Criterion Corner: Beau Travail (#1042)

Before watching Beau Travail, French director Claire Denis’ 1999 film, I’d seen two of Denis’ films: the 2009 (post-)colonial drama White Material and the 2018 sci-fi oddity High Life. My favourite cinema showed the latter last year as part of a series on women directors, so I went to see it – and came away nonplussed. Certainly, there were scenes that I found intriguing, and Denis’ strange science-fiction tone poem is often beautiful to look at, but I didn’t know what to do with it, and I still don’t. While I had some ideas about the overall themes of the film, it remained too fragmented and elliptic and I felt too much of a disconnect from the characters I was watching and the things they were doing. I could imagine someone else, and perhaps even me at a different time and in a different frame of mind, getting more from High Life, but I left the cinema with a vague sense of frustration – or possibly a frustrating sense of vagueness.

I may not immediately wish to revisit High Life after seeing Beau Travail, but Denis’ film, a loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, definitely makes me think that I should keep looking out for other films by her. I could imagine that the one or the other would leave me similarly nonplussed as High Life, but I can’t think of any other director like Denis.

I’ve mentioned Billy Budd, and on the surface, Beau Travail tells a very similar story, even if the setting and the names are different: that of the mid-rank officer Galoup (Denis Lavant, who I’d previously seen in Holy Motors), who under the command of Commandant Forestier (Michel Subor), leads a section of French foreign legionnaires. One of those legionnaires, Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin) catches Galoup’s eyes. Sentain is beautiful and physically fit, and he is quickly liked by his fellow soldiers and by Forestier, even more so when he saves one of the other legionnaires after a freak accident. Galoup is consumed by jealousy and swears that he will destroy the young man.

Long before watching Beau Travail, I’d read about the film and its subtext of homoeroticism, and it doesn’t take long for this theme to surface – but it may not be how you expect. I was expecting something closer to Titane and its subtext of sweaty hyper-machos subconsciously replicating queerness in their male bonding rituals. Titane is a film that, as the kids might put it, fucks. Beau Travail‘s homoeroticism is of a very different kind. Does Galoup want Sentain? Is he in love with him, or in lust? Is Galoup even gay? We see him with a local girl, and while she may be a prostitute (the film does hint at elements of prostitution between the Djibouti locals and the legionnaires, but Denis rarely comes out and says clearly that a relationship is 100% one thing or another), there does seem to be some affection between them. At the same time, Galoup does look at Sentain with a mixture of longing and resentment. What does he want?

Gender is woven into all aspects of Beau Travail, but it is as elliptic as much of the film. The images we see are either underdetermined or overdetermined in their meaning. The young legionnaires are all fit, attractive men, they are often filmed with bare torsos. They could be Greek statues – or the athletes in a Leni Riefenstahl film, as they cross an assault course as part of their daily training. But where Riefenstahl’s athletic bodies are mostly hyper-masculine, expressing the metallic hardness that gets fascists all hot and bothered, Denis’ young men are often coded in feminine ways. There is only one scene in which the young soldiers engage in the kind of homophobic banter that you’d often see among young men on their own. We see them doing domestic chores: hanging up their washing and ironing their uniforms. Their callisthenics are more akin to dance than anything else. There is a softness, a tenderness, in what they do and how they do it. These are not hard bodies – but they are bodies, first and foremost.

What Galoup seems to long for, more than sex, is the tenderness, physical and otherwise, that the men express without even being quite aware of it. Commandant Forestier is the symbolic father of the men under him, he is looked up to. But Galoup is neither a father figure nor is he one of the men. Visually, too, he is apart: Denis Lavant is a strange-looking actor, not exactly ugly (though he can be if a film calls for it), but compared to the young men under his command he seems misshapen, almost dwarvish. He is physically fit, but his fitness does not seem the kind of effortless athleticism of the young legionnaires. He is not disliked, but he does not seem to belong. There is a solitude to him, which contrasts with Sentain’s likeability. Though this is not to say that there is nothing sexual about Galoup’s twisted need to destroy Sentain, but the homoeroticism is repressed until it is sublimated into something else.

What comes through most strongly, though, is Galoup’s loneliness, even when he is with others. He is displaced, just like the French foreign legionnaires don’t really belong in Djibouti, and he carries this loneliness with him. Galoup is ill at ease, even with himself, and it seems to be this that drives him to abuse his command to rid himself of Sentain. He cannot have him, he cannot be him, but he can damn well try to break him. Even at his most dislikeable, Galoup is sad rather than hateful, destroying himself and everything he has worked towards as he tries to destroy the young man. In the penultimate scene of the film, we see him, almost tenderly, handling a pistol, and while Denis still remains elliptic in her filmmaking, it is not hard to imagine what Galoup will do next –

– and then Beau Travail cuts to an unexplained, unexplainable scene that cannot be real, that could mean altogether contradictory things, that stands in stark contrast to the slow, tender, dance-like exercises the legionnaires go through in Djibouti and yet seems to grow out of these earlier scenes. Galoup, who’s always been tightly coiled, tense, unable to express what’s inside him, stands in an empty disco and explodes in a wild, ecstatic dance. It is liberating and strangely moving, watching Galoup become something he couldn’t be until now, and it is both the last thing most directors would ever have thought of and a perfect way to end Beau Travail.

Verdict: After High Life I wasn’t sure if I’d like this film. I don’t know if I would feel the same about it if I’d seen it another evening instead – but I wasn’t sure whether the evening when I did watch it was ideal for the elliptic storytelling of Claire Denis. High Life may not have clicked for me, but Beau Travail did. It’s a strange, at times achingly beautiful film. It is a puzzling, sad, but finally exuberant tone poem. There are many things here I’ve not even touched upon – there’s clearly a postcolonial thread running through Denis’ film, for instance -, and where High Life left me vaguely indifferent, Beau Travail didn’t. I don’t know what to think about it, but I’m more than willing to watch it again to find out whether a second viewing would make things clearer. I suspect it wouldn’t, but it doesn’t matter. There’s a visual, tonal and emotional richness to Beau Travail that is well worth seeking out.

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