Of all the films screening this November for the Claire Denis retrospective at the Gene Siskel Film Center (full schedule here), Beau Travail was my most anticipated. With only a dismal American transfer by New Yorker Films available on DVD, the opportunity to see Denis’ breakthrough film rarely presented itself as ideal. Thankfully, the experience was an incredible one - even though a single viewing may only scratch the surface of this deceptively colossal film.
To gloss over the narrative, Beau Travail opens as a memoriam. Sergeant-Major Galoup (Denis Lavant) is the primary voice heard throughout the film, as he drifts through Paris reflecting back on his days as a member of the French Foreign Legion. Set in Djibouti (at the horn of Africa), Galoup reminiscences on his tenure. Leading a group of men as they follow a tightly-wound regimen of physical upkeep and housework, Galoup’s militaristic tendencies break the men into ideal soldiers prepared for combat at any given notice. Much to Galoup’s chagrin however, those under his command begin to acknowledge a young man named Sentain (Gregoire Colin) as an alpha. Galoup’s immediate and irrational dislike for the young man results in a series of abstract and existential mind games, wherein the threat of physicality lingers until one of the two finally explodes.
While I quickly read Herman Melville’s novella “Billy Budd” as a means of offering more context to the multiple layers at play in Beau Travail - Denis loosely adapts the story - it didn’t serve as much of a benchmark for my analysis of the picture. Nor did it really offer a great deal of depth to how I interpreted the film. Melville’s novella is one that is deeply engrained in its victim’s plight. On the other spectrum, Denis is more concerned with the perspective of the perpetrator and the emotional expression that occurs as a result. The relationship in Melville’s story is one of contrast as the two central characters, Billy Budd and John Claggart, are clearly defined in their opposition through prose. Denis tactfully diffuses typical narrative structure by focusing on the physical and emotional strains between Galoup and Sentain - it all becomes a matter of suggestion rather than defining antagonism between her two leads.
But when watching the film, I was reminded of another confounding experience I had at the theaters last year - Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Initially, I was taken aback by the visual similarities between the two pictures. The poignant imagery of water and bare-chested men attempting to insinuate a measure of masculinity were some of the obvious key points. A little seen but significant character in Beau Travail offers some striking thematic similarities to Anderson film. Commander Forestier (Michael Subor) functions as an overwhelming ghost of a force throughout Beau Travail. The closest semblance to reasoning behind Galoup’s antagonism of the young Legionnaire is to impede the suggestion that Sentain could rise amongst the ranks. With Commander Forestier only rarely surveying the men as they train, Galoup may view Sentain as a threat to his own rank - as well as a threat to his fine standing with Forestier.
The relationship between Commander and Sergeant is thinly veiled as something that resembles kinship. Its interpretation may depend on how you take the relationships of the other men in the film - their brute physically and the rhetoric that they digest mirrors that of brotherhood. But the paternal spell that Forestier casts on Galoup encumbers his senses. This, compounded with the cycle of monotony that Galoup endures in training his soldiers, just about warps his worldview. The whole concept is mirrored in Anderson’s film as well, though The Master may as well follow Galoup where Beau Travail leaves off.
As I reflect back on the central relationships in both pictures, there’s a clear sense of domination amongst men that leads to the frantic demise of both relationships in Beau Travail and The Master. And the inherent physicality associated with both is profoundly attuned to one another, though Denis may one-up Anderson in tonal consistency. Both films possess a very hypnotic, almost trance-inducing tone that sublimates narrative. But whereas Anderson often affords his characters with bits of grandiose acting (the verbal sparring between Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman), Denis maintains something close to emotional purity. It’s as if the whole picture operates as a collage of emotional singularity - which would make sense given how critical memory plays into the very structure of the film itself.
Only two films deep into this retrospective and it will be hard to imagine anything topping Beau Travail. The juxtaposition and growth in between Chocolat and Beau Travail shows a director who has only developed upon her tremendous skill from the outset. And what becomes clear from her work is how she maintains such a fluid and emotional tone. This becomes clearer in later efforts, most notably 35 Shots of Rum (which will be revisited in this retrospective), but Beau Travail offers so many layers and context in which to derive meaning from that it may just be her most complete and whole work yet.