A brooding exploration of masculinity from Claire Denis
With her ravishingly sensual take on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor, Claire Denis firmly established herself as one of the great visual tone poets of our time. Amid the azure waters and sunbaked desert landscapes of Djibouti, a French Foreign Legion sergeant (Denis Lavant) sows the seeds of his own ruin as his obsession with a striking young recruit (Grégoire Colin) plays out to the thunderous, operatic strains of Benjamin Britten. Denis and cinematographer Agnès Godard fold military and masculine codes of honor, colonialism’s legacy, destructive jealousy, and repressed desire into shimmering, hypnotic images that ultimately explode in one of the most startling and unforgettable endings in all of modern cinema.
Using Herman Melville’s unfinished work, Billy Budd as a jumping off point, Claire Denis (High Life, Chocolat) put together a brooding and complex exploration of masculinity. Centering around Sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant), and the other men stationed at a French foreign legion outpost near the former colony of Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa. Galoup serves as the abrasive second-in-command to the more affable (and less rigid) Commander Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor). Galoup is immersed in the legion, adhering to rank and regimen, maintaining training and order amongst the men. A new arrival comes in the form of Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin), a young man, comfortable in his own skin, seemingly lacking much of the baggage that men bring to this way of life. A contrast to the natural order, he sits ill in Galoup’s mind, something further compounded when Bruno takes the young man under his wing, supplanting his former right hand man, and initiating a escalating series of conflicts within the camp.
There’s an undeniable mystique surrounding the French Foreign Legion. A voluntary military arm of the nation, open to non-French citizens, their outposts marking the dwindling remnants of a former (and increasingly impotent) colonial power. Perhaps romanticized through their connection to a bygone era (if you were French anyway), but also by offering of a chance of redemption to its recruits. Often viewed as a motley melting pot of cultures and characters, many bringing their own (often considerable baggage) as they go into this exile, whether forced or self-imposed. A dangerous and unpredictable element runs through the organization in that respect, with this brotherhood of misfits given discipline and structure to forge a military hierarchy. It is this aspect of the legion that seems to connect with Galoup. A man who seems intent on self-flagellation and bending himself and others to the service. The arrival of Sentain is taken almost as an affront, a man entering this ecosystem, seemingly untainted, serving as a reminder of their own transgressions, and upending established bonds of trust and affection. It is an incredibly rich environment for dramatic mining, something deep and emotional emerging within the confines of a setting so barren and harsh, akin to watching relationships burgeon in prison-set dramas. Galoup’s obsession clearly blurs the line with infatuation, both in his actions and reactions, with primal machismo tilting into something more malicious.
Denis, together with cinematographer, Agnès Godard, portray an Africa that takes on an otherworldly feel, often blurring between reality and more delirious sequences, the mirages of the mind as affecting as those of the desert. The wrestling of male bodies become sensual embraces. Exercise and training drills morph into erotically charged dances. Beautifully choreographed, with minimal dialogue, Denis smartly leaves a lot of the film, moments and motives, open to speculation, while continuing her exploration of image, reality, and perception. Having a woman at the helm gives the film a fascinating dynamic and a counterpoint to the oft criticized “male gaze”. A woman’s eye to shoot and frame the male physique, drawing an eye not just to shape and tone, but also body language, furthering the (homo)erotic charge. A compelling tale, with performances to match, most notably a star turn from Lavant.
Criterion have put together a resplendent presentation for Beau Travail. Colors pop with natural tones and an alluring vibrancy, showcasing the barren beauty of the horn of Africa. Detail is also impressive, drawing your eye to texture and the contrast between grains of sand or the trickle of sweat on a man’s brow. Extra features are:
- New conversation between Denis and filmmaker Barry Jenkins: You think this would be a fascinating conversation, and you wouldn’t be wrong. The racial themes of the film given added weight and context as this was recorded just after the murder of George Floyd. From that launching point, the pair open up to planning and production of the film. Jenkins is an inspired pairing delivered his own impressive cinematic exploration of sexuality and masculinity in Moonlight
- New selected scene commentary with Godard: The film’s cinematographer adds some technical context to a number of scenes from the film, including location, lighting, cameras, and the emotional subtext. A truly educating addition to the release
- New interviews with actors Denis Lavant and Grégoire Colin: The actors reflect on the script and experience onset. They share plenty of details and nuances that come from working with the director that clearly translated into what we see on screen
- New video essay by film scholar Judith Mayne: A well put together breakdown of use of music in the film, something that with so many quietly spoken, male driven sequences, does much to imbue the film with emotional heft
- New English subtitle translation:
- PLUS: An essay by critic Girish Shambu: included in the liner notes, which also show images from the film and details on the restoration/transfer
The Bottom Line
Beau Travail is a compelling exploration of humanity under uniquely dehumanizing conditions. Masculine, militaristic, and often melancholic, Denis cultivates conflict and erotic sensuality in an assured fashion with a impressionable visual flair. Criterion have put together a superb release for a film well deserving of entry to the collection.
Beau Travail is available via Criterion from September 15th