“If it weren’t for fornication and blood, we wouldn’t be here.”
‘Beau Travail’, directed by Claire Denis in 1999, is a French drama set in the Republic of Djibouti. Denis Lavant stars as Galoup, a veteran soldier in the French Foreign Legion. We first meet him in retirement in Marseille, and in flashback he recalls his last posting that lead to his court martial and dismissal. Whilst in Africa, a new soldier called Gilles Sentain, played by Grégoire Colin joins the troop. Sentain makes Galoup suspicious and jealous which leads the sergeant to persecute the incomer and, ultimately, to try to kill him. The narrative is dislocated, the events in the flashback are non-linear and seem to blur into each other. The dialogue is minimal which makes Galoup’s motives unclear and mysterious. Where this film is distinct from others with a similar setting is in its balletic physicality. Throughout the film, scenes of dancing and music is contrasted (occasionally related to) scenes of military training and of the rituals and routines of army life. Denis takes a realist approach to the individual scenes, but an abstracted approach to the way she connects them together. Part of the pleasure of watching the film comes from Lavant’s characteristically enigmatic performance, as in Leos Carax’s ‘Holy Motors’, Lavant manages to combine a frightening suggestion of violence with the assured and controlled movements of a dancer. The combination of all this creates a sense of almost mythic spirituality that, somehow, works perfectly with the dusty bleakness of the setting and the subject matter. When we reach the final, ambiguous scene in which Galoup may or may not shoot himself, this ambiguity seems entirely consistent with the fluid and interpretive world that Claire Denis has developed.
Would I recommend it? Yes – Lavant’s performance alone makes it worth watching. I was reminded of Miklós Jancsó’s ‘The Red and the White’, a Hungarian movie that also uses military routine to create a lyrical and rhythmic style that borders on being a dance movie.