Director: Claire Denis
Beau Travail is like Jeane Dielemann another recent film to leap up the Sight and Sound survey. In 2012 it was a lowly 79. In 2022 it’s number seven and second in my odyssey through the 2022 poll. I did say I was not watching these strictly in order, next up will be In the Mood for Love (no 5). Nobody surely needs another review of Vertigo (2) Citizen Kane (3) or Space Odyssey (7). It’s a tight 90 minutes and doesn’t waste a second.
The story is loosely derived from Melville’s Billy Budd (as the Britten Opera, which appears in the soundtrack, is too). In place of the ship our closed institution is the barracks of an elite French troop of foreign legion troops based in Djibouti. The time of the film is not specified, but as Djibouti became independent from France in 1977 I am guessing sometime in the early seventies.
Sargeant Galoup has decades of exemplary military service, and rules his troop like the perennial drill sergeant figure by being the most masculine, hardest, fittest man amongst them. His bond to the captain is challenged by the arrival of new recruit Sentain who is both superior physically to Galoup and shows acts of compassion towards his fellow troops. Even worse, Sentain appears to be liked by the Captain, threatening Galoup’s place as the link between the officers and the men. Galoup’s sense of order and purpose swiftly unravels, and he takes brutal action against Sentain to restore it when the opportunity presents itself. The plot of Beau Travail is simple and as it unfolds with – like its source – a tragic inevitability.
But the plot is not really the point of the film, rather it’s a frame within which Denis explores a number of themes:
Toxic masculinity. Both Forestier and Galoup are unable to express any sort of friendship except via the codes of physical endurance, military obedience and gruff conversation. Galoup has no way to deal with the feelings that Sentain’s arrival bring up except by doubling-down. More PT, more casual cruelty, more repression.
The crisis of masculinity. The film foregrounds some amazingly toned bodies, and there is scene after scene of muscular exertion. Yet also there are scenes of great tenderness and closeness. The tension between expressing friendship in an all-male environment, and adhering to the military code is only heightened by the troop’s complete isolation. One key visual metaphor is the curious Djiboutians themselves, observing the strange rituals of the legionnaires beyond the barbed wire – which serves to keep the troops in as much as the rest of the country out.
The poverty of the coloniser. The suffocating heat and tension is dissipated in scenes in which the troops go out in the nearby city, but all they have to offer is gifts and sex, appreciated by the local girls but hardly essential. Galoup’s girlfriend is well aware of the transactional nature of the relationship. Likewise, their work repairing roads is watched with equal bafflement by the Djiboutians – work which seems to exist chiefly to validate the physicality of the troops.
This is a film in which the heat pervades and determines everything: including the dramatic climax. The French troops only have full military dress in the most formal moments, for the rest of time parading some hyper-toned bare chests. Their half-naked drills, wrestling and work is filmed in precisely choreographed, hyper-stylised manner: the only people who pay as much attention to their own bodies being professional dancers.
For me Denis’ film is brilliant because it makes utterly strange and enigmatic that well-worn film trope: the military training movie. There’s no mission, little in the way of conventional action. The guns remain unfired, the troops continue to grapple in the scorching heat while Galoup’s tragedy unfolds.
Might appeal to people who enjoyed:
I hesitate to say the military training film, but if you couldn’t take all that testosterone and sharp suits seriously in those sorts of film you’ll enjoy Denis’ surfacing of the LBTQ+ subtexts.