With her ravishingly sensual take on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor, Claire Denis firmly established herself as one of the great visual tone poets of our time. Amid the azure waters and sunbaked desert landscapes of Djibouti, a French Foreign Legion sergeant (Denis Lavant) sows the seeds of his own ruin as his obsession with a striking young recruit (Grégoire Colin) plays out to the thunderous, operatic strains of Benjamin Britten. Denis and cinematographer Agnès Godard fold military and masculine codes of honor, colonialism’s legacy, destructive jealousy, and repressed desire into shimmering, hypnotic images that ultimately explode in one of the most startling and unforgettable endings in all of modern cinema.
Beau Travail (1999) film notes by Tova Gannana for Faraway Entertainment
He has the kind of face that makes him wish for a different face. Symmetrical and heart shaped, bulbous and pockmarked, a face that dictates destiny. He introduces himself, “Chief Master Sergeant Galoup. That’s me. Unfit for life. Unfit for civil life.” Galoup (Denis Lavant) writes in his diary. He is the narrator of Beau Travail (1999). The images that precede and follow his confession are in Djibouti which is part of his past. Army laundry hangs in the desert sun. Green undergarments from many washings are translucent. Galoup appears in these scenes along with his soldiers. On the dance floor he reaches for the shoulders of a young woman. On a boat he wears a uniform and beret as his soldiers row bare-chested. He is with them and yet far away. The young men’s bodies are their voices. Their drills are like dances. They embrace then pull away then embrace then pull away. They stand in a circle and march towards the center. They face the sun, eyes closed and arms raised. They move always in unison. Even without their fatigues, we know they are soldiers. Beau Travail is an army film. There is not one story but the story of all. The men entered the French Foreign Legion to lose themselves, to erase their origins. They have come to the Legion as orphans. Beau Travail is a dance film. Nothing stays in place but the landscape. Being a soldier is both physical and mental. A soldier has to do something. Beau Travail is about regret, misreading a situation, being carried away by your own perceiving.
Galoup tries to steal the story; the images tell otherwise. That is the tension of the film. Galoup writes, “Marseilles, late February. I have time to kill now. I screwed up from a certain viewpoint. Viewpoint counts...My story is simple. The story of a man who left France for too long. A soldier who left the army as a sergeant.” A story is never one’s own. Other people are always involved. East Africa is where scientists believe the first human, a woman, walked. In her footprints humanity followed. In Beau Travail young women are covered in cloth at the roadside and on the train. Young women are sleeveless on the dance floor. The music punctuates like gunfire in a Turkish track titled “The Kiss.”
The soldiers in Beau Travail move as one, yet the camera directs us to see them one at a time. They are from all over the globe. Together under one flag, their nicknames tell otherwise, “Pierre the Corsican.” They are in Djibouti as France has been in Africa for centuries. Their battle is inside the unit. Galoup is jealous of Légionnaire Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin) with his smooth angular face. His gaze intense, Sentain has come to read the situation. He has insight but no power. Sentain is the pointer, Galloup is the palm.
Galoup can make a perfect bed. This is how he sees a perfect soldier. Not one who shows deference, or does a favor, or looks the other way like Sentain does so that one of their own can worship in a mosque during Ramadan instead of standing guard. To leave the circle of command, to listen to one another instead of your superior, this to Galoup is betrayal. Sentain’s humanity breaks Galoup. The film changes. The violence in the air becomes violence on the ground. Conflict is not just between nations but between people in everyday interactions. Why war is a question that is hard to answer. We organize ourselves against one another. We hate because what else would we do with our days. Galoup is loyal to Commandant Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor) a lifelong soldier; his mistakes don’t cost him. In the mirror, he looks at himself. He puts his hands over his face as in prayer. The narrator speaks, “A rumor dogged him after the Algerian War.” Forestier is a man with an appetite. He won’t return like Galoup to France. His days will be spent rewarding and punishing, praising and sending men away.
Someone has to pay for beauty and grace under pressure. Sentain is the focus of the film though he barely speaks. He fills the screen with his physicality. He stands out. Galoup gets the voice, Sentain gets our gaze. Forestier says, “We are taught elegance in and under our uniforms.” The men march in green, sweep their camp, dig at rock and sand. They listen to their elders. Their military efforts are preparation. Two of them will be tested. Sentain will be driven out and dropped off in the desert. Galoup will write his end alone in Marseille. Sentain will be saved by civilians. His army jacket stiffened by salt, dried by the sun, becomes his only shade.
Tova Gannana writes for the Seattle Art Museum Film Department and CSA Hitchcock.