Review: Beau travail (1999)


Few directors garner as much praise within the cinephile community as Claire Denis, the French auteur that defies any attempts to pin her down to one genre or method of filmmaking. She’s made horror, she’s made romance, and in her most recent outing, High Life, she’s made science-fiction (to mixed results). Although Denis cannot be pigeonholed in terms of content or style, there is a consensus that her 1999 film Beau travail is likely her best work. I’ll add myself to this consensus and confirm that Beau travail is a beguiling film.

Drawing inspiration from Herman Melville’s novella, Billy Budd, Sailor, Beau travail follows a troop of French legion soldiers stationed in Djibouti, the sandy East African country bordering Ethiopia on one side and the Red Sea on the other. The stern Sergent Galoup (Denis Lavant) keeps the men occupied with tough drills, but when young and beautiful Sentain (Grégoire Colin) arrives, Galoup’s single-minded focus is broken. Overwhelmed with jealousy and repressed homosexual obsession, Galoup vows to destroy him.

While this description has the makings of a focused thriller, Beau travail is not an overwhelmingly narrative work. The storytelling is more focused on rhythm, imagery, and emotion than plot. Scenes blend into each other, with a sound or a song bridging gaps across days and continents. We often hear narration from Galoup back in France recalling his days in Djibouti. The framing device explains why the main scenes shift like memories or dreams, with more focus on striking images than conversations. The effect is hypnotic, especially when Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd opera plays overtop the sun-bleached images.

Denis spends most of the brief 90-minute runtime depicting Galoup’s daily drills, with the men, shirtless, muscles chiseled and blazing under the sun, doing calisthenics, crawling beneath barbed wire, or sparring in fights that are choreographed more like dances. Denis’s female gaze is evident from the outset; her camera doesn’t frame the men with simple admiration, but with a charged eroticism, focusing on the muscles of their abdomens or their muscular buttocks. Galoup is the film’s point-of-view character, and so by aligning her own sexualized camerawork with Galoup’s perspective, she conveys the homoerotic tension that’s essential to the dramatic conflict.

Much of Beau travail is about repression, specifically Galoup’s repression of his desire for Sentain. But it’s also about colonialism, as the French military base is a colonial holdover in Djibouti, a fading symbol of France’s former domination of the continent. Denis juxtaposes the routines of the French legionnaires with the lives of ordinary Djiboutians in order to show how repressed the lives of the French are, while the Djiboutians live with an easy openness and vibrancy, despite their poverty. Denis, who grew up in West Africa to French parents, understands the unnaturalness of colonial presences. Thus, in Beau travail, she clearly demonstrates the foreign and stilted nature of the French, sapped of expression, when placed against the natural rhythms of the locals.

The film’s coiled intensity and repression erupts in the final moments, first with the inevitable confrontation between Galoup and Sentain, and then, more memorably, in the closing images, where Galoup, the ever-repressed, stern soldier, who impeccably creases his pants and makes his bed each morning, heads to a discotheque and lets loose to the sounds of Corona’s “The Rhythm of the Night.” It’s a furious sequence of emotional expression, both beautiful and violent.

It’s the sort of sequence that coalesces the film’s provocative ideas and quiet moments of expression. I won’t forget it anytime soon, nor the film that precedes it.

9 out of 10

Beau travail (1999, France)

Directed by Claire Denis; written by Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau; starring Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, Grégoire Colin, Richard Courcet, Nicolas Duvauchelle.