Why I Love… #120: Beau Travail

Year: 1999

Director: Claire Denis

Stars: Denis Lavant, Grégoire Colin, Michel Subor

My first exposure to Claire Denis was Bastards early in 2014 and I reacted very strongly. I was confused and repelled by what I perceived as cryptic ugliness and misery porn; a position I have since revised. In fact, Bastards now ranks among my favourite films.

Denis’ work can be difficult and confrontational; aspects of cinema I ordinarily pivot toward anyway. Maybe I just didn’t want to be challenged that day. My MUBI account helped me grow accustomed to her magnetic, sensual approach to filmmaking. Thanks to the streaming service I caught up with White MaterialTrouble Every DayNénette and BoniBeau Travail. My opinion changed, dramatically. I was impressed, enchanted; I had started to revere her.

The opening sex scene of Let The Sunshine In might’ve been my true moment of conversion, however. I remember being struck by Denis’ framing of the man’s back and shoulders. The muscles and skin moving in the light. The heaviness of him. I felt as though there were similar moments in Bastards, and it was actually this lingering connection that prompted me to buy a physical copy of that film so I could revisit and reassess. True enough, I found the same study of bodily movement, particularly in how Denis perceives Vincent London. This continuing investigation into physicality and masculinity led me back to Beau Travail.

But not immediately. I had to wait for the recent Criterion 4K reissue of the film (a beautifully packaged and curated re-release approved by Denis herself). I had been awed by Beau Travail when I first watched it on MUBI. But my return to the film – combined with my pivot on the artist behind the camera – brought out a guileless love for a singular work.

Beau Travail is thin on narrative and thinner on dialogue. What there is is mostly narrated; a voice-over from Denis Lavant’s French Foreign Legion Sergeant Galoup, parceling out bare context for his restless existence in Djibouti. It is here that Denis studies the physical form with a poet’s audacity. Out in the desert, we’re invited to watch as Galoup leads his men through a variety of training exercises and calisthenics.

These workouts and rituals suggest a repressed homosexual context, something echoed in Galoup’s cagey, confessional narration. He tells of his sense of love and duty to his own commanding officer, Forestier (Michel Subor), while early on we sense the friction between Galoup and younger recruit Sentain (Grégoire Colin). A sense of prickling standoff between the two that Denis mirrors with images of the undulating, iridescent ocean. Later – at perhaps it’s most tense and theatrical – Beau Trevail will present the two men circling one another in an operatic crescendo – set to the strains of Benjamin Britten – that is denied it’s release.

Galoup feels like an echo of Martin Sheen’s Willard from Apocalypse Now. In some scant domestic scenes he appears aimless and lost, brewing tea or rather ineffectually pruning a tree outside his apartment. In the desert, meanwhile, he exudes authoritarian physical confidence; his exercises with the men often feeling like the prelude to a more violent or intimate confrontation. As though goading them toward some unspoken conclusion not yet understood.

In terms of ASMR, the scenes in the desert are among the most beautiful and giving I’ve ever seen committed to film. Arid sands of tope and grey contrasting beautifully with the deep blues of the sky. On occasion Denis configures the men in perfectly framed patterns, accentuating their unity and singularity of purpose. This, in turn, enhances the growing sense of otherness in Galoup, as his fixation with Sentain sends him spiraling into disorder.

We’re invited to recognise and appreciate the choreography at work here; in the calisthenics; in the circling investigations of these two men. Denis contrasts the desert with a nightclub on a few separate occasions. Here we see the local women dance, focusing in frequently on the stunningly beautiful Rahel (Marta Tafesse Kassa). We see them dance by themselves and we see them dance with the men, encroaching. By turns the women seem disinterested and enamored by their companions. Galoup’s interaction with Rahel seems stifled, strained; those of a man following ‘procedure’ without emotional coherence. His regard is still for Sentain, though his expression is inscrutable.

The roles of men and women are commented on throughout, though not verbally of course. The legionnaires are shown ironing their clothes; hanging their washing on lines; a complication of the outmoded view of masculinity in the military persona. They remain formally positioned within the frame (as though even these domestic chores are part of a larger choreography), but their very domestication is imprinted with connotations of the feminine. The lack of dialogue speaks to a code of silence about these connotations. A sense of shared discipline, certainly, but also repression or denial.

Later in the picture, a local woman riding a bus, working in the community, observes the men digging in the hot rough dirt of the desert. Her viewpoint casts the men in a primitive aspect; inverting the traditional – racist – assumptions when contrasting European colonials and indigenous Africans. Here the woman (and her companions on the bus) feel the more cultured, enlightened, above the men (figuratively and literally), while the foreigners are dogs, brutes; their militia primitive; their purpose ridiculous. Lost and in folly. It’s all part and parcel of a work charged with how outdated concepts reduce people, be that Imperialism or repressed homosexuality. When one of the Legionnaires dies, we witness a funeral. How stiffly the men move, how stern and rigorous. The burial stones echo this sense of the unmovable. Still, inside, in the interior, there is turmoil and corrosion. Just as in Galoup. Returning to barracks he throws his jacket down in frustration, then puts the men through a punishing regime of exercise. Even the scant scenes of the men at ease feel like part of this flex; rhythms like the relaxing and tensing of a muscle.

The astonishing end of the film returns to the theme of dance, though without choreography. Having insinuated that Galoup has committed suicide (a scene which ends focusing on a flexing nerve in his arm), Denis returns once more to the nightclub. Galoup stands alone as “The Rhythm of the Night” plays. At first he seems his usual rigid self. Then, he comes alive in a fit of dance that comes from within. Lavant – one of the most astonishingly physical actors of his generation – loses himself to dance, and it as though Galoup is finally unbound. He rolls out of frame as Denis smashes to credits and the feeling is transcendent. Is he finally emancipated? Free?

There is so much in Beau Travail that I feel as though I’ve only cliff-noted some of the beguiling aspects here. It has a haunted, liminal quality. A profound sadness, and loneliness. It is among the most beautifully edited films I’ve ever seen (Nelly Quettier), a quality only matched in the evocative, potent framing of Agnes Godard’s expressive cinematography. It is, perhaps, the key to the lock of all the other Denis pictures. The one by which you get the finest sense of her unique methodology and an understanding of how to approach some of her other elliptical works.

It’s easily one of the best films of the ’90s and, now, another of my all-time favourites; it’s rhythms and ruminations imprinted on me. Where so many other films just stream by, Beau Travail stays.

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