Film of the Week: Beau Travail
Claire Denis has never shied away from working in, what we’ll call with only a touch of irony, the “world of men.“ That’s not the film industry per se—even if Denis herself cited directing as a job made more difficult for women thanks to the institutions still largely in place from men. But in the sense of Denis as a woman who was an overqualified (in their words) assistant director to Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmush, before graduating with a Palme d’Or nominated debut; a woman who can study masculinity more incisively and profoundly than any of her male peers. So, after a curious post-Covid spike beginning in 2021 of male directors releasing two features in 12 months—Ridley Scott (The Last Duel, House of Gucci), Kenneth Branagh (Belfast, Death on the Nile) and Joseph Kosinski (Top Gun: Maverick, Spiderhead) to polarising results, and Hamaguchi Ryusuke (Drive My Car, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy) to outright acclaim—can we really be surprised that Denis is firmly planting her foot in the door of this fledgling boys club with her own one-two punch?
Her films, ménage à trois drama Both Sides of the Blade and Nicaraguan-set romantic thriller Stars at Noon, have both netted her gongs at Berlin and Cannes festivals respectively and stirred up enough discourse to count as an early retrospective on her body of work. These new entries conjure up two significant modes of her filmmaking sensibilities. Psychological reckoning of desire, and the body’s space in a (frequently post-colonial) landscape. And before these films reach UK cinemas, the two sides of Denis’ blade (apologies) can be seen most clearly in what is arguably her opus: the sun blistered 1999 military drama Beau Travail.
In a military camp in Djibouti—where Denis spent time as a child, then as colonised French Somaliland—French Legionnaire Galoup (Denis Lavant) is blinded by his coruscating relationships with senior officer Forestier (Michel Subor) and junior officer Sentain (Grégorie Colin). He can’t place his admiration for the former, and hatred for the latter, and the closer these two become, the more Galoup’s cruelty and envy exceeds his station and hastens his downfall. Denis crafts Beau Travail as a woman-lensed, post-colonial and quietly LGBTQ+ riff on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, even using music of Britten’s opera adaptation to punctuate the barren soundscape of this world, and to score the films most beguiling scenes: the training drills.
Because these soldiers are never seen in active duty. Even a rescue of a helicopter crash is depicted after the fact, and occurring as a result of their own making. This is a world of training exercises, corporal punishments, and rest and recuperation; all based off reality and presented with balletic efficiency. The legions place in Djibouti is rendered inert enough to be immediately questioned. Denis demilitarises the military until all it is, is a performance of masculinity; predominantly faceless, predominantly white-European. Cinema’s common perspective is flipped, as the Djiboutian locals watch with baffled curiosity, often gazing through fences, zoo-like, as the soldiers scope empty structures, or practice graceful fighting as if they were dancing in the club. The outsider French military’s activities finally depicted in a way that yells the uncomfortable moniker of “exotic.” And the interactions of the men? So deeply charged and physical that any notions of traditional, infallible masculinity become tangled in questions of repression, power and intimacy. And it’s not as if Denis is elucidating this through traditional narrative means; this is all told in dusty, heated imagery, wordless action, and a complete refusal of any expectant cinematic sensibilities.
While men dominate the screen of Beau Travail, the crew was led by Denis’ usual cadre of women—chiefly director of photography Agnès Godard and editor Nelly Quettier. Their work synthesises with Denis’ vision, with the latter reconfiguring space and time into a narrative told through elliptical emotionality while the former, well, where do we begin? Beau Travail is simply one of the most evocative films to experience; the camera so in tune with the environment that you can feel the temperature changes on your skin. So photographer-like that many frames constitute as tableaux. And it’s these indelible images that Denis places her bodies. Men jutting like outcrop in the mountains, sinking beneath the sand, bleached white from the salt flats. As much a part of Djibouti’s physical fabric as the geopolitical shadow of France’s presence; as much as Galoup is at one with his role within the legion.
‘That’s me. Unfit for life. Unfit for civil life.’ We learn from the open that Galoup ends no longer in service to the military, and Beau Travail is more about feeling the effect of a man whose life became at one with his duty, with his service, and as Denis posits, with the performance of it all, only to be cut loose. Untethered from his purpose, all film logic would tell us that this was his great loss, his failure, his punishment. But Denis has stated before that being unkind to her characters is not her style. And so, instead, we watch Galoup, alone in the club. And he dances. Dances not with the precision and rhythm of his brethren readying to fight, but with the demented, unabashed freedom of the truly free. Sure, he hesitates before going full in, even though no-one is there to judge or perform to. But he’s finding his feet and losing them again without abandon. It’s wild, hilarious and powerful. A scene I’ve heard someone call “pure cinema” without irony, and without eliciting the natural eye roll that should accompany the statement, for it frankly is. Surely the finest moment in Denis’ finest hour (and a half), in a long and storied career?