Tuesday 7 June 2011

Beau Travail

Beau Travail is loosely based on Herman Melville's short novel Billy Budd, Sailor. In both stories, the main characters enters an established community of men and earns the respect and adoration of his fellow men, which causes someone who is following the strict rules of that community, and has built a life around them, to become dangerously jealous and furious. Claire Denis' incredible talent lies in telling that story through pictures rather than dialogue - the community of the foreign legion is established by showing their rituals, the mesmerizing training exercises that look more like dancing than fighting, the shared meals, the perfectionist care for the uniform, the singing, the shared experiences when the legionnaires go out and awkwardly mix with the Djibouti locals who regard them with a mixture of alienation and amusement. The soldiers are never alone or to themselves, they are a self-contained community in a country of strangers, a community that demands of them to forget all previous allegiances and identities ("You are no longer African", Galoup reminds a legionnaire who attempts to help a fellow comrade to deal with an unjust punishment). 
When Grégoire Colin's Sentain arrives to join Galoup's (Denis Lavant) troop, small things start to change. The community is defined by their unity, by their conformity, but Sentain starts to stand out. He is more heroic, more well-liked, yet remains a stranger to the viewers who are dependent on Galoup's narration - but more than that, on the gestures and looks between the characters, the movements, the faces betraying the quiet surface. Sentain barely speaks, once he admits, in a conversation, the he is a foundling ("at least it was a pretty find", remarks Galoup coldly), like Billy Budd. He draws attention. Galoup watches him closely, and something dangerous starts to grow - "Deep down, l felt a sort of rancour, a rage brimming. l was jealous." We see Galoup, as his anger develops, and we see him years later, lost completely in his solitude, wandering the streets of Paris without a context, admitting that he can not adapt to civilian life. Galoup in Djibouti waits patiently for a chance to dispose of the troublesome element that disturbs the uniformity. For all the rage he contains, we only see him truly liberated once, oblivious to the world in a cathartic dance in an empty disco. The film develops so quietly, yet in the background, the music hints at an inevitable catastrophe looming over the elegiac scenes, an eerie reminder not to be blinded by the sheer beauty and elegance. Beau Travail is a stunningly beautiful movie about two forces that collide.  

1999, directed by Claire Denis, starring Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, Grégoire Colin.

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