Claire Denis is one of the best examples of a female director who won’t be defined by her gender. A versatile, uncompromising auteur, she makes films in a variety of genres not usually associated with female directors. These range from horror (Trouble Every Day) to Science fiction (High Life), yet she is still largely unknown to the average filmgoer.
Beau Travail might be the perfect introduction to her inimitable style. Partly a loose retelling of Herman Melville‘s Billy Budd, partly an examination of masculinity in the military, it’s a deceptively simple story with a huge amount going on beneath the surface
Galoup (Denis Lavant) is an ex-soldier for the foreign legion, writing his memoirs. In flashback, we see him in Djibouti training recruits, until his world of order is thrown into disarray upon the arrival of Sentain (Gregoire Colin) to whom Galoup takes an instant dislike. A solitary figure himself, the only person Galoup admires is commanding officer, Forestier (Michel Subor), but when Sentain impresses Forestier, Galoup’s hatred becomes all encompassing.
Following in the tradition of Beau Geste and the work of Jean Genet, there is an undercurrent of homo-eroticism within the foreign legion here, especially in the way Galoup is clearly threatened by Sentain’s physical beauty, and through Denis’ numerous shots of the soldiers exercising, stripped to the waist. However, to me at least this is secondary to Galoup’s identity within the legion. He sees himself as the “perfect legionnaire” and Sentain’s easy going personality is something he sees as unfit for the legion. Even Galoup’s complex admiration for Forestier is more reminiscent of a younger sibling than a crush.
This is a tricky film to write about because the majority of the story is in the subtext, or at least conveyed non-verbally. It doesn’t help that Galoup’s narration is often at odds with what we see onscreen. He clearly thinks that he and Forestier have a close relationship, but this isn’t at all obvious from their interactions. It’s unclear how much of what Galoup says is true and how many of the supposed slights he receives from Sentain are due to is his paranoid imagination.
The soundtrack is enthralling, comprised of dance music and choral arrangements taken from Benjamin Britten‘s opera (also based on Billy Budd). Combined with the non-linear editing, it produces a strange, ethereal effect, especially when scoring the ritualistic exercises, which contribute to the idea that a lot of this is happening in Galoup’s head.
Lavant is incredible here, utilising his impassive, stony face to play a repressed, brutish character, who nonetheless has moments of vulnerability. As someone who previously knew him best for his intensely physical performances in films like Holy Motors and Mauvais Sang, it’s disconcerting seeing him so restrained and regimented in his movements, especially when compared to the other soldiers, who find their freedom dancing in the Djibouti nightclubs. Galoup himself only lets loose in the final iconic scene where he dances energetically on his own to Corona’s Rhythm Of The Night. It’s a stunning sequence, but like the rest of the film it’s tonally ambiguous. Is Galoup finally loosening up, or does it represent him finding freedom in a more permanent way? In any case it’s a devastating and suitably enigmatic ending to the film.
One of the most unique films of the nineties, Beau Travail is a hypnotic, moving experience, and one that any cineaste should see. Arty without feeling pretentious, it’s a beautifully evocative, poetic film that remains as resonant today as it was when it was released.
This director-approved special edition from Criterion is a new 4K digital restoration, supervised by director of photography Agnès Godard. It looks beautiful, with stunning shots of the Djibouti landscape. The Blu-ray features a very timely conversation between Denis and Moonlight director Barry Jenkins on the film’s legacy today. There are interviews with actors Lavant and Colin, select commentary with Godard, a video essay by Judith Mayne and an essay by critic Girish Shambu.