Claire Denis‘ masterwork of cinematic poetry Beau travail is not a traditional anti-imperialist film, but it is one of the most elemental. Set in the rugged desert terrain of Djibouti among a diverse troop of French Foreign Legionnaires, the film is an impeccably cohesive deconstruction of our concept of manhood and national identity. It’s a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst that have rippled throughout civilization. But this expression comes in the form of wandering camerawork, fragmented voiceover, free-associative editing, and a diffuse narrative, combined in a sublime and sensitive subjectivity unlike any found in the canon of war and military cinema.
Beau travail is a difficult film to talk about in some ways because its story is as stubborn and stagnant as its subject. Adapted from Herman Melville‘s novella, Billy Budd, the narrative of Beau travail swirls around the memories and thoughts of former Foreign Legion officer Galoup (Denis Lavant), who reveals through inner monologue his journey of self-discovery and self-destruction in Djibouti. With the arrival of a soldier named Sentain (Grégoire Colin), who immediately earns the affections of Galoup’s beloved Commandant Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor), Galoup slowly loses all self-control to the potent pressures of jealousy and sexual desire clashing against his identity as the “perfect legionnaire”.
Using Galoup’s perspective, Denis depicts a Legion largely removed from the context of its nationalism and the larger apparatus of state power, and instead motivated only by its ritual tribalism. Beau travail does not revel in the traditional scenery of imperialist conquest—of battle, glory, and subjugation. It evokes colonial war only in its margins.
Denis and cinematographer Agnès Godard’s gaze does not otherize or exoticize the few Djiboutians present in the film’s borders, either; instead, it transforms the legionnaires into alien forms who participate in bizarre and inscrutable ceremonies that fall outside our typical understanding of who soldiers are and what they do. We see small bursts of manic and violent acts of flagellation and intimidation in their training, but they are divided by casual routines of order and quiet domestic maintenance—ironing, cooking, hanging clothes to dry, etc.
The film is ultimately a conversation of haphazard images depicting foreigners and foreignness wrapped in a poignant, interior poetry with the twinge of memory, the cold pang of regret, and the ever-encroaching shadow of damnation swelling in Galoup’s psyche. It’s only sensible that a film about suppressed identities would subvert our view of the masculine military ideal in this way.
Beau travail has a non-linear, impressionistic sense of time that allows us to see Galoup’s emotional development as he interacts in the present with his memories of Sentain and Forestier. We witness freeform montages of the troop laying camp, engaging with the urban nightlife, and exercising in the harsh African sun. These movements are interrupted with scenes of Galoup, back in France years later, adjusting to the civilian world with solemn frustration. The film’s flashbacks build to the moment of his tragic split with the Legion, and in that juxtaposition, we see the results of his staunch dedication to his assumed identities.
In France, Galoup writes in recollection of his downfall, “Maybe freedom begins with remorse.” Denis sets this questioning of personal liberty—embodied in Galoup’s regretful voiceover—in contrast with the rigidity and guiltlessness of manly identity, symbolized in the obstinate structure of the Legion’s drills, exercises, and marches. Traditional masculinity, the film points out, is a barren waste of suppressed and unexamined feeling, coiled and dried like desert weeds and sterilized in salt, until the weight of the sand and poison dust sets it all into collapse. It seeks the eradication of life—of passion, sentiment, and empathy—to claim space for the elevation of power for its own sake. By the end of the film, we understand just how impotent it all is.
But if the film is critical of the egocentric malice that the ethos of traditional masculinity upholds, it shows at least some admiration for the physicality of masculine bodies. Beau travail may be the most vibrant examination of the male form in cinema since Leni Riefenstahl‘s Olympia (1938), but where Riefenstahl’s film—commissioned under the Nazi regime—was designed in part with an uncritical fixation on the strength evident in the bodies of fit men, Denis seeks a deeper understanding of machismo in her imagery of polished musculature and rugged postures.
Specifically, Denis shows bodies on the move not in aggression but in stasis, twisting and stretching in sensual expressions of balance and harmony. Godard’s cinematography writhes in stark angularity in the same way, evoking both the beauty and precarity of the Djiboutian landscape. Certain exercises the Legion performs are as hostile as they are powerful expressions of brotherhood; in a spellbinding sequence, the shirtless legionnaires hurl themselves into each other, collapse into violent embraces, then fling themselves apart.
On the one hand, it’s a concise illustration of how men embrace only in the toxic routine of domination and repression, and commune only in the conditioning of control. But their unity signifies a greater potential for manhood, for a constructive passion and synergy just as powerful as their capacity for carnage.
This dance of male forms reaches its apex in the film’s iconic final scene, Galoup’s surreal solo dance sequence set to Corona’s Eurodance classic, “The Rhythm of the Night“. It’s a rapturous and explosive moment, when Galoup finally conveys the intensity within him in a way that’s true to himself. It’s a vision of what he could be were he not bound to his readymade identity—one based on the illusion of superiority and the delusion of control.
Beau travail is a film that shows men as the victims of their own ideology, particularly how they seek to bring objects of desire under their control to the point of destruction. All Galoup earns is his unfulfilled desire, but Denis leaves us with a reminder of the sublime capability that exists within him nonetheless. If only he were to break from his self-imposed limitations—of machoness, of Frenchness, of straightness—he could discover a true freedom.
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Claire Denis’ legendary Beau travail has long deserved a home video release from a boutique label that would treat it with due reverence and showcase it in the impeccable technical quality that it warrants. Many film lovers (including myself) no doubt first saw the film in suboptimal conditions on the soft and dingy DVD releases that were among the only ways to watch it for years. Beau travail remains a spellbinding enigma in any circumstance, but there’s no doubt that the Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray edition with its gorgeous 4K digital restoration—supervised and approved by Denis and Godard—has finally given us the pristine version of the film we’ve long asked for.
Key among the newly produced special features for Criterion’s release of the film is a 2020 interview between Denis and director Barry Jenkins, in which they discuss what drew Denis to the Foreign Legion as a subject, conflict with the disapproving military, the influence of Jean-Luc Godard‘s Le petit soldat (1963), and the meaning behind several specific scenes. Agnès Godard is featured on a new select-scene commentary, in which she details the process of location scouting in Djibouti, camera and lens selection, “blind shooting” without dailies, and several other technical and artistic considerations.
Levant and Colin each get their own newly produced interviews, in which the actors discuss their working relationship with Denis, the unique nature of their respective roles, and the peculiarities of the production. Finally, in a new video essay, professor, film scholar, and author of Claire Denis Judith Mayne analyzes the thematic contrasts present in the film, the motifs of dance and movement, and the special significance of the Forestier character.
It’s not often that such lauded masterpieces of cinema are as neglected as Beau travail has been, only to be released on home video with immaculate video and audio quality and supplemented by brand new, incisive special features. While it would have been nice to see one or two special features contemporaneous with the film’s 1999 release so that it didn’t feel so much like a retrospective, I can’t really complain. Many of us have been waiting for a release like this for years, and now that it’s here, it’s better than I could have hoped.