Loosely inspired by Herman Melville’s short novel Billy Budd—as well as Melville’s brief poems “The Night March” and “Gold In The Mountain”—Denis’ 1999 film Beau Travail (“good work”) concerns a bizarre love triangle of sorts between a sergeant, his avuncular superior and a fresh recruit in the French Legion. I use the phrase “of sorts” because nothing explicit or physical ever takes place between these three men, other than one striking the other at a crucial point, instantly dissolving the bonds between them.
Using very, very little dialogue—none between the two chief adversaries, played by Denis Lavant and Grégoire Colin—the film instead suggests their toxic dynamic through hard looks, wordless montage sequences, and spare entries from a diary composed after the punch is thrown. On the page, it’s as simple as movies get; on the screen, it’s full of ambiguity, startling beauty and a weird, insinuating tension that isn’t broken until the delirious out-of-left-field coda.
Transposing Melville’s seafaring tale to the desolate mountains and plains of Djibouti, Beau Travail settles on a band of French Legionnaires training together under the scorching East African sun. Led by master sergeant Galoup (Lavant), who puts them through a rigorous daily exercise regimen, the men go about their choreographed rituals with such steely efficiency that they resemble a dance troupe performing two shows nightly plus a weekend matinee. The arrival of Sentain (Colin) shouldn’t upset the balance: He’s just another sculpted body in formation, and his quiet, unassuming demeanor and natural charisma help him slip easily into the group. But the more his soldiers—and, crucially, his superior officer Bruno (Michel Subor)—rally around the newcomer, the more irrationally jealous and angry Galoup becomes, until finally he makes it his single-minded purpose to bring Sentain down.
Denis never expresses in words what she can express in images, and yet as fractured and “difficult” as Beau Travail can seem at times, its tensions are rendered with awe-inspiring visual clarity. In the military, soldiers are trained to surrender their individual identity to the larger group, and Denis’ film makes us see plainly the intimacy that goes along with that. Much of Beau Travail is dedicated to the daily exercise and training regimen of the Legionnaires, with a special emphasis (fetishization, really) on the synchronicity between bodies in motion and the stunning landscape behind them—both seemingly carved by God’s hands. It’s impossible not to draw a connection between Denis’ film and the work of Leni Riefenstahl, given the extent to which both pay rapturous homage to physical form. The big difference, of course, is that Riefenstahl is a propagandist and Denis a dramatist, so the context isn’t remotely the same.
Here’s where I should dig into the gloriously whacked-out coda, which takes full advantage of the spry, whimsical, oddly feral Lavant, but I just can’t bring myself to spoil the surprise. Suffice it to say, Denis manages to flout any and all expectations for the ending while still giving the character a well-earned, unforgettable moment of transcendence. And that’s the Denis magic: She doesn’t take a straight line from point A to point B like other filmmakers, but intuits her way through a story bit by bit, ellipsis by ellipsis. In that way and others, Beau Travail is a dream.
Scott Tobias is the film editor of the A.V. Club. Excerpted with permission of the author.
France, 1999, 92m
Director/writer: Claire Denis