Rhythms of the psyche: Feeling and form in Beau travail
Claire Denis has frequently described her screenwriting process , in which layers of narrative establishing the specific relationships between characters, timelines and events are successively stripped away to create a series of structured ellipses, in terms that are perhaps closer to music than traditional narrative cinema. The notion of Denis’ filmmaking style as musical has been suggested by such writers as Martine Beugnet, whose 2004 monograph on Denis describes the manner in which, “freed from their functions as mere links in a chain of causes and effects, images are thus offered up to contemplation and observation” (Beugnet). It is my contention that, in supplanting the classical focus on continuity and psychology with an emphasis on movement, sensation and physicality, Denis’ images assume a purely sensual and symbolic function; as such, they may be usefully contextualised within the musical idiom of rhythm and tempo. Taking her 1999 film Beau travail as a case study, I draw upon the aesthetics of philosopher Susanne Langer to argue that, in privileging tactile and auditory modes of spectatorship, Denis creates a rhythmic film form whose material structure is closer to music than the language of narrative cinema. In shattering the syntax of discourse, Beau travail reappropriates the “significant form” of music to a purely cinematic end; this in turn facilitates a deeper engagement with the memories, perceptions and intuitions that make up the viewer’s inner life, what Langer calls “the verbally ineffable and therefore unknown forms of sentience (Langer)".
1. Usually in reference to her regular screenwriting partner Jean-Pol Fargeau, but also occasional collaborators Emmanuele Bernheim and Marie N'Diaye
Beau travail. Dir. Claire Denis. 1999. DVD. Artificial Eye, 2000.
Beugnet, Martine. French Film Directors: Claire Denis. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2004. Print.
Langer, Susanne. Philosophy in a New Key. New York: Mentor Books, 1948. Print.
---. “The Symbol of Feeling.” Art Theory and Criticism: An Anthology of Formalist, Avant-Garde, Contextualist and Post-Modernist Thought. Ed. Sally Everett. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1991. Print.