Something about the way the French make films has always bothered me for some reason. I say ‘the French’ as if they’re all one homogeneous group of beret-wearing, baguette-eating, consonant-absenting snobs, which they’re probably not. The point is though, that the number of French films that I really love – and I mean absolutely love in the sense of the kind of deep emotional or intellectual impact you get from the best films – is minimal. For whatever reason, they rarely ever resonate with me. Perhaps it is to do with the lightness and airiness of the French language, which has always grated on my ears. I prefer the guttural, hard rhythms of German or the musicality of Italian. French to me always sounds too soft and weak. This too, plays into French films. How often have I seen a French film with a fantastic central idea or theme running through, only for the film to run out of steam halfway through, as if it is incapable of holding onto a great idea and really digging deep into it. Something about the French mentality, if there is such a thing, just doesn’t match with my own mentality.
And then every now and then I sit down to watch a film like Beau Travail and find myself eating my words. Claire Denis’ masterwork is more of a dance film or a ballet film. There are some really interesting ideas, but they are only ever hinted at. The film refuses to provoke us into questioning anything, or of producing for us any solid motivations. What little there is of a story passes us by in quiet moments when we’re barely even paying attention. The images inBeau Travail float, like driftwood in the ocean, carried on the current. The harsh, rough grey and brown terrain of the tiny East African republic of Djibouti clashes with the azure blues of the ocean. The French Foreign Legionnaires we follow during the film stick out like sore thumbs amongst the dry rocks. They train and do military exercises repeatedly under the sun, baking their skin into a rough brown tan. Rhythm and routine are endless.
What little story there is concerns itself mostly with Sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant) and his dislike of new recruit Gilles Sentain (Gregoire Colin). Galoup narrates to us from France. It appears, initially at least, he has been given time off to spend back home. Sentain appears to inspire some sort of jealousy or deep anger in him. Galoup’s superior, Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor, playing what may be the same character he played in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat), takes a shine to Sentain, frustrating Galoup even more. The rift between the two men grows and grows until Galoup finds an excuse to cast off Sentain from the regiment, much to everyone’s detriment.
Beau Travail does not really move beyond this central conflict. It seems to dwell on it, pondering its every meaning. Galoup seems to have no clear reason to hate Sentain. He just does. It’s easy enough to read some sort of homoerotic charge to the entire film, and it certainly wouldn’t be amiss, though one could just as easily see it as a sibling rivalry of sorts. Galoup recalls how his beloved Forestier once described him as a perfect Legionnaire, though it is uncertain whether Galoup, whose narration runs throughout the film, is a reliable storyteller. Forestier’s appreciation for Sentain perhaps colours the Sergeant’s immense distaste for the new recruit. The relationship between the three is deeply complex, but Denis elegantly refuses to spell anything out for us. We are left to mull over the implications of small gestures and occasional glances as much as we are left to interpret physical confrontations and harsh words.
The use of a choreographer on the crew of Beau Travail is immediately visible. Few films seem to have been created with such care and attention paid to the movement of actors within the frame. Cinema is after all, simply the photography of movement, and this film photographs movement like few others. Denis Lavant, easily one of the greatest actors of his generation, is a perfect choice. Throughout the film he bridles with suppressed jealousy and anger, yet with no clear outlet for it. The man is a whirlwind of male aggression and rage, but he constantly suppresses himself, perhaps out of love or duty. The final scene – if you’ve even heard of Beau Travail you probably know what I’m talking about – is simply orgasmic. It feels like an outpouring of relief and catharsis after we have witnessed Galoup internalise so much inside himself and give away so very little.
Lavant’s opposite number, Gregoire Colin, is also a superb choice. He suggests little about Sentain as a person. He seems to be just a nice, mild-mannered new recruit, popular with others without ever imposing himself on a group. Good-looking and handsome, his almost angelic appearance and emotional blank slate is used superbly by Denis’ camera. Throughout the film there is a great rhythmic physicality to the scenes of the Legionnaires exercising or doing military training, whilst always retaining some sort of strange ethereal distance to its characters.
There are few missteps in Beau Travail. The film takes its time to reveal itself. It may not seem like much initially. In fact, it may not seem like much even after you’ve watched it. Yet I found the film’s images seeping through my mind, its central trio of characters swirling through my thoughts and asking me to question the film’s meaning. Is it a tale of suppressed homoeroticism? Is it about guilt and remorse? Alienation and isolation? The Legionnaires they do not know. They build a road in Djibouti, but it appears to start from nowhere and it goes nowhere. The locals stand by and are amused. Frankly, I don’t care myself what it all means. I myself was lost in the heady daze of images, too spaced to really care. But hot damn can Denis Lavant dance like a motherfucker.