Beau Travail

Beau Travail

****

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

The originality of Claire Denis' cinematic approach is definitive. There is so much going on beneath the surface, what you see on screen constitutes camouflage.

Galoup (Denis Lavant) has the face of a man who sleeps with suffering. He wanders the rain-washed streets of Marseilles, like a visitor from an alien planet. "Maybe freedom begins with remorse," he tells us. He was a sergeant in the French Foreign Legion.

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Beau Travail is the story of why he left. It is also a study in masculinity, self-control and the ritualistic nature of army discipline. On the bare rock and sandy wastes of a camp outside Djibouti, a platoon of Legionnaires train under the blazing sun. Shaven-headed, stripped to the waste, they mime the choreography of Japanese dancers.

Repressed emotion thrives in this bleak, inhospitable outpost and yet remains unspoken, unresolved. The commander (Michel Subor) exerts minimum effort as he oversees the pointless exercises of these fit young men, as if to question the raison d'etre would be tantamount to treason.

Galoup's admiration for his superior officer connects with the loyalty he feels towards the Legionnaires' code. Only the arrival of Gilles Sentain (Gregoire Colin), a new recruit, unsettles the balance. Why this should be is never explained. Perhaps Sentain's essential decency subverts a numbed acceptance of institutional bullying, causing ripples of disquiet amongst the ranks.

Denis is a director who respects the intelligence of her audience. She allows the camera to stroke the landscape, like a lover. The drama lies deep below the surface of words. Galoup says in Marseilles, "I stayed away from France too long. I am unfit for civil life." What he means, and what the film demonstrates with its bare imagery, is that the Legion's colonial history has no place in the modern world. It exists in isolation, still harsh and unforgiving, but no longer relevant. You can see this in the commander's face. Galoup's obsession with Sentain destroys and frees him. But what is freedom when disgrace stains the memory?

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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An officer recalls his life in the Foreign Legion.
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Read more Beau Travail reviews:

Nicholas Dawson ***1/2

Director: Claire Denis

Writer: Jean-Pol Fargeau, Claire Denis

Starring: Denis Lavant, Michl Subor, Gregoire Colin, Marta Tafess Kassa

Year: 1998

Runtime: 93 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: France

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