Beau Travail (1999)

Directed by Claire Denis; Written by Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau

The French Foreign Legion, despite its baggage as a colonial strongarm, has a romantic element to it as a place for the world’s forgotten sons to find each other in a far-off place, born anew and baptized in the hot African sand. It’s part servitude, part salvation, this patchwork brotherhood and uncanny all-male family. 

Every family has its rules, and it’s laid out with poetic precision in Beau Travail, a story of jealousy, petty rivalries, unrequited affection, frustrated men and their twisted codes. Denis Lavant stars as Galoup, a sergeant and ersatz older brother, who oversees his men in the unforgiving heat, while their commanding officer sits shaded inside, an absent father cooly observing from the wings.

Tragedy starts with an arrival. A new bunch of recruits has Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Santin) among them, a soft-spoken and sleek boy who fits in well, works hard, and earns the eye of Forestier, the commanding officer. Galoup cannot get over it, like an envious child clamoring for affection, and begins concocting conspiracies in his head and drawing up imaginary battle lines. 

We know all this, because he tells us, narrating from a space-time remove in mid-winter France as he chronicles his downfall in hindsight. Paranoid, bitter, wistful, his sense of justification and simultaneous regret is so palpable it practically coats him as we watch him do domestic chores and roam the civilian streets he feels so alien to.

The scenes in France are subdued in their emotional hangover, and it’s in Djibouti that Beau Travail is alive. A burning sun and bustling nightlife provide a backdrop to these men as they mostly work and play in silence, men with their bodies still intact and full of life, made more beautiful by the obvious danger their work courts. 

Let me dispel any ideas that this is some military brouhaha and brofest replete with gunfights, boys being boys, and “those were the days” sentiment. Beau Travail is a ballet in combat boots, an indelible subversion of what a military body and mind should look like, a razor sharp incision into the male psyche and machismo, and a radically soft treatment of the bodies that house the aforementioned.

Much of Denis’ film is watching the soldiers do drills and exercise against a blue sky, as they jump over barriers and crawl across the sand, their muscles working hard underneath taut skin. They’re all fit, but the emphasis on cardiovascular activity sees them lean rather than bulky, and while some outfits do border on a Tom of Finland fantasy, the beauty of their bodies is not sexualized, but heightened by how that beauty is allowed to organically express itself. The female gaze à la Denis, it would seem, looks not for the indignity of excess, but the pleasure of performance. 

It’s invigorating to see an artist treat men’s bodies as dynamic and strong, but delicate and sensual in equal measure. Yes, they can leap like superheroes, a single body flying across the frame, but Denis also shows them as a group, stretching together and moving in unison, like an old-time musical routine, as they pose as one.

No man’s body does more work than Denis Lavant, however, as the man in the midst of it all.

In the desert, his place of power, he may be smaller than those he commands, but Lavant’s face and physicality is that of an old child. Wiry, sinuous, possessing a power beyond his body. His pouty lower lip goes stiff, his eyes turn hard and small during the acts of domination that give Beau Travail its hard edges and puts the ugly in all the splendour. 

Sometimes, a film is worth watching because of a single standout element. Go for this actor’s performance, go for the twists of the story, go for the visuals, or go because Mickey Mouse and his legion of PR people and their billion-dollar media machine wants you to. But sometimes you can recommend a film for its entirety, and Beau Travail is that rare film: a picture poem, a visual work of art, an inspired take on an expansive subject, and a fascinating portrait in the middle. 

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