Few directors capture bodies in motion with the sensuous intensity that Claire Denis brings to her work. In some of the most memorable scenes in her filmography, she invites viewers to linger in moments where her characters lose themselves in the pleasures of dance: in U.S. Go Home, Grégoire Colin bops around in his bedroom to the Animals; in 35 Shots of Rum, an ensemble of actors (including Mati Diop) slow-dances to the Commodores’ “Night Shift”; and in Let the Sunshine In, Juliette Binoche blithely sways solo to Etta James’s “At Last.” But never has rhythmic movement been more central to Denis’s filmmaking than in her masterpiece Beau travail (1999), a bold reimagining of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor that follows a French Foreign Legion sergeant (Denis Lavant) and his obsession with a young recruit (Colin) against the backdrop of a Djibouti desert landscape. The repressed desire at the heart of the film comes to life thanks to the vision of French dancer-choreographer Bernardo Montet, who appears in the film and was tasked with finding a troupe of nonprofessional dancers, including a few real Legionnaires, as well as creating the training routines and imbuing them with psychological drama.
Ahead of our recent release of Beau travail, I phoned Montet, who lives in Paris, to find out more about his artistic practice, his experience working with Denis, and how the film’s famously explosive ending came to be.
How did you first connect with Claire Denis?
Claire saw an article in the newspaper about one of my performances at a festival in the south of France. The performance was centered on the subject of colonization and enslavement, and she was interested in these themes and asked to meet me. I knew of her work; I’d seen Chocolat, I Can’t Sleep, and Nénette and Boni. When we met, she gave me pictures of Legionnaires and a very thin scenario for the film—poetic, with small details, maybe only three pages. It was enough for me to work with, but for the production she later wrote another script that was very, very precise.
Claire gave me two essential pieces of music that ended up in the film. One was Britten’s Billy Budd opera and the other was Neil Young’s “Safeway Cart.” I asked her if she gave the actors music before shooting as well, and she said she hadn’t, but she did this for me beforehand so that I could envision certain scenes specifically. Then later that music was with us on the set; speakers were put on a track to follow the actors through the desert.
Was there an element of dance that spoke to you in the Denis films you had seen?
My impression when I first saw her films was that they contained what I call “choreographic thought.” For example, in Chocolat there is a scene in a kitchen with a man and woman, and the space between them tells a story. This use of the space between human figures reminds me of a moment in Beau travail, when Galoup [Lavant] and Sentain [Colin] go toward each other while Britten’s music plays; the space contains the tension between them.
Space is an important element in the way Claire writes and shoots movies. There’s a double story being told in her films: the narrative and the story the body is telling. Sometimes she believes in bodies instead of words, and in dance we’re always talking without words.
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