Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

Forms of Beauty: Moving beyond Desire in Bersani/Dutoit and Beau Travail

Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

Forms of Beauty: Moving beyond Desire in Bersani/Dutoit and Beau Travail

Article excerpt

This article approaches Claire Denis's film Beau Travail by way, first, of a passage in Alan Hollinghurst's novel The Folding Star; then, more extensively, of the theoretical and art-critical writings of Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit--especially their critique of narrative and desire as aggressive and appropriative strategies. Beau Travail is argued to give support to the contention that there are other, nonappropriative modes of existence and intersubjectivity: though Beau Travail is concerned with repression (especially the repression of homosexuality) it also may be said to depict a mode of being which is not crippled by jealousy, repression and coercive desire.

Keywords: homosexuality, narrative, relationality, repression


I think that the appeal for me, in being gay and loving women, is the gentleness of it. The relationships that I enjoy most with men are not ones of intimacy, but are ones of battles and ones of admiration. And also ones of protection. I like the way that men protect women when they do. But I don't like the dues you have to pay for the protection. So I like the protection of males in friendships. And I also like the bonding of men with women in secrets. I like the secrets that they share ('Sarah Waters' in Kaiser, 1999: 233).

In Alan Hollinghurst's 1995 novel The Folding Star thirty-three-year-old Edward Manners decamps to Belgium to become a private tutor to a troubled teenager, Luc. He begins a relationship with Matt, a spivvish local with a sideline in phone sex, but becomes obsessed with his pupil. He covets, pines, wallows in self-pity. Then Luc turns up at a gay bar and goes home with Edward. It's a one-off and the experience only intensifies Edward's attachment. There is, though, a shock waiting for him, inadvertently administered by a barman.

   Ivo assumed his scandalous 'discreet' manner. 'I don't know his
   name, dear. I just watched him pick him up in here one night.
   Then the next night he was telling me all about it when the kid
   comes in again. Couldn't get enough, Matt said.' He glanced
   both ways along the bar. 'He had him seven times--and that was
   just the first night. I was moderately jealous. Not my type--you
   know, tall, tall schoolboy, blond, mouth like a sponge. Still-only
   seventeen ... It must be nice to get something really fresh.'

   My hand was still steady, my heart flinty. 'When would this
   have been?'

   'Ooh ...' he searched with no sense that it mattered: 'Three or
   four weeks ago? One thing about Matt, he always gets what he
   wants. Though even he looked a bit shagged out. Then the kid
   kept kissing him, and Matt was groping him between the legs-
   white jeans, you know--I'm saying I didn't fancy him but come
   to think of it he was completely gorgeous. I just prefer dark
   men,' he said, with a bat of the eyelids, and slid off to another
   customer (Hollinghurst, 1998: 419).

The pleasures here are both masochistic and pederastic. There's a grimly self-confirming logic about Edward's discovery that he is doomed and lovelorn after all, betrayed from a trusted corner. It justifies his paranoia. But the more intense thrill of this denouement comes from the revelation of Luc's own sexual enthusiasms. He is not, it turns out, the passive and confused adolescent so avidly dreamt up and worshipped by Edward. He is confident, he knows what he wants. He is uninhibited with Matt. He does not hold himself back coyly, waiting for the courtly attentions that Edward chooses to think are the necessary ploys to be used by an older man set on seducing a teenager.

Narrative fiction needs these kinds of ploys and revelations. It circles around enigmatic objects of interest and desire. It has stratagems of knowledge, supposition and disclosure that underscore the intractability of these objects. They need to be observed, courted, decoded, fantasized about. The dynamics of fiction are often to do with these processes of interpretation and preinterpretation: with the longing, the fetishizing, the speculation and the confirmation of the worst paranoid anxieties. …

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