Beau Travail, Claire Denis’s tale of French legionnaires stationed in Djibouti, adapted to a degree from Herman Melville’s novel Billy Budd (1924), is a film which negotiates a path between stasis and movement (between moments of the sea glistening and laminary, and hard toil in the heat of the sun), all subordinated to an elusive, tricky voiceover belonging to the sergeant-major, Galoup (Denis Lavant). He is obsessed to the point of ruin with the legion, because it has been and will always remain — and this is much the same case for the other men in the outfit — the only family he has known.
Galoup is devoted to his superior, Bruno Forestier (Michael Subor, in a role he played for Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat ), who he loves like a father, only to see the affection he yearns for be given towards another. A young recruit, Sentain (Grégoire Colin), with his likable and generous manner, proves popular with the commandant and the other legionnaires, which makes the jealous Galoup seethe beneath his orderly exterior. Galoup desires self-perfection, but, in the presence of the beautiful young upstart, he cannot achieve it.
Whatever Galoup’s cathexes are, whether loneliness or repressed desire governs his actions, he and the men are reminded at almost every turn that the people (especially the women) of Djibouti do not want them there. Post-colonial concerns in Denis’s films are found in many forms, in this film it’s in the act of looking: the women of Djibouti stare disdainfully and occasionally in disbelief at these odd men in their odd uniforms with their odd rituals. But the men do serve one useful function (hence the ‘almost’) — in the nightclub, the legionnaires are exceptional eye-candy and dance-partners.
The film academic Shigehiko Hasumi has written about ‘the limits of cinema’, those moments when something expressed in a film is so specific to the formal properties of its medium that it exposes, exploits, and possibly even expands them. This way of thinking puts me in mind of a series of sequences in this film, perhaps the most famous in Denis’s career: the legionnaires’ training montages.
Under a scorching sun, the assembled men perform their meditative movements, captured with an attentive, close-to-the-skin intimacy by Agnès Godard’s cinematography. The drills, consisting of running, vaulting, and climbing interminably, assume the pirouetting elegance of a ballet routine; the more primal choreography shows the legionnaires’ moving in unison, in a trance-like state, all sountracked to blasts of Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd. The grandeur of these scenes is mocking, when a viewer knows the petty dynamics within the group — but, the total harmony of the form, the actors’ utter devotion to the exact motions, the way the camera moves with them, the way the editing matches the swelling music, demonstrates the propinquity of these sequences to the very end of what the medium can achieve. No other artform could make and sustain the wonder of these moments.
Beau Travail ends with another dance, this time unchoreographed. Galoup is envisioned standing alone in a ballroom, its walls are panelled mirrors. Corona’s ‘The Rhythm of the Night’ starts playing. Cigarette in hand, his physicality has transformed, his straight-backed officiousness is gone; he’s lounging, striding around the floor: he’s positively louche. After a couple of steps, he’s released: his dance becomes ecstatic, furious, swinging and rolling and jumping with a freedom he didn’t know he could attain. In Galoup’s case, order which doesn’t attend to human passions is not order, it’s self-deception — because desire always wins.
Image: Nicolas Genins via Wikimedia Commons.