Not a word is spoken in the final sequence of Claire Denis’s 1999 film Beau Travail. A loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s novel Billy Budd set in the French Foreign Legion, the movie follows a group of soldiers in Djibouti, led by Chief Adjutant Galoup (Denis Lavant,) that is stirred into chaos by the new recruit Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin). Galoup’s jealousy of, and repressed desire for, the beautiful and charismatic Sentain eventually explodes into confrontation, and Galoup is court-martialed, ending his military career. In the last scene, he meticulously makes his bed, then lies in it holding a pistol, preparing to take his life.
The camera pays close attention to its subject’s body—hardly unusual for film. What is unusual is that Beau Travail’s director of photography, a longtime colleague of Denis named Agnès Godard, is one of the few women working in the field of cinematography. Though Galoup’s behavior throughout Beau Travail is often vindictive and cruel, Godard’s camera cradles him with surprising tenderness and grace in his final moments, lingering quietly on his chest, then on a twitching vein in his arm. Suddenly, the picture cuts to a scene in Galoup’s mind’s eye, as he dances with abandon in a nightclub, recalling happier times, or perhaps looking to a world beyond.
To this day, it’s one of the most visually arresting sequences I’ve seen in a movie, and one that immediately came to mind when the Film Society of Lincoln Center announced a repertory series on women cinematographers titled “The Female Gaze.” The program features three of Godard’s collaborations with Denis (Beau Travail, The Intruder, and 35 Shots of Rum) along with 33 other films that include gritty documentaries, Hollywood blockbusters, and art-house dramas. “The Female Gaze” spotlights both the extraordinary work of the cinematographers involved—including Rachel Morrison, Natasha Braier, Joan Churchill, and Ellen Kuras—and the shocking lack of representation in the field.