The Stranger's love affair with Claire Denis's masterpiece Beau Travail began in 2000 with this sentence by the film critic who in Seattle still has no equal, Bruce Reid: "Beauty is a dangerous thing." From that point on, the attraction of this mid-career work has never failed to capture the highest praise from Stranger after Stranger critic. Indeed, this unbreakable relationship has been less of a love affair than a marriage.
Our critics have, over the years, disagreed about so many films—A.I. (Sean Nelson and myself are, on record, the only fans of this Spielberg film), The Tree of Life (pure garbage; not pure garbage; some garbage), The Florida Project (all of those mouthy minors; what a great ending; and so on)—but such has not been the case with Beau Travail, a film about a unit of the French Foreign Legion based in Djibouti at the end of the millennium. Denis's materiality, whose medium is sensuality, finds its most successful expression in this film, which blooms into a kind of United Nations of young male bodies: Arab, African, European. Also, the Legion's military exercises are not violent but shamelessly erotic. There is the sun, the sea, and the material Denis loves most, the skin.
On occasion of Beau Travail's screening at The Beacon on Sunday, what follows are all of the reviews and comments The Stranger has reverently placed at the feet of this exceptional film for over two decades. —Charles Mudede
Beau Travail's first mention on Slog is a 2000 review of the film called "The Element of Beauty in Beau Travail" written by critic Bruce Reid:
Beauty is a dangerous thing. Not because, as we are often told, it is superficial or deceptive or skin deep; nor for any of the other tepid half-truths we admire because they flatter our own awareness of how far from beautiful most of us are. It's dangerous because it is so easy to surrender to, because devotion to beauty can so easily become an obsession. Which is to say, beauty is harmful not in itself, but for what it spawns in others. Claire Denis understands this fact. In Beau Travail, Denis has made her greatest examination of beauty yet—at least of the films we've been able to catch stateside. It is also, of course, her most beautiful.
Adapted from Herman Melville's Billy Budd but rewritten (by Denis and Jean-Paul Fargeau) and relocated to fit in with Denis's trademark concerns, Beau Travail unfolds in a French Foreign Legion post in North Africa. The tale is narrated by Billy Budd's Claggart character, here re-cast as the squad's sergeant, Galoup (Denis Lavant). Galoup watches as his men exercise, frolic in the surf, jest with one another at the dinner table. His distance from the Legionnaires is partly explained by his age ("I'm rusty, eaten away by acid," he tells us, and immediately we see shot after shot of soldiers scurrying under razor wire with the impatient zeal of young men), but also by his ugliness. Pockmarked and squinting, his nose broadening against sunken cheeks, Galoup stands apart from the gleaming men—all shaved bald, many decorously bruised—under his command.
Galoup manages to maintain his pride against that sea of beauty by strictly adhering to discipline, which counts above all else in the Legion. The arrival of a new recruit, the tender, rail-thin Sentain (Grégoire Colin), seems to threaten this order for Galoup, not least because of the attention the new soldier has attracted from the Commander (Michel Subor). When Sentain bravely rescues the crew of a downed helicopter, making himself even more beloved by all, Galoup goes to greater lengths to defeat his self-selected nemesis, even re-posting the men to a remote site far from the Commander on the pretext that a distant road needs repair.
Like its protagonist, Beau Travail isolates the object of its focus to the exclusion of all else. Beyond the three central players, the Legionnaires and eternally observant natives remain primarily nameless and characterless, as irrelevant to us as they are to the increasingly obsessed Galoup. The plot is telegraphed in short voiceovers or brutally disorienting edits. What is left are some of the loveliest studies of men and landscapes ever filmed.
Whether observing them working, fighting, or at play, Denis and her cinematographer Agnès Godard gaze at the men with a passionate scrutiny. The men dance in unison at a disco, blowing kisses at their dates when the song tells them to, or drift underwater in a hushed moment of rapture (knives tightly clenched in their fists, the lazy menace makes them all the more lovely). Their daily calisthenics are a stylized series of embraces, throw-downs, and slow, languorous gestures, set to the buzzing, percussive choruses of British composer Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd. Their right legs tucked beneath them, their others jack-knifed to the side, the men gracefully lean back in the hot desert sand. Such ritualized behavior, so erotic in its military rigor, recalls Fassbinder's Querelle; but the excesses of that supremely artificial movie are avoided here by firmly placing these wordless studies of masculine beauty in a world as real and hard as the black rocks that jut from the earth. The wind-rippling clothes hung to dry or the natural light that bathes over the Legionnaires become characters in their own right.
Not that Beau Travail ever flirts with the pantheistic; but from the way the handheld camera bobbles gently along in a boat as it watches the men along the shore, you know right at the beginning that this will be an uncommonly excellent film. And from the way it ends—an ecstatic solo dance that captures all the freedom that had been bridled heretofore, cunningly intercut with titles that fill the cast's names in like bricks in a wall—you realize you've been watching a great one.
Critic David Thompson speculated that Melville might never translate to the screen, being "too elemental for photography." Claire Denis follows in a long line of French artists enamored of Herman Melville; we may not know the root of her attraction, but she has honored it with a masterpiece as elemental as its source.
