Original Name: Beau Travail
Director: Claire Denis
Runtime: 90 minutes
IMDB Link: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0209933/
When you want to point out all of Denis’s distinctive touch as an unique voice in cinema, you’ll eventually come across this film. Disregard the conventional narrative, instead relying on editing and voice over to generate its own rhythm. It’s one of those instances (the other two examples that come to mind are 8 ½ and Mulholland Drive) that I can say it’s pure representation of cinema as a medium, in which no other form of medium can convey all the underlying context as completely. Much of Beau Travail is dedicated to the daily exercise and training regimen of the Legionnaires in the desolate mountains and plains of Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, taking with little to no actual dialogue. Beau Travail is a film that focuses on the physicality, as we see many extended montages of those soldiers in training, which more or less create a military ballet. Appropriately, this focus speaks well into the main theme of Beau Travail, the dissection of masculine and male identity, and even more suitably, Denis Lavant (who is best known for the physically demanding aspects of the roles he plays) takes up the main leading role.
Much has been said about Lavan’t character Galoup’s self-destructive drives to the new recruit Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin), many of which involve in homoerotic context (which I don’t see it at all so I’ll refrain from discussing that. It’s a straight text as far as I see). Like in Chocolat, we’re into the story through fragments of memory from Galoup, who is now in Marseille waiting for court order. His jealous intensifies after a heroic action from Sentain. Later, by provoking Sentain to intervene in the mistreatment of another soldier, Galoup turns Sentain’s own good nature against him, in order to be justified in disciplining him. As we learn, Galoup’s increasingly jealousy comes from his own frustration, his fear of his own impotence watching Sentain slowly climbs up the stair. The setting of an isolated area removed from the real world and has its own set of social standards (with all men to boost) further makes Galoup’s sense of rank amongst the team more pressing. Impotence in the name of social change is further articulated in the imagery of near-collapse state of colonial settings.
Apart from a near perfect acting of Lavant, Denis’s sensual touch of editing is what hold everything together. Scenes connected to one another not necessary by the constraint of narrative, instead it moves in its own dance. The same can be said to these training routines, which is now dubbed as military ballet, where there are thirty men with the same appearances practising together. As you might have known before, the famous last scene at the disco doesn’t originally intent to be the film’s final scene. Denis changes it based on the flow of her film. And what we have is the perfect summation of Beau Travail: a near wordless film with one male, looking down and dancing to the beat, completely alone. Ironically, that sequence might be his most joyous moments.