Sloterdijk and Norbert Bolz, both prominent public intellectuals on the (center) right of the political spectrum.


“Film Festival Networks: The New Topographies of Cinema in Europe,” in Elsaesser, European Cinema, 82–107.


Mondialisation is not only the French word for globalization, but also for world-making, and it is the latter that Nancy explores in his book La création du monde, ou, la mondialisation (Paris: Galilée, 2002).


Round-table discussion held at the European Graduate University in 2001,


In La communauté désoeuvrée Nancy noted that “tous les termes de cette question [of community] demandent à être transformés, à être remis en jeu dans un espace tout autrement distribué que selon les agencements trop facilement suggérés (par exemple: solitude de l’écrivain/Collectivité, ou: culture/société, ou: élite/masses—que ces distributions soient données comme des oppositions, ou bien, dans l’esprit des “revolutions culturelles,” comme des adéquations). La communauté désoeuvrée (Paris: Christian Bourgeois, 1999), 27.


Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1991), preface, xxxix.


“Several films associated with the New French Extremity have generated significant controversy upon their premieres. Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible and [Claire Denis’] Trouble Every Day, which respectively debuted at the 2002 and 2001 Cannes film festivals, were noteworthy for prompting widespread walkouts among audience members. [Pascal Laugier’s] Martyrs was received similarly upon its debut at Cannes 2008, with audience members reportedly walking out, fainting, vomiting and bursting into tears.” Wikipedia entry under “New French Extremity” (


Claire Denis’s implicit dialogue in Beau Travail is with the (French-Swiss) director Jean-Luc Godard, across the figure of “Bruno Forestier” and the actor Michel Subor, who plays the Commandant in Beau Travail, but who was first seen in Le Petit Soldat (1960) as the young intelligence officer stationed in Geneva and involved in the most sordid side of France’s Algerian War, might be one of several instructive instances of how she sees herself in relation to the directors of the nouvelle vague.


A more complex plot summary might go something like this (taken from Wikipedia): “Back in France, master sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant) remembers the time in the desert, where he led his men under the command of Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor). His life there consisted mostly of routine duties like supervising the physical exercise of his men. . . . One day, his troop is joined by Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin), whose physical beauty, social skills, and fortitude make Galoup envious. Repressed homosexual feelings on the part of Galoup are suggested. When Sentain helps another soldier, violating previous orders by Galoup, Galoup sees a chance to destroy Sentain. As a punishment, he drives him out into the desert to make him walk back to the base. But Sentain does not return because Galoup has tampered with his compass, and Sentain cannot make his way out without it. Even though Sentain is later found and rescued by a group of Djiboutis, Galoup is sent back to France by his commander for a court martial, ending his time in the Foreign Legion. The final scene suggests his suicide through a metaphoric dance.”


Christine Noll Brinckmann, “Die Arbeit der Kamera: Beau Travail,” in Claire Denis. Trouble Every Day, ed. Michael Omasta and Isabelle Reicher (Vienna: Filmmuseum/Synema, 2005), 18–33.


Claire Denis herself has said that she was more influenced by Benjamin Britten’s opera than by Melville’s text: “One of the cast had actually been in the Legion, so we took all their real exercises and did them together every day, to concentrate the actors as a group. We never said we were going to choreograph the film. But afterwards, when we started shooting, using Britten’s music, those exercises became like a dance.” Daily Telegraph, August 16, 2003, qtd. in Wikipedia.


Nancy has written a book-length essay on the cinema of Abbas Kiarostami as a non-Western cinema dedicated to the “opening-up” of the image: Jean-Luc Nancy, The Evidence of Film: Kiarostami Abbas (Brussels: Yves Gevaert, 2001)


Nancy, “L’areligion (‘beau travail’ de Claire Denis),” Vacarme 14 (2001), (my translation).

Versions of Postheroische Erzählungen: Jean Luc Nancy, Claire Denis und Beau Travail