Directed by: Claire Denis
Written by: Claire Denis & Jean-Pol Fargeau
Starring: Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, Grégoire Colin, Richard Courcet
Actions define our character far more than words do, especially when holding a leadership role. Beau Travail takes a moment to allow a man to reflect on his past actions and the impact it’s had on himself and others. All taking place in the backdrop of the beautiful nation of Djibouti, this film provides an introspective look at masculinity on a purely physical level.
Leading a legionnaire of French men in Djibouti, Sergent Galoup (Denis Lavant) struggles with trying to hold fast as a leader while balancing his desires. He wants to be beloved by his men like they do another commander, and the arrival of Gillies Sentain (Grégoire Colin) pushes him over the edge with a strong sense of jealousy.
Opening with the shadows of the men in training, we see all of them in formation to test their resilience. The harsh sun beats down on all of them, they continue to do different exercises that test their strength through close and physical contact. All under the watch of Galoup. With minimal talking taking place, this opening scene establishes what Claire Denis has set up for her audience and with it becomes a completely visceral experience.
The perspective of the story goes through the eyes and experience of Galoup and how he emotionally navigates his position and his relationships. He has a young girlfriend in the town that satisfies him, but his craving for affection remains unquenched. He seeks that from his men in a subliminal way that remains unspoken but can be felt in the way he acts and in the way he speaks. He has himself a good rhythm until the arrival of Sentain, and something about the young new legionnaire changes everything for him. An underlying affection shifts itself into an envy that impacts his career trajectory in a way that leads to where we find him in the future through his reflections. It says plenty about the character and the minimal dialogue helps establish the artistic merit Beau Travail exhibits.
The storytelling focuses on the physical in the way the men interact and how they train. On the field where they train, their exercises appear incredibly difficult in which they rely on using each other’s bodies for resistance and force. It would not be the first time that the homoeroticism of these male rituals surfaces in military films. From the close physical touch to the brotherly affection that it creates, the moments on the beach demonstrate a poetic connection between these men. Where their pain gets healed and their anguish draws a collective response. The way they move feels like a ballet routine with the unison and strength required to carry out their orders. There’s barely any speaking happening but the sound of the water and their movements says everything you need to know to comprehend what it all means.
Outside of the beach, the film ventures into the clubs of Djibouti where the soldiers partake in some dancing, which involves attempting to be with the women there. The placement of these soldiers offers an interesting commentary as their place as colonizers in this African nation. They indulge in the spaces of the nation but also try to do the same with the women. The scenes in these dance clubs reveal who these men are outside of the regimented training that has become a requirement for them. Again, barely any dialogue occurring here, but the actions really say it all. It appears in the way the soldiers go out in their uniforms as some sort of a status symbol to impress the women in some way. Their approach towards each other as men differs greatly from the way they see the women. The camera focuses on them and their movements without initially having the soldiers in the frame. Slowly but surely, the men enter the frame in their attempts to make a move. The way they move varies from their training on the beach where they had unison. They’re each on their own in this space in a different conquest having to follow a different tune for each woman they hope to be with.
It’s an astounding experience and weirdly enough Beau Travail feels like Claire Denis’s most accessible feature. To enjoy her films, she requires you to get on her wavelength in a narrative sense. She seeks to hypnotize with this film in the way she presents these men in different locations. The way she establishes them and then makes it go through the eyes Galoup sets the standard for how he presents himself as a character. A man filled with envy that allows it to get to a level that ends negatively for him. Beau Travail jumps out as her greatest work with how she manages to express so much in such a simplistic and minimalistic style. With other beautiful works like 35 Shots of Rum and High Life, she deserves her status as a legendary French filmmaker, who refuses to budge on her visual style and storytelling methods.
With its sprawling imagery and visceral storytelling, Beau Travail astonished me from its opening to its legendary final scene. The finale uses the song “The Rhythm of the Night” by Corona in such a deeply thematic way that I could not handle. It works so well and fully encapsulates everything in the story. The cherry on top of a story that certainly prescribes to the storytelling ideology of “show don’t tell.” Claire Denis refused to compromise on this spectacular vision and with it, she constructed a moving and poetic masterpiece.