Purgatory of the Soul: Claire Denis' Beau Travail (1993) - Reviewed


“Serve the Good Cause and Die.”

Cinema is the language of life.  A collection of moving poems fraught with hopes, dreams, and the demons of the subconscious.  Once every few years, a film is created that is a mirror, a reflection of the possibilities of the medium and a monumental reminder of why cinema is so important: It can become an unassailable commentary on the fabric of humanity when it is crafted by a master.   Claire Denis' Beau Travail is such a specimen.  A loose retelling of Melville's Billy Budd, Denis' masterwork is a dissertation on repression and release that plays out under the sun of Djibouti, an almost ethereal overseer to the drama that unfolds.  

Galoup commands a group of troops in the French foreign legion under the charismatic lead of Commandant Forestier, a man whom Galoup reveres.  The arrival of a new recruit creates feelings of rage and yearning within Galoup, threatening to upend the tightly wound soldier in dangerous ways.  Denis reteamed with her longtime collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau on the script.  Beau Travail was made on commission by a French television channel that requested a film about foreign lands.  This is the first of many deceptions that layer Denis' opus.  While the story is about French soldiers in Africa, beneath this puzzling veneer exist several sublevels of context.  First, this is a masculine story shown through the female eye and this truth bathes every sequence with a unique sensibility that reveals vulnerability, danger, and elegance throughout without ever making a clear statement.  

While the obvious triangle at the center of the story mirror's Melville's novella, Beau Travail does not double down on homoeroticism, it leaves everything within the viewer's mind's eye.  Even it's absolutely stunning conclusion is open ended, much as in life.  Things are often left undone and humanity is messy.  While desire is the prisoner at the center of the narrative, the principals act as if it is a harbinger of woe.  Denis Lavant's unforgettable portrayal of Galoup is emblematic of this.  With the arrival of the enigmatic Sentain, brought to life with an unearthly sense of grace and humility by Gregoire Colin, Galoup recounts feelings of anger and darkness spewing from within the well of his soul.   The undeniable wonder is in how Denis allows the viewer to determine the origin.  Does he harbor feelings for Sentain or even Forestier (Michel Stubor), or is Sentain a symbol of something Galoup believes he can never be?  

Denis creates an almost Sartre-esque limbo in the desert.  Stubor portrayed a military character named Forestier almost thirty years prior in Godard's Le petit Solat.  While the story is a soft adaptation of Billy Budd, songs from Benjamin Britten's opera about the novella are used throughout.  The women of Djibouti whom the soldiers court and dance with form an almost silent Greek chorus around the soldiers, a reminder of the death of colonialism, filling the scorching environs with yet another metaphysical ghost.  While the spirits of ideas and fiction fill each frame, Denis is never concerned with death, only life.  While the climax could be interpreted as such, Lavant's off the cuff solo dance would argue otherwise, hearkening to the Myth of Sisyphus while also erupting with a sense of cathartic acceptance that will haunt the viewer for days after.  This is a graveyard of the spirit, where it is both revered and lamented and Denis is the undertaker.  

Agnes Godard's elusive cinematography, when combined with Britten's notes, transforms from an almost documentarian vibe to a neo-Shakespearean expose.  The sun-tanned bodies of the soldiers appear as vibrant watercolors amidst the cold greyness of rock-strewn beaches while the scenes of their arduous physical training exercises conjure thoughts of immortal dancers in a performance of which only, they know the purpose.  It is no surprise that renowned Ballet dancer Bernardo Montet choreographed these scenes, dovetailing with the restrained splendor of Denis and Godard's muted palette of flesh and shadow: Eternally youthful soldiers performing endless tasks in a timeless place, apparitions of masculine design refined by Denis' thoughtful approach that ultimately congeal into one of the greatest films ever made.  

Now available on a stunning Criterion Blu-ray, Beau Travail is a hypnotic journey through the soul.  To the soldiers, expectation and passion are of import, yet beyond the trance of loneliness and alienation they become paints that Denis wields with compassion and respect, painting upon a canvas of gender expectations and historical conceits before shredding it apart and piecing it back together into a rhythmic phantasm that obliterates its own origins.  This is not a film that can be watched.  It has to be experienced.  

--Kyle Jonathan