Canon Entry - Beau Travail (1999)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
A non-straightforward adaptation of Herman Melville’s and Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd (the music of the latter featuring prominently in this film), Beau Travail follows a regiment of the French Foreign Legion as they train in Djibouti. Denis Lavant plays Galoup, the leader of the regiment. We know from the very beginning that something will force Galoup to leave the regiment since the film soon settles into Galoup’s mental voiceover. That something comes in the form of Sentain (Gregoire Colin) a handsome, young soldier who immediately ingratiates himself with the rest of the regiment (except Galoup) and soon with the visiting Lieutenant Colonel Forestier (Michel Subor), much to Galoup’s dismay.
Claire Denis is one of the few White filmmakers who regularly explores Africa and the legacy that colonialism has wrought on the continent. Her White characters always seem alien, unable to negotiate their surroundings capably. To emphasize the struggle between the men and their environment, Denis regularly shoots these male bodies in striking contrast with their surroundings. Some of the images are so stunning that the soldiers’ bodies becoming objectified to the point that they become merely interesting features of the desolate landscapes of Djibouti.
During my several watches of Beau Travail, I had to wonder what about Denis Lavant inspired Denis to have him play the central role of this film. Denis Lavant is such a strange screen presence. His face is almost gnomish, yet he is light on his feet and capable of fantastic acrobatics. I can easily see why Leos Carax has cast him in so many of his films because he is capable of incredible transformations. Holy Motors, a film that frankly baffles me , is basically a showcase for Lavant’s physical and acting talents as he dons so many different disguises and personas.
I think that having a striking presence like Lavant’s serves to accentuate the alienness of these legionnaires even more than usual. For example, there are scenes in which the men run through obstacle courses typical of military training. You can hear the heavy breathing and the effort that all these men are putting into conquering the course. Clearly living in this land is difficult for them. Then we see Lavant doing the course, and he is so nimble that you can’t help but notice him. Strangely enough, this odd-looking man is at home in this foreign land. He even has a beautiful girlfriend, Rahel, who is a Djibouti native.
Interestingly this is one of the Denis films in which most of the major characters are White Europeans. In her other films set in the continent such as Chocolat and White Material, there were at least a few other major characters of color. To be clear, it’s not that White Europeans are not diverse. We encounter at least one Russian and one Italian character. We see a soldier of Asian descent in the background, and there are even Black soldiers. At one point, in a fit of rage, Galoup assigns a Black soldier Sentain’s old job saying that he won’t be African anymore. It is a quick, easy-to-miss scene, but I think it speaks volumes of the attitude that Galoup and the other soldiers have towards the land they are, frankly, colonizing. It is a place for them to use. Even though they are the ones in power in this environment, we get the sense that they are refugees from modern civilization. That this Legion is not just a job, but a sanctuary in which regimentation gives order to their lives.
Perhaps Galoup’s comfort in this place is the reason why he is the alpha. Perhaps it is also why the jealousy he feels towards Sentain is so intense. That Sentain has just come along and supplanted Galoup’s position in this ecosystem. There is, of course, the queer subtext of not just this film, but the original Billy Budd as well, and Galoup longs for the approval of his superior Forestier, which he gives so freely to Sentain instead of Galoup. But lesser filmmakers would have just taken that particular subtext and made it text - run with it until it becomes just straight melodrama or Tennessee Williams play.
Denis’ brilliance is that she takes a classic story, a really strange classic story that has been open for interpretation due to its being unfinished, and made it something truly unique. On the surface, if it had been less artistically directed and more straightforward, this easily could have fit into the post-Tarantino era of cinema of hyper masculinity and heightened style and dialogue. The plot, the military setting and the abusive behavior we witness resemble movies like Full Metal Jacket, a troubling, flawed movie that is still brilliant. Instead, even as Denis exemplifies these genre tropes, she is able to subvert them as well. The training sequences are not just for the express purpose of physical enhancement but they are aesthetic set pieces. Lavant’s jealousy is tempered by the lingering shots on Sentain and the other soldiers’ beauty. Sentain’s fight against authority has real stakes, given the unforgiving nature of his physical environment. We are aware from the beginning of the unique and very narrow point of view that this film embodies, yet we go along with it because it makes us see these images in a startling, new way.
As evidence of this unique point of view, consider the last scene of this film. I am not spoiling anything by simply describing it because it really depends on knowing the context, which I will not give away. Galoup is seemingly alone in the dancehall that we had seen at the beginning and occasionally throughout the film. (In fact, the use of Tarkan’s “Simarik” with its famous “kissing” chorus is appropriate to the time period and just a great opening to the film.) We had gotten glimpses of Galoup’s athleticism and acrobatic physicality before, but in this scene he lets it all out in a brilliant display of passion and balletic bravado with the cheesiest, most earnest dance hit “The Rhythm of the Night” by Corona blasts in the club. In these few minutes, we learn so much about Galoup, who has been an enigma up to this point, even though we spent so much time with him. While it is unclear whether this was something that had actually happened, or it is simply in Galoup’s mind, what is clear is that he is truly free.