A Film in a Scene
I want here to consider two film scenes, each of which seems to contain within it the entire plot of the film from which it comes, and to reflect on the role that the technique has within the two films. The first scene is the opening scene of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God. The second is the final scene of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail.
Aguirre opens with a series of shots of a group of people descending a mountain. Eventually, we see them up close, but the opening shots show them dwarfed by the surrounding landscape, the mountain and the river. They resemble ants more than people. The sense that they are being swallowed up by nature is inescapable: it dwarfs them and they are nothing in relation to it. In a way, the rest of the film does little more than flesh out the details that this opening scene preordained.
In Beau Travail, by contrast, the scene in question comes at the end. The whole story has been told, and now we see a scene that seems entirely removed from it: Galoup, alone on a dance floor (seen in previous scenes), giving a two-part dance performance. This dance performance wordlessly recapitulates the entire film. In the first portion of the dance, Galoup moves tentatively, unsure of himself as he tries to seduce someone (Bruno). Gradually he gains confidence, and finally he lets loose. There is a cut to a page of credits, and then Galoup reappears, now with a horrible, enraged expression on his face. We may imagine that the interval represents the introduction of Sentain, who sets off Galoup’s rage. The remainder of the dance is out of control: arms thrashing every which way, until finally Galoup is rolling on the floor. The tonal shifts in the dance correspond exactly to the major shifts in Galoup’s behavior earlier in the film.
What is the function of these two scenes in their respective films? The scene in Aguirre, The Wrath of God, shows the “conquering” expedition being swallowed up by nature. The rest of the film show’s Aguirre’s crew gradually being picked off: by disease, by Indians, by each other, by madness. The film is often portrayed as following Aguirre’s descent into madness, but I think this is a mistake. For one thing, it cannot make sense of why his madness appears so abruptly—if the film is supposed to show him becoming mad, it seems not to fulfill its task. Rather than deem the film a failure (as some do on this ground), we should consider that his madness is present in the opening scene. That scene shows a group of puny humans trying to take on a vast environment against which they stand no chance—what is that if not mad? Aguirre’s delirium and hallucinations at the end of the film are nothing more than the natural consequence of the madness that put him on the river in the first place.
In this way, the opening scene renders the rest of the film predestined. What remains, after those opening shots, is simply for Herzog to flesh out the details, to chart the specific route to the inescapable conclusion. This is not destiny as a mystical principle. Rather, the opening scene establishes the destiny of the conquerers by saying: whoever adopts this task must meet this end, whatever route they take to get there.
At the same time, the opening scene offers one possibility of escape. This inescapable destiny is reserved only for those who fight against the mountains and river. But one can give oneself up to them freely, and not fight them. This is precisely what we see Inez (Ursua’s wife) do. After her husband is killed, she vanishes into the woods. We must presume her dead, but her death is heroic, the one instance of heroism in the film. To accept the superiority of the landscape is the only form of nobility, and should be compared to the slovenly king who pronounces the surrounding land his own, a farcical act. The opening scene, then, establishes everything that follows. The only question it leaves open is: how will you get there? How will you meet your demise? It leaves open the possibility of noble action, but even that is just another route to death.
In Beau Travail the placement of the scene at the end of the film denies this function. What comes later cannot preordain what came before. The scene is introduced by another scene that strongly implies Galoup is about to commit suicide: “serve la bonne cause et mort.” The film has been structured from Galoup’s perspective as he tries to tell his story in a way that preserves this narrative form: I, Galoup, have served the good cause; now I must die. Because of this introduction to the scene, one way to understand it is as Galoup’s life flashing before his eyes, not through a replaying of certain scenes, but through a dance that captures the shifts in intensity of his life. Everything external is stripped away, and we are left with only Galoup. Behind the narrative he has told about himself is bodily movement, wrapped up in a particular tone. The narrative is a falsification of that movement. When others are added into the equation, the narrative becomes plausible; only when stripped away does the real movement of his soul become apparent.
Of course, the story he tries to construct around himself is never particularly believable. Try as he might to portray things otherwise, he does not control the camera, and the camera makes it apparent that Sentain did not deserve the treatment he received at Galoup’s hands. The main body of the film, however, undermines this story without setting up any clear positive story to replace it. Only the final scene shows the forces running along his body throughout. In this way, the final scene doesn’t just undermine Galoup—it very likely also undermines the counter-narratives we, the viewers, have provided to explain Galoup’s behavior. In this way, like the sedation scene in Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, the scene forces us to observe and consider ourselves.
That, then, is how these two scenes work. Interesting questions linger: To what extent are these examples part of larger patterns? E.g. do scenes like this at the beginning of a film generally have this function of making the rest of the events seem preordained? And are there any such scenes that occur in the middle of a film, and not at either endpoint?