Beau travail (1999)


director/writer: Claire Denis; screenwriters: from story by Herman Melville “Billy Budd”/Jean-Pol Fargeau; cinematographer: Agnès Godard; editor: Nelly Quettier; cast: Denis Lavant (Galoup), Michel Subor (Commanding Office Bruno Forestier), Gregoire Colin (Sentain), Richard Courcet (Legionnaire), Adiatou Massudi (Legionnaire), Bernardo Montet (Legionnaire), Nicolas Duvauchelle (Legionnaire); Runtime: 90; New Yorker; 1999-France)

“Beau Travail literally means beautiful work, and this film is all that and more.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Claire Denis (I Can’t Sleep/Nenette and Boni/No Fear, No Die) has created a cinematic work of great poetry and reverie: a masterpiece. It is a meditation on the men of the French Foreign Legion who live as outsiders on the edge of civilization, who have been reborn with hope when becoming part of a romantic military organization thereby attaining a certain elegance in their lives. The film is loosely based on Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd,” though the scenery is now the isolation of the African desert instead of the sea. There are many films that influenced Denis but the works of Alain Resnais, especially his Muriel, probably influenced her the most. It’s a film so visually stunning and so magnificently palpable in its cinematography and in its lively camera movements and fascinating narrative speculations and most of all in its lyrical sensuality, that it runs poetically adrift with its listless hypnotic pace. Its sparse dialogue forces the viewer to see what is not being said. It fully captivates by its strange brooding mood it sets. It tells in a matter of fact tone a story of hate, alienation, and envy through the eyes of the narrow-minded French Foreign legionnaire who found freedom in his remorse and the realization that he is a closet homosexual. Its background shots are just as important as its story line and its theme, as it helps explore the everyday boredom the men face and the underlying violence it evokes in them.

Every scene in Beau Travail is filled with a quietness. This quiet has the potential to turn explosive in the wasteland where the men train. The minimally told story is made all the more powerful by many vivid shots, such as the one of the emerald water contrasted with the barren desert, or of the distant mountains which seem to have its own language to speak to us, or of the unobtrusive native women at the marketplace in their colorful dresses or at the disco exhibiting the native’s musical gestures and mocking tones. The local women are just as much a part of the story as anything else in the film is, even though they are not directly part of the plot. There are also the close-ups of the interracial legionnaires living as brothers who have to reinforce this by ritualistically hugging and separating from each other in what seems to be exaggerated homoerotic embraces, but this can also be viewed as a parody of such romantic notions.

All the legionnaires have secret past lives and can choose any name they want to be known by (one of the main characters is Michel Subor who chooses the same name he had in Godard’s 1960 Le Petit Soldat, Bruno Forestier, but this time he is playing a different part). The legionnaires are willingly giving up everything to be accepted into this arcane masculine fraternity that lives by a code of military honor.

Beau Travail literally means beautiful work, and this film is all that and more. It seems like it has been ages since I have been so enthused about a film as I am by this one.

The story is narrated by the evil, ex-Chief Master Sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant), in an offscreen voiceover and in a flashback that begins by him stating his time of action is over, it is time for him to recall his life. He says– “Marseilles, late February. I have a lot of time ahead of me.” He’s a loner, a sort of romantic figure despite his unappealing physical appearance, and thinks of himself as the ideal legionnaire. He’s a career soldier in the French Foreign Legion, stationed in the Djibouti outpost, which is in East Africa.

Galoup’s chosen life, one that he feels most suited for, changes for no apparent reason when he becomes extremely jealous of an innocent new recruit who comes under his command, Gilles Sentain (Gregoire Colin). Galoup reminisces, with the help of the diary he kept, about being booted out of the Legion for his abuse of the popular and compliant recruit with no guile, who only wanted to be a good soldier. Galoup is not afraid to openly state how he was driven by the twisted state of his mind to behave in such a maddening way against such a selfless and blank individual, someone so innocent he found it hard to believe that someone like that could really exist.

Galoup tells of almost idolizing his much older commander, Bruno Forestier, who has no ideals or ambition, and enjoys to sit around and get high smoking the local gat. Bruno has grown old and tired of life, and in one conversation he has with the sergeant says, “If it wasn’t for fornication and blood we wouldn’t be here.”

Time seems irrelevant for the soldiers, memories seem to come and go, as they do their military drills looking at times like Teutonic mythical gods while half-naked (these scenes provoke, mock and remind one of the Leni Riefenstahl kitsch art and homoerotic heroes she gave us in both Triumph of the Will and Olympiad–though Denis’s characterizations seemed all the more potent, purposeful and vital). The men also exercise by performing tai chi and they learn that the most important thing a legionnaire must know, is to obey his superior officer. To iron a perfect crease in their uniform is part of their reason for being in the Legion — it makes them look special. The boredom of the day is broken up by work details, while the nights are reserved for the local discos where they dance Western style with the ribald African women and pretend to have found satisfaction with this fantasy arrangement. Beau Travail is the memories of such pleasures and such a need to fit in somewhere even if it is into something that appears as useless as the Legion, which doesn’t seem to have any purpose anymore without the days of French colonization and the Algerian war. The only thing the men can’t let go of is their dreams. The Legion is their love fantasy, it is something that can’t be understood by anyone but true lovers and dreamers. Trying to explain their reason for being, is like explaining why Rimbaud became a slave trader and gave up poetry.

Sentain heroically rescues a helicopter pilot who crashed at sea and Forestier respects him for being the kind of soldier needed in the Legion, one who blindly obeys orders and loves to be a soldier and has no ulterior purposes other than serving. That Bruno takes a liking to him makes Galoup become crazed with envy, as he can’t believe that Sentain doesn’t have an angle he is working. The sergeant then finalizes his plans to destroy Sentain by bringing the legionnaires to a desolate spot in the desert where he has them dig in the oppressive heat a road that is not needed, as the locals watch impassively with disbelief. As in Billy Budd, the person in charge creates a situation out of an injustice to another to provoke the legionnaire to respond and thereby maneuvers the innocent Sentain to act in a humanitarian way; and, when he does, the sergeant is there to snap at him and sucker him into punching him out. Galoup, thereby, fulfills his plan by sending Sentain out on the isolated desert alone with only a compass that doesn’t work, as his punishment. The last we see of Sentain is that the locals have rescued the unconscious man in the desert and a local woman is nursing him back to health, as she is with him on a bus.

When told by the commander his days in the Legion are over, there is a brilliant final scene of the sergeant’s visit to the disco where Galoup breaks free of the self that imprisons him and dances wildly alone to the contemporary Western song “Rhythm of the Night.” Alone in Marseilles, Galoup wrestles with the motto he has tattooed on his chest “Serve the good cause and die,” and contemplates suicide.

Claire Denis was brought up in a family where her father was a French civil servant and lived the early years of her life throughout Africa and spent some time in Djibouti. Her familiarity with the people and their landscape and their customs, is reflective in the story’s realism. This is her breakthrough genius film, a film that stands heads and shoulders above the talented director’s other films. There’s magic in the mystery her filmmaking evokes and there’s something universal she uncovers in her search for what is foreign (goodness!), which is the reason she took this project on in the first place at the urging of French TV. What adds zest, is the robust musical score of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd oratorio and the choreography staged by one of the actors who played a legionnaire, Bernardo Montet. All the military exercises were like watching a ballet, as the entire film had the fresh look of something so beautiful and mysterious that it didn’t seem possible to be captured on film.