Beau Travail
Director: Claire Denis. Cast: Denis Lavant, Grégoire Colin, Michel Subor, Richard Courcet, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Adiatou Massudi. Screenplay: Claire Denis and Jean-Paul Fargeau (loosely based on the short novel Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville).

Claire Denis' Beau Travail gives whole new definition to the term "navel-gazing." Not only does the film get lost in grandiose, opaque fascination with itself, its beautiful images all the more frustrating for being so impenetrable, but many of these images actually invite us to gaze at the navels of Denis' mostly anonymous characters. The twenty or so men at the center of Beau Travail are chronically shirtless French Foreign Legionnaires stationed in the small African nation of Djibouti, forever practicing their grueling, sometimes yoga-like, often confounding physical exercises by the shore of the Red Sea.

Gorgeous, texturally rich shots of the sand, the sea, and the soldiers' bodies are Beau Travail's primary selling points, but they prove to be its only selling points. And what is Denis selling, anyway? Several critics across the globe have commended Denis and her film for eschewing the obvious directions for realizing the material: we do not get a routine military melodrama, a homoerotic hothouse, an exoticist travelogue, or even a particularly faithful transposition of Herman Melville's Billy Budd, the proclaimed literary origin for this piece. Kudos to the filmmakers for avoiding the cookie-cutters, then. All the same, refusing to tell a conventional or predictable story can backfire when you fail to tell any story at all.

The main character in the piece is Sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant of The Lovers on the Bridge), the severe, gnome-ish looking man who is the immediate commander of the enlisted Legionnaires. Galoup narrates the beginning of the movie, which is presented as a flashback narrative from a vantage point about three years following the events in the desert with which most of the film is occupied. The decision to make Galoup a controlling or at least informing consciousness in Beau Travail's screenplay strikes me as a glaring misstep. First of all, if this story really is Billy Budd, then the coarse, imposing Galoup must be the Claggart figure, and Claggart's defining characteristic is the total helplessness of the other characters or the reader to see into his mind, to know what he wants or what he's thinking. In fairness, Beau Travail's reliance on Melville proves so minimal, though, that one is on shaky ground to fault Denis and co-scripter Jean-Paul Fargeau for blowing their analogy.

Besides, a far worse aspect of positing Galoup as narrator-rememberer is that the desert scenes themselves have been so deliberately mounted from a removed, clinical perspective that discourages us from identifying with the soldiers, or even from knowing much about them. All of them, including Galoup, tend to appear in long shot within cinematographer Agnes Godard's stark images of expansive desert, rocky seacoast, azure sky. No one says much, as is appropriate. So of all films, Beau Travail is the last one that needs a voice-over. Also, if we are watching Galoup's memories, I would expect these sequences would hinge on Galoup's perspective or venture further into his psychology than they do. As it is, the soldiers are all surface—a cavalcade of bronzed torsos who barely speak during their constant regimens of calisthenics, site maintenance, obedience training, and occasional recreation of the Thank-God-Someone-Brought-A-Chessboard variety. Not only does Galoup's ostensible perspective fail to make him particularly vivid or understandable, but the point of view on the entire enterprise seems too detached to belong to a man who lived among his soldiers.

Besides Galoup, the only other figures who separate themselves at all from the mass of their fellows are Colonel Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor), Galoup's own commanding officer, and Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin), who is even moonier and more taciturn than his comrades, and whose handsome-but-unsettling features, somewhere between those of a Siamese cat and the Communion aliens, immediately tag him to the Francophile filmgoer as a star of Olivier, Olivier and The Dreamlife of Angels. Colin is not an actor who gives very much, and in Beau Travail, where he elicits a particularly strong torrent of envy and cruelty from Sergeant Galoup, the younger actor's impassivity works against him. Why does Galoup antagonize this chap so much? Sentain is not more handsome than his fellows, or more talented, or particularly popular among the group, and for that matter, Galoup does not seem particularly unpopular—all motivating forces behind Billy Budd's own elliptical plot. When the film wants to be a refiguring of the novel, then, it fails; both the structure and the characters of Melville's work are altered out of all recognition. Strangely, like Apocalypse Now, Beau Travail only begins devoting much energy to its literary ancestry in its final third, by which point each film has already so deviated from the text that the attempt to realign itself seems perversely futile.

However, when Beau Travail pursues a different agenda autonomous of Melville, the relationships among the characters and the inconsistent perspective hopelessly obscure what that separate agenda might be. The best I could come up with, once Beau Travail was approaching the end of its much-longer-seeming 90 minutes, was that Denis primarily wanted to situate the male form among a landscape that shared and complemented its hard, rugged beauty. In any event, that the film is a visual exercise rather than an attempt at psychological realism seems indisputable. But there's not much to that theme that a few images from Beau Travail—of the Legionnaires doing push-ups in the sand, or slinking under barbed wire, or fishing along rocky beaches—don't convey just as clearly, and much more quickly, in frozen form. Why did Denis and Godard make a film, instead of a series of stills? And what does the image of all this ruggedness tell us about the Legionnaires, or about Djibouti, or about men?

A coda sequence, which only initially seems incongruous, finds Galoup in his current life, lashing out wildly on a one-man dancefloor to the commanding base of Corona's "Rhythm of the Night." The wild, unfocused aggression of Lavant's body in these final moments suggests how much anger, resentment, and violence can accumulate in the body of a man whose relationship to his young recruits, though highly suggestive of eroticism, envy, even loneliness, must disavow all of those attachments. The commander hates his men because he isn't allowed to love them or relate to them, and the force of those thwarted desires erodes his own humanity. Still, I infer that reading mostly from Melville, not from Denis, who herself won't stop torquing and disavowing a source novel which she seems to love. Why did she venture to "adapt" Billy Budd if the story was not her actual interest, and if she had no other ideas or stories to provide a grounding narrative once she'd written Melville out of his own plot? It isn't hard to make a film about beauty when you take beautiful actors to a beautiful location and turn the camera on. But whatever Denis is up to beyond that is even further beyond me. Grade: C–

National Society of Film Critics: Best Cinematography (Agnès Godard)
César Awards (French Oscars): Best Cinematography

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