I first saw this film when I was studying Film 101 at Newcastle University in 2004. I don’t remember a single thing the lecturer discussed with us afterwards but the film was stuck in my head for years after. It surprised me – most of the class hated it, that I knew, perhaps due to the slow pacing and sheer absence of dialogue. I’ve only seen it a handful of times since, including one time where I travelled out of my way to see it at the theatre. And in retrospect I’d happily pay an exorbitant price for the privilege to see it in the theatre once again. Beau Travail is one of the finest examples of what cinema means to me.
1. The film pulsates and breathes.
There were no initial intentions to feature scenes akin to choreographed moments but that’s how it ended up. And it’s beautiful. The opening stanza featuring the men of the French Foreign Legion in training, coupled with the voiceover of a French man humming their song is one of the more sensual experiences in cinema. Occasional scenes involving coloured girls on a dance floor are interspersed with the oblique narrative and it’s so pulsating with life and existence you’re left under a spell.
2. A relevant portrayal of homosexual repression.
Master Sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant) has the men under his leadership. He wants to control the men in a way that pays homage to his own leader, Bruno Forestier. A new man joins the group, Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin). He is a swan in a bunch of ugly ducklings and it is suggested that Galoup develops homosexual feelings for him. Where this develops too is both shocking and horrific but given they’re in a surrounding where crass such as “faggot” is acceptable, it’s not that surprising.
3. Camera placement.
In less capable hands this would have been a tribute to landscape postcards but here even the most beautiful scenery has a sheer menacing tone that suffocates all life around it. We can taste the dust that blows through the Legion’s dirty laundry and can feel the salt burn that scavenges through Gilles’ skin. Here the menace becomes beautiful and we worship the ugly.
4. Claire Denis
None of this could have been successful without her direction. These men are boys at heart (the birthday scene is akin to a 12 year old’s party) and any other director would lose focus of this. There are no lingering shots of cut muscle and tight abs – they are a unit and this is how they need to be presented. This is a film about control and denial of pleasure and to communicate these themes in one of the closest attempts a film has come to pure art is achievable by very few. What minimal story that exists is paper-thin and to inspire such intense acting from the two leading men is the stuff of marvel.
5. That ending.
Who would have thought a solitary man dancing to The Rhythm of the Night could be so powerful? The meaning is very much open to interpretation but one thing is clear – a man has reached his end point and he is releasing. From what, exactly, is up to you but every time I’ve reached this point in the film I’m reduced to my own starting point and I re-evaluate the world around me.