Tanks lie unattended near the foot of a mountain or a hill, with possibly empty oil drums next to them. Nameless people sit crowded in a train going through a desert. Women dance in a club hoping to attract the attention of French Foreign Legion soldiers. Those same soldiers, now caked in sand and dust, perform countless exercises surrounded by rocky terrain and sand. Occasionally there’s flashes of calm water. With her expert eye, Claire Denis finds both beauty and tragedy in all of these things.
Released in 1999, Claire Denis’ Beau Travail was her return to Africa after her film debut Chocolat. Like that film, she’s interested in the impact of colonialism on Africa. This time though Denis sets her film in the former French colony of Djibouti. A Legion outpost sits in the middle of nowhere. The soldiers bide their time doing exercises or cleaning laundry.
However, all of this is told through the memories of Denis Lavant’s disgraced Adjudant-Chef Galoup. No longer in the desert, he now lives “repatriated” in Marseille. He spends his days writing his memories and doing basic maintenance tasks around his home. Occasionally he’ll go into town to ride trains or take walks. But always he thinks of the desert and the Legion. He feels isolated in his home country. So he writes about his time in the Legion and his fall as if it was a failed military campaign. Time is a wave in this film. Past and present ebb and flow on the shore of memory.
Most of the scenes of the Legion’s activities in Djibouti are set to Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd, an adaptation of the Herman Melville novel. Beau Travail also takes inspiration from the novel though Denis is a little looser in her adaptation. Galoup, serving under Commandant Bruno Forestier, takes notice of new recruit Gilles Sentain, played by Denis regular Grégoire Colin. Sentain is everything Galoup lacks. Sentain is impossibly beautiful. His possesses sharp angles and perfect skin. Galoup looks beat up and craggy, with a face full of lines and pock marks after all his years in the desert. Sentain regularly hangs out and parties with his fellow soldiers. They saunter in the city, go to clubs, and act like kings of the town they’re stationed near. Meanwhile, Galoup solitarily wanders from club to club. Occasionally, he’s in uniform but we also see him dressed down. Sometimes he catches glimpses of his fellow soldiers on the town but keeps to himself.
Something about Sentain sets Galoup off. There’s friction as soon as he arrives. Is it his beauty or youth? The Comandant’s growing admiration for him? Is it a suppressed homosexual attraction? Maybe it’s boredom from the repetition. Whatever Galoup finds unappealing about Sentain, Denis leaves ambiguous.
There is a strong homoerotic undercurrent to Beau Travail. Denis’ camera lingers on all of the young men in the Legion, frequently shirtless and always doing strenuous physical activity. Some of these activities have them navigating each other’s bodies. Some of these ways seem exploratory and others feel predatory, young men staking their territory. They’re young and muscular, at maybe their physical peak. The camera preserves these young men at this moment in time.
One of the hallmarks of Denis’ films is her willingness and ability to transform familiar cinematic forms. Beau Travail is her equivalent of a musical. Their training exercises transform into choreographed routines. Set against the various rocky vistas or open seas of Djibouti, the repetition and monotony of the Legionnaires’s activities becomes a rhythmic movements. Time slows down as the camera takes in the form and movement of these men. Denis transforms these human bodies into pure hypnotic images.
Outside of the use of Britten, the film gets bookended by two sequences involving songs. The opening scene has soldier’s singing a song about the Legion and duty as the camera passes over a mural. Then the film smash cuts to the club song “Simarik” performed by Tarkan while the soldiers have fun mingling with local woman. Nothing seems too serious. Galoup tries to interact with a woman who seems disinterested in him, but who we later learn is his girlfriend. Sentain scowls through the landscape. The juxtaposition of the ode to duty with the fun, cheeky pop song with images tension hint at the film to come.
The end of the film involve Galoup lying on a bed with a gun. With no purpose or life outside of the Legion, it’s implied Galoup will commit suicide. Except the film then transitions into a shot of Galoup in a club smoking a cigarette while Corona’s immortal Europop dance hit “Rhythm Of The Night” blasts in background. Denis Lavant as Galoup stands, sways a little before breaking out into dance reminiscent of both Gene Kelly and breakdancing. Possibly a flashback, maybe a sign of Galoup’s death. Whatever the scene represents, Lavant performs the scene with complete abandon. There’s such a freedom to his movements signifying the freedom of his character from his duties and his self imposed guilt.
Because it is a Denis film, there’s always a political undercurrent to what we’re seeing. Commandant Forestier says “If it weren’t for fornication and blood, we wouldn’t be here.” However, there’s no blood being shed and these men barely seem like they’re having sex. The women coming here loom resigned to the fact their merely entertaining men who probably don’t see them as equals. Yet they both have to occupy the same physical space. And the physical is such an important element in this film. We as viewers are constantly aware of how these figures occupy space. These men appear in relief to the country around them. They look alien as if to remind us these people shouldn’t be there. The French Foreign Legion just sticks out like sore thumbs. These men occupy a base during peacetime. It seems to serve no purpose. They’re objects in a space that don’t belong.
Calling Claire Denis’ Beau Travail a film about beauty seems like a gross oversimplification. Beau Travail, like all of Denis’s films, doesn’t focus on just one thing. It is a political film of an army in a location where it’s only purpose is to remind a people of their previous ownership. It’s a film about men exploring the boundaries with each other and themselves. However, Denis fills every frame and scene with these beautiful, mesmerizing images. The kind of images and figures that haunt you after the film ends. Beautiful spaces with ugly things that don’t belong there.