Denis poetic, art-house classic is intense, searing and transformative, crammed with beautiful images
Director: Claire Denis
Cast: Denis Lavant (Adjudant-Chef Galoup), Michel Subor (Commandant Bruno Forestier), Grégoire Colin (Légionnaire Gilles Sentain), Richard Courcet (Légionnaire), Nicolas Duvauchelle (Légionnaire)
I think it’s fair to say Beau Travail will not be to everyone’s taste. For every person (a bit like me) who comes out of the film humming ‘Rhythm of the Night’, they’ll be another who will never have made it far enough into the film to even understand why anyone would. Denis’ poetic film, shot like a combination of art project and choreographic exercise almost wilfully foregoes plot and character in favour of experience. Framed around a voiceover that could be almost anything from a diary, to a letter to a suicide note, Beau Travail is a film that wants you to be as uncertain about its aims and intents, as its lead character is about his own.
Denis’ film is a remix of several literary sources, most notably Melville’s Billy Budd – though you can also make a case that there is more than a trace of Othello in there. Set in a French Foreign Legion unit based in Djibouti under the command of veteran Forestier (Michel Subor), our focus is his Adjudant-Chef Galoup (Denis Lavant). Galoup is a rigid stickler for duty and an obsessive legionnaire, distant from those around him. He takes an almost instant, irrational, dislike for new recruit Sentain (Grégoire Colin) who can form easy rapport with those around him. Galoup schemes to destroy Sentain. In a framing device, Galoup recounts the story having left the Foreign Legion.
It should probably be restated that this brief summary of the plot pretty much covers every detail in this brief but poetically open-ended film. It takes over a third of the film’s runtime for the unexplained conflict at the film’s heart to even begin and Denis scrupulously avoids anything you could categorically call an answer. Which in a way is an answer in itself. Because Beau Travail is, it is easy to forget, a memory piece. It’s framed with Galoup remembering his career in the Foreign Legion, and everything we see in the film is filtered through his recollections. How reliable are these? How much do the strangely intricate, beautifully choreographed desert training sequences reflect reality and how much are they the result of an unreliable narrator?
Perhaps Galoup’s motiveless loathing for Sentain is rooted in his own inability to understand himself and his own longings. Embodied in a performance of immense physical exactitude by Denis Lavant, Galoup is a tightly drawn spring, a mass of careful, well-chosen movements. He’s naturally content with the labours of the French Foreign Legion: scrupulously ironing creases into his clothes, making his bed with careful perfection, striding through the desert wilderness. At the nightclub with his men, he’s a distant observer – he can’t even really take part in their campfire sing-alongs. He only finds physical ease in their ritualised training sequences.
These training sequences are extraordinary, more like Gene Kelly dance sequences than anything you might associate with training. While in the dance clubs the men are awkward movers, on the training field they have sinewy grace. Ritualised fight training sees their bodies move through pre-set positions with a striking, musical beauty. Even back and leg stretches see twenty men moving with perfect co-ordination in the desert sand, leaving matching trails in the dust.
There is a reason why the title translates as Beautiful Work. The film is a continual stream of military tasks in the desert, most of which seem pointless. Camps are built, holes are dug, rocks are smashed. It’s combined with a series of domestic tasks treated with an equal almost fetishistic relish. Men whip water from their laundry as they peg it up to dry. In unison they iron their shirts into a perfect finish. Potatoes are peeled with casual ease. The training they undertake, powering through assault courses, sees them move with a graceful physical ease. There may never seem to be a point to all the things they do but it’s done with a real beauty. You can totally imagine this idealised vision of unison is exactly how Galoup would want to remember his days in his beloved Legion.
Denis’ transformation of Galoup’s memories of the Legion’s work into unspoken dance sequences, also points towards the increasing homoerotic undertone. This feels like more than a clue about Galoup’s undefined hostility to Sentain who is in many ways a spiritual brother-in-arms. But Lavant’s simmeringly intense, buttoned-up (literally) Galoup could never express such feelings. Is that why some of these training sequences that he remembers feel oddly sexualised? A wrestling practise session, bare-chested, feels like nothing less than aggressive competitive hugging. In one training session Galoup and Sentain walk around in an ever-decreasing circle in what feels like the entrée to a tango or a romantic clinch.
It’s not just Galoup. Michel Subor’s professional soldier Forestier watches the topless training sessions with an unspoken (unrealised) fascination. Galoup’s idolisation of his commander – he even carries a dogtag bracelet of Forestier’s in his exile like a totem – is another motivation, jealousy clearly on his mind as his commander takes a shine to the brave new soldier. Galoup it’s suggested is a man who barely understands himself, let alone others, lashing out with violence and aggression at others due to longings he barely feels or understands in himself.
All of this plays in Denis’ slow, observant, film full of carefully composed cross-cuts taking us in and out of the camp and nearby town and throws up a chorus of Djiboutian women who observe the men and interject at crucial points. Beautifully shot by Agnes Godard, it’s a film of striking images often beautifully composed into intriguing montages that go from nightclubs, to deserts, to seemingly abandoned military vehicles. It is I think vital, at every point, to remember that everything we are seeing is being framed through the memories of a man who, Denis implies, is deeply repressed in (possibly) several ways.
Frequently we see scenes Galoup can have no knowledge of. Others– like Sentain finally provoked into striking his senior officer – are played out with a near-dream like unreality. The eventual fate of a character in the desert could be wish-fulfilment for Galoup – after all he could have no idea. Does he imagine his Legionnaires singing to him as he boards his flight to exile? Above all, as he wanders without purpose through the streets of Marseilles, what is he intending to do? Why is he writing his reflections (if you can call such vague narrative interjections that)? Is it an elaborate suicide note?
All of this comes to a head in Denis’ fascinating and beautifully striking final scene. As Galoup lies on his bed – perfectly made – gun in hand, the camera pans across his body to focus on one of his arm muscles twitching rhythmically. Then we cut to Galoup in that Djubati nightclub: but now he looks like a different man, casually dressed, relaxed – and he explodes into a no-holds-barred dance to Rhythm of the Night, full of the frentic, effortless, improvisationary energy he’s denied himself utterly. Is he imagining a fraction of the life he could have had if he was able to embrace feelings and emotions in himself he can barely understand? (A critic observed, Galoup may be so repressed the closest he can get to imagining being gay is relaxed dancing.) Denis told Lavant to dance ‘as if between life and death’. Is this his idea of an afterlife?
Beau Travail won’t be for everyone – and even at its slim 93 minutes, it’s refusal to interject much in the way of pace or characterisation (aside from Galoup, almost every other character is a cipher and Galpoup has crushed almost any trace of personality in himself). But go into it expecting not a throbbing tragedy (as I did at first) but instead something almost akin to a half-remembered dream and it will provide an experience you will be eager to revisit and explore.
- A brilliant article on the depth and appeal of the film at the BFI here.
- Fascinating article on the film’s musical qualities from Pop Matters here.
- A thoughtful summary of critical opinions is here at The Stranger.
- An in-depth analysis from The Criterion Collection is here.