Inspired by Herman Melville’s ‘Billy Budd’, filmmaker Claire Denis’ ‘Beau Travail’ is a stunning combination of literature, music and dance that explores the near-mythical world of the French Foreign Legion. Dennis Lavant stars as Galoup, a sergeant-major whose position and power are threatened when the bravery and heroism of new recruit Sentain (Gregoire Colin) attracts the attention of the platoon’s commandant (Michel Subor). Enraged, Galoup plots Sentain’s downfall, a doomed course of action that leads to his own undoing. Director Denis creates a dark mounting tension that underlies the exquisite cinematography of Agnes Godard, whose stark visual style contrasts vividly with the graceful training rituals of the sculpted young soldiers.
Quintessential Cinematography: Writing in Movement
- Good Work review by PH
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The film evokes France's colonial past (it is filmed in Djibouti) and it is a sum total of Claire Denis's thoughts on isolation, exile and post-colonialism. It questions received ideas about collective identity, be it national, colonial or patriarchal, questions that are worked through in the elite military force of the French foreign legion represented in the film. Beau Travail focuses on image rather than dialogue, but the music is never just a background: it helps compose a rich and sensual cinematic world. There is also the issue of political engagement in its referencing of one of its main sources: Jean-Luc Godard's Le Petit soldat, 1960. The association of Beau Travail with Le Petit soldat is made clear through Michel Subor's presence as the commanding officer Forrestier, Thirty years before Beau Travail, Subor played a French deserter also called Forrestier in Godard's film which was an evocation of the effects of the Algerian war. Denis's stylised approach to the image should not be confused with a glorification of colonialism but rather an investigation of the myth of the legion: while she reveals its seductions, she simultaneously uncovers the systematic disavowal of identity as difference and the denial of its own obsolescence which are necessary for its continued existence.