Thoughtful meditations are foregrounded in German filmmaker Helena Wittmann’s modern take on Claire Denis’s ‘Beau Travail’

When a film has no plot and few words, how do you watch it? Some fans of ‘slow cinema’ say that clear narrative is unnecessary for appreciation or absorption; I think that narrative can spring up out of nothing—that there’s narrative potential in every image, in every upturned lip and cresting wave that crashes back into itself. People recall memories when they hear an ocean roar; it’s one of those sounds. Like a siren call to the subconscious, it drags shit to the shore.

In German filmmaker Helena Wittmann’s latest feature, Human Flowers of Flesh, no one on a sailboat in the Mediterranean speaks the same language. The captain, Ida (Dogtooth’s Angeliki Papoulia), and five male members of the French Foreign Legion are bound by the water and a shared assignment: to cross the sea, from Marseille to Algeria. Wittmann describes these characters as a constellation, negotiating a gender-based balance of power. Their routine—fictional and not, as they really do man the vessel—unfolds in sun-soaked tableaux, animated by a soundscape that treats creaking floorboards and lapping waters like conversation.

It’s a work to be swallowed by, same as the sea. As the mind conjures narrative to fill in Ida’s look of interminable sadness, or a frame of nothing but a mass of white rock, it taps into other references, memories, and stories. As I watched, I thought of a capsized dinghy, a perfect linen blouse, Hiroshima, Atlantis, flares on the beach, Helen of Troy, crunching on fish bones, the men of Éric Rohmer’s summer films, and Claire Denis’s Beau Travail.

“Still, there is never nothing happening—no real stillness—on a boat. Even when the camera watches a blank wall, light beams swing jauntily across it, subject to the tide.”

Indeed, anyone who’s seen Denis’s tragedy, starring Denis Lavant as a suppressed Foreign Legion sergeant, will feel déjà vu: Human Flowers of Flesh is an ode to Beau Travail—or a sequel, 25 years on. The film was Wittmann’s introduction to the secretive French army unit, which killed two birds with one stone when conceived in 1831; recent immigrants crowding Parisian neighborhoods were shipped off to serve their new country by policing its colonial empire. Lavant agreed to reprise his role as Galoup, haunting Sidi Bel Abbès—the town that served as the headquarters of the Foreign Legion, until Algerian independence in 1962—like a ghost of cinema.

Wittmann is a natural researcher and collector, and her short films especially reflect the range of references of a woman of letters: The Wild (2013) makes use of inherited Super 8 film, from her great uncle’s African safaris; Ada Kaleh (2018) creates a diorama of a first apartment, Wittmann’s camera panning over empty bottles, a Dalí poster, and propagated house plants. Ada Kaleh was an Ottoman Turkish island on the Romanian Danube, submerged in 1970 during construction of one of Europe’s largest hydropower plants. Suddenly, the still life of a twentysomething’s summer becomes an artifact, and a metaphor for places past—it was filmed in the apartment where Wittmann once lived.

For Human Flowers of Flesh, her second feature, Wittmann considered borders real and imagined. She read Predrag Matvejević, who wrote, “The Mediterranean is not only geography. Neither in space nor in time are its boundaries marked… The ‘Mediterranean chalk circle’ is constantly drawn and erased, wind and waves, adventure and inspiration extend or narrow it to their measure.” The director tried to talk to people in France about the war in Algeria, and found that the subject remains taboo. She noted the Foreign Legion’s downsizing in the late-20th century, and then its recent expansion in response to Islamist terrorist attacks in Europe. These references need not be clocked by the viewer, but they certainly counter the notion that slow cinema over-privileges the aesthetic; the vague establishment of militarism in the beginning of the film is enough to see the tension in gestures and glances, or to find irony in the sailors’ game of Go.

A decade ago, the value of the endurance watch was hotly debated among film bloggers. In Sight and Sound magazine (whose critics’ poll last year deemed the very slow Jeanne Dielman the greatest film of all time), editor Nick James called films that favor mood over event “passive-aggressive,” because “they demand great swathes of our precious time to achieve quite fleeting and slender aesthetic and political effects.” James’s opposition prefers the term ‘contemplative cinema.’ Wittmann’s shots of a tea candle’s flicker, and water droplets falling from the claws of crustaceans, call attention to the preciousness of time—not just the time that belongs to us, but also to the other beings of the Mediterranean’s past and future. It’s a rare opportunity to wonder about one’s own relation to time—the cerebral and almost silly things you think about when you have nothing to do but stare at the sea.

Still, there is never nothing happening—no real stillness—on a boat. Even when the camera watches a blank wall, light beams swing jauntily across it, subject to the tide. Shadows of mast flags do an ecstatic dance in the wind. Dancing is everywhere in Human Flowers of Flesh, by humans and by bodies of light.

The famous last scene of Beau Travail is likewise a euphoric dance: an undoing of the rigid body we followed for the previous 90 minutes, as Denis Lavant flings himself around to “The Rhythm of the Night.” That ending is contemplative cinema at its best: a perfect image, a visualization of both orgasm and death, that complicates seeming truths.

As soon as we’re familiar with the cadence of Human Flowers of Flesh, there’s an interlude where the film becomes a bright blue cyanotype. All is flattened—a reminder of the medium that film is. There was realness, and it was captured, and through a chemical process it became an object that needed decoding. We, in the theater, can do that. “My memories are rarely clear,” Wittmann said recently. “They are more like premonitions.”

Human Flowers of Flesh is playing at select theaters. A selection of Wittmann’s short films are streaming on Metrograph At Home through May 21.