Next, in a 2003 essay entitled "Two Beautiful People Gazing at Each Other: The Beaux Travails of Claire Denis," Charles Mudede discussed the film in relation to beauty in Denis's cinema. Here's an excerpt on Beau Travail:
Beau Travail (1999), on the other hand, does not end in violence but in long-term sorrow. Set on a French military base in Djibouti (formerly French Somaliland) composed of 15 or so multiracial young soldiers (whose bodies have been sculpted to perfection by rigorous exercises that would better prepare them for a modern dance piece than an actual battle), the film concerns the arrival of a new recruit (Grégoire Colin) whose extraordinary beauty attracts everyone—and everyone submits to this attraction except the sergeant (Denis Lavant). Instead of surrendering, the compromised sergeant stages a bitter psychological offensive against what he and the other soldiers see: the young man's dreamy movements in the sun, in the desert, at the seaside; the impeccable truth of his flesh, chest, nose, and, of course, eyes. Finally, the sergeant commits a crime (abandoning the young soldier in the desert, where he is rescued by an angelic African woman)—and for this crime he is expelled from the land of sunshine and condemned to spend the rest of his days in a subterranean afterworld that's as torpid as the one in I Can't Sleep.
The poster for Beau Travail may very well be the poster for Claire Denis's cinema: two beautiful people (Grégoire Colin and Denis Lavant) gazing at each other. The question posed by this extended gaze is the key question in all Denis films: Can attraction have a happy ending? Though the characters may beg to differ, the existence of Denis's body of work answers the question with a resounding yes.
And in 2006, former Stranger film critic Annie Wagner commented on Denis's use of bodies in Beau Travail and some of her other movies:
[T]here's something uncanny about the way Beau Travail and Trouble Every Day and Friday Night (all of which were photographed by Agnès Godard) heighten visual texture to the point where it almost spills over into physical sensation. They're often about bodies—being one, fucking one, wanting one, eating one—and they demand that you pay attention with your nerve endings as well as your gaze.
In 2012, The Stranger's former fashion columnist Marti Jonjak interviewed Robin Held—the former Reel Grrls executive director and chief curator at the Frye—highlighting the film's lusty sartorial aspect in her Worn Out column:
Claire Denis's solemn 1999 art movie Beau Travail is about the French Foreign Legion, and involves messy blends of emotional longing and precise military duties and corrupt leaders and sexiness and tensions and long wordless passages and sudden wild reactions. "I'm so mesmerized by the look and the feel of this film," says Robin Held, current executive director of Reel Grrls and former chief curator at the Frye Art Museum, who chose it for Seattle Met and Northwest Film Forum's recent Screen Style series. Other scenes include throbbing dance clubs, fluky helicopter crashes, crisply made beds, blood-dipped hands, beautiful young men marooned in deserts, and physical regimen montages loaded with so much rhythm and effort, they're "like a choreographed dance."
Throughout all this, men pair very tan skin with very shaved heads or very short shorts, or olive tank tops, or heavy boots, or skimpy swim trunks, or dust-colored pants, or open-side shirts held in place with straps. Says Robin, "The way [Denis] showed you uniforms was different than the way you usually see uniforms, whether in benign or frightening settings. Like when you'd see them in a parade. Or in a fascistic show of power. Or in an invasion. Or saving the day."
Instead, Beau Travail's focus shifts smoothly from one maintenance ritual to the next, with extended shots of men clipping laundered socks and underwear to a drying line, for instance. (Denis was uneasy about the "'erotic object' aspect of the film," what with all the luscious babes everywhere, and she imagined she could "maintain a distance" by showing these flattened garments as a "way of de-objectifying the bodies" they once so appetizingly encased, she told Jean-Marc Lalanne and Jérôme Larcher in a Cahiers du Cinéma interview.)
In another unexpectedly glamorous moment, men stationed at ironing boards are arranged "in formation, and [the master sergeant] is inspecting their ironing the same way he might inspect their push-ups or a hole they'd dug," says Robin. Although "they're in the middle of the desert, and the pleats are not going to hold," the image corresponds with the codes of a soldier's universe, with all the routine servitudes to readiness, force, alignments, and discipline. And later, Robin says, when the men wear their pressed uniforms and these shirts with the rigid collars and perfect creases and spotlessness, "you'd see muscled legs and asses and sweat coming through the order."
And in 2019, I, Jas Keimig, first blurbed Beau Travail for Unstreamable, a column I co-write with Chase Burns (plus guest blurbs from Matt Baume!) about films not available on major streaming services. I slightly rewrote the blurb for Slog's Great Films Directed by Women series in March 2020. I prefer that write up, so that's what I'm sharing with you today:
Never before have I wanted to etch the images of a film inside my eyeballs to play privately for me whenever I wanted before watching Beau travail. It's gorgeous and strange and made purely of dreams. Set in Djibouti and based off Herman Melville's Billy Budd, the story is told in an extended first-person flashback, narrated by ex-sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant) after he's kicked out of the French Legion for cruel mistreatment of the charismatic and promising new recruit Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin). While it's sort of vague why he disliked Sentain so much—ostensibly because the boss took a liking to the young man—Galoup's jealousy borders on obsessive. To me, all obsessions have a fetishistic or erotic quality to them and Sentain was likely a locus of unspoken desire for the sergeant.
Beau travail has very little dialogue save for Galoup's narration, instead favoring image over the spoken word. As viewers, story and emotion are revealed to us not as much through exposition, but in glances and snarled mouths. It's fun watching the soldiers do improbable workouts (in one scene, they violently hug each other repeatedly) in improbable places (on the craggy and volcanic ocean shore), but there's a sense of deep intimacy to it all. It's like they take the word "corps" seriously—the men move as if they are one body. Shaving, ironing, dancing together. There's a fascination with the beauty of men's bodies in relation to one another in both their softness and hardness thrown against their ocean-swept setting. Make sure to watch to the very, very end to witness one of the most heartbreaking dances I've seen. Beau travail is Denis at her best.
Beau Travail is screening at The Beacon on Sunday, May 1.