Classic Movie Review: Beau Travail

Title: Beau Travail
Release Date: September 4, 1999
Director: Claire Denis
Production Company: La Sept-Arte |Tanais | SM Films

If you’re like me you endured reading the overly-didactic Herman Melville novel Billy Budd at school. It’s the story of a handsome and popular sailor who inadvertently strikes and kills an officer, and the Captain “Starry” Vere who wrestles with his admiration of Budd and the necessity to execute him to uphold naval discipline.

Claire Denis moves the story on land for a contemporary story of a French Foreign Legion section undergoing training in Djibouti. It’s told as the memoirs of the section leader Adjudant-Chef Galoup (Denis Lavant), and much of the film has a dream-like quality.

When a handsome new Legionaire from Russia, Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin) joins the section and proves to be popular and heroic. Galoup grows resentful of Sentain’s threat to his own standing with the troops. The subtext is that Galoup is repressing a homosexual attraction to Sentain.

Not much “happens” for much of the movie as it is more a poetic depiction of the soldiers routine of training exercises (which
all the reviews describe as “balletic”), daily chores, swimming, and visiting a local nightclub to dance with Djiboutian civilian women. For the most part, this is a dominantly male movie with Denis’ “female gaze” providing a critique of performative masculinity and the display of colonialist power decades after Djibouti achieved independence. In addition to that, if you like hunky men in various stages of undress, this is a movie for you!

The final scene is much lauded and very impressive. I won’t spoil it here, but it feels tonally out-of-context with the rest of the film, while offering a reactionary coda to the slow-burn that had been building the whole time.

Rating: ****