Fort Buchanan (Les Films du Bal)
US Release: 2 February 2016
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 65 min
A Review of Fort Buchanan
by Cassie da Costa, @center4control
Enjambment would seem to be a purely poetic device, with lines of text running over into each other, presenting the opportunity to fracture and rebuild meaning through the act of reading. As you follow each line with the eye, you can obey or disobey the cues provided by punctuation—the poem unravels and unites, and after your first perusal, you can swear you’ve read at least twice. In cinema, you are meant to get caught up in form by forgetting it’s there; you follow along to the rhythm that is set with camera movement, music, and editing, which all inform the way you experience, or read, the film.
But in Benjamin Crotty’s Fort Buchanan, a queer domestic melodrama set at an army base in France, the dialogue is entirely appropriated from American reality television, and the roles of dominant, submissive, faithful, unfaithful, violent, and fragile are generally played against gender expectation. The combination is not so much elision as it is, in fact, enjambment. Even the way the camera moves—with unmasked zoom, jumping the line (in which the 180-degree-rule is violated, and the camera jumps over the axis from one side of the action to the other), and enduring extreme close-ups—prohibits any uninterrupted experience of events. Not only do scenes come up against scenes, but moments up against moments, as both meaning and feeling are undone and then redoubled by a staccato of formal and narrative choices.
In one of the first lines of the films, Roger (Andy Gillet)—the lovelorn army husband to the perpetually absent soldier Frank (David Baïot) and whose identity and posture each toggle reliably between precarious and beleaguered—hands a letter to his daughter Roxy and says, “Ça vient de Saint Cyr.” The line struck me because Saint Cyr, pronounced in correct French, is a near-homophone of the French pronunciation of “sincere.” And in fact, it becomes clear that Fort Buchanan, despite all its moments of irony, is sincere, resisting winking parody and self-satisfied critique. The language of constructed American melodrama, while bizarre coming out of the mouths of casually beautiful young French people, is honored with emotionally present performances and a keen attention to the personal even as the social and political erupt at every turn.
In a scene at a party in Djibouti, where the soldiers are on duty, Roger, gussied up in Daisy Dukes and with a freshly shaven head, desperately tries to seduce his husband. Here, the instances of queering and enjambment are obvious: Frank, usually the one who initiates sex, had rebuffed Roger earlier, claiming he was tired after walking 20 miles while on duty. At the party, drunk and ready, Roger pushes Frank onto a chaise-longue and literally throws himself onto him. After Frank rejects Roger once again, Roger demands answers, and receives a painfully unsparing, “What do you want me to do? I’m pissed! Because you’re here. That’s how it is.” Red and purple lights beat dynamically over Roger’s face as he stares at the empty space his husband has left behind, and though his razor-chopped strands stand straight up, their splayed orientation seems to admit total defeat.
Yet, for all the film’s intimacy and sincerity imbued with socio-political commentary, Frank’s blackness, though it is never commented upon in the film, plays a dubious role. For one thing, his daughter with Roger, the sensual Roxy (Iliana Zabeth) who physically abuses Roger, is white, so that Frank, who already exists outside of the home and outside of the drama, also exists outside the terms that problematize Roger and Roxy’s presence in Djibouti, and ultimately, their relationships to the black bodies that exist in contrast to their claustrophobic lives at the army base: familiar, ubiquitous whiteness. Not only Frank, but all of the soldiers in Djibouti are also black, and when Roxy is impregnated by one, it is made clear that he will not be involved with the child. “I think I picked a bad one!” she says. With this, I was not sure how the lines could be re-read, but instead felt a certainty in both fathers’ absences and thus in their unspoken blackness. The only complication here comes from Justine—another black (or mixed, if we’re speaking beyond American notions of racial identity; the actress who plays her, Mati Diop, is half-Senegalese) character also never named as such—who is significant only for how insistently she justifies cheating on her husband as she seduces Guillaume, another lonely gay army husband. Here, enjambment may in fact revert to elision, but elision as omission, and not combination. Blackness is presented as static or collateral. Crotty, whose short film with Gabriel Abrantes Visionary Iraq (2009) more directly confronts notions of whiteness and othering, certainly does not put his troops in Djibouti for no reason—colonization and imperialism are understood, yet the ways those structures enact racial violence never quite make it home.
Cassie da Costa is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer who focuses on film, video, and sometimes books. She is also a digital designer, and tweets from @center4control.