Beau Travail (1999) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
6Jun/150

Beau Travail (1999)

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Sergent Galoup leads his platoon of the French Foreign Legion in daily drills against the unforgiving African landscape.  At night he occupies himself as a ghost of the clubs and brothels bringing the dark to life.  Gilles Sentain joins Galoup's platoon and Galoup quickly finds himself at the grip of some compulsion to act toward Sentain.  Claire Denis writes and directs Beau Travail which stars Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, and Grégoire Colin.

Love meBeau Travail entered my life a mystery.  A clip of the ending sequence, showing Sergent Galoup (Denis Lavant), was the high point of a series on film history called The Story of Film: An Odyssey.  Galoup's movements, aggressive but elegant, seemed self-destructive but liberating in spite of his isolation.  Eventually he spins off into the dark, and I was left wondering what circumstances led him to this beautiful self-mutilation.

Like many beautiful things, I worried the precise cinematic context might ruin the mystery of the moment.  But Beau Travail, my first and breathtaking introduction to the films of Claire Denis, preserves the mystery even as it provides the context for Galoup's actions.  That dance comes at the end of a film marked by restrained and misdirected passion, of an attraction which could have freed Galoup from his isolated misery, and images of elegance and desolation balanced with a soundtrack which expresses the emotions the players of Beau Travail deny themselves.

That final sequence is one of the finest I have seen, and since the entirety of Beau Travail prepares us for that moment of ultimate heartbreak I must confess the obvious conclusion - that Beau Travail is one of the finest films I have ever experienced.  It's been three days since I watched Beau Travail, and in those days I have been wracked with pain, yet every time my thoughts returned to Galoup's dance into the dark I was momentarily freed from my pain.  This gave me more understanding into Galoup's final moments, an understanding which brought empathetic tears to my eyes, and has made me more grateful for a life where I have not had to misidentify my feelings - something Galoup does not have the luxury of.

Simple, elegant, but emotionally complex framing guides every shot of Beau Travail.

Simple, elegant, but emotionally complex framing guides every shot of Beau Travail.

Denis' camera in Beau Travail is not static, but still.  Movement of the frame is rare and instead her lens focuses on the way the bodies of Beau Travail navigate around one another.  It makes the moments where she does move the camera all the more expressive, following a line of unexpected violence or passion, and when she returns to the visual stillness we are watching not the placid exterior of the performers, but for the emotion they are trying to keep from exploding onto their words and deeds.

Passion, in cinema, is not always synonymous with moments of high drama where the soundtrack soars and the players embrace in erotic or excited moments.  Sometimes it's letting the camera watch the inner turmoil of the performers and letting the rare moments of action speak for themselves.  We spend most of our time with Galoup, wondering when his passion will overtake his sense, but through the lens of the bemused and annoyed locals, the subject of Galoup's erotic tension Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin) looks back at Galoup with what may be acceptance and desire for Galoup to act on his attraction, all while Galoup's commanding officer Commandant Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor) watches his subordinate with worry and caution.  Barely any words are shared between the three characters, but their performances and Denis' camera say more than dialogue can.

But there are still words, as subordinates must receive their orders from their commanders somehow, and most belong to Galoup.  It's easy to see his dialogue as repressed, trying to conceal or lie about the attraction he feels for Sentain, but it's more honest to say it's misdirected.  He clearly speaks with emotion, and frequently talks about the fire and rage burning inside of him, but more often than not he talks about his confusion regarding his emotions instead of lying about them.  Galoup is a refreshing change of pace for the emotionally repressed character, and questions a truth which everyone sees on Galoup's surface with every knowing grin or guarded stare.

I love when cinema manages to convey and entirely alien landscape by centering shots on the unfamiliar parts of our planet.

I love when cinema manages to convey an entirely alien landscape by centering shots on the unfamiliar parts of our planet.

There's an intriguing story going on in the background as well.  Denis allows Galoup a slight detour into the life of a prostitute, who we see at the beginning of the film happily dancing in a club, but after she is given a gift by Galoup dances with disinterest alongside the other similarly bored girls.  The other citizens of the African countryside watch Galoup and the soldiers with equal parts suspicion and  bemusement.  Suspicion because of they way we see the soldiers take advantage of the black countrymen as commodities, and bemusement at the way the soldiers fail to recognize the stirring desire the countrymen see all too plainly.  This is a refreshing change of pace from the "all knowing Other" in many American films as the minority helps the frequently white leads learn something about themselves.  None of the countrymen in Beau Travail have an interest in Galoup's circumstance outside of what they can gain economically and the annoyance of having these soldiers in their land.

Land which is as harsh and unforgiving as the soldiers make of it.  The crystalline earth and rocky outcroppings are obstacles to the refreshing beauty of the ocean and pulsing nightlife.  But instead of enjoying the splendor of the world they challenge themselves with it, and so many shots are dedicated to watching their bare flesh struggle against the harshness of the world.   The moments we see flesh embracing flesh without violence are rare, but point toward the solution of Galoup's problem.  All he needed to do was embrace his fellow man, not challenge him as though he were challenging the earth yet again.

So by the time that final scene comes I'm quietly begging Galoup to look at himself in the mirror.  Instead he continues smoking his cigarette violently at no one, punishing his body on the ground, before finally spinning into oblivion.  We don't know what would have become of Galoup if he could have embraced the truth others see so plainly in his actions.  Instead we're left to the pulsing beat of the club, the rhythm of the night, that he allows himself to feel before going off alone.

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Tail - Beau TravailBeau Travail (1999)

Screenplay written and directed by Claire Denis.
Starring Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, and Grégoire Colin.

Posted by Andrew

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