Nobody shoots human beings like the earthy, passionate physicality of Claire Denis. She depicts man as animal, brimming with primal emotions and capable of terrible and fantastic things. Beau Travail is the result of her shining her spotlight on the French Foreign Legion, through the prism of the Herman Melville novel Billy Budd.
With a director who possesses such love of portraying the human form, what actor could be better than the beautiful Denis Lavant? He brings a violent grace to the boredom of the desert that these men find themselves in, on maneuvers both in the sand and the clubs of Djibouti when work permits.
Lavant plays Galoup, a master sergeant out training with his men, under the command of Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor). When new recruit Gilles Sentain (Denis regular Gregoire Colin) joins the troops, he sparks surprising and unexpected feelings in his master sergeant that he perhaps would prefer to have left undisturbed, deep within himself, and it all ends as well as you’d expect.
Beau Travail is extremely affecting. Denis’s films are often little more than an intellectual exercise, but the performances and sympathetic cinematography (Agnes Goddard again) make it impossible not to feel for Sentain or Galoup. Each recruit in the troop, named or unnamed, feels like a real person and is a completely drawn character, and the overly dramatic score adds a sense of surrealist tension to the scenes in which it is deployed.
There’s a constant sense of dread throughout, and exists in the same universe as Apocalypse Now in that there’s a real feeling of terrifying power just waiting to explode from any one of these men, that only lies dormant through sheer boredom. It feels like the film was a big influence on Jarhead in terms of mood, even though (as good as Jarhead is) it’s not a patch on this.
Sure, some of the performances are unconvincing, and the setting and people of Djibouti exists as little more than an exotic, racially questionable set dressing, but this is still a deeply moving film about the confusion of feelings and heartbreak in the wrong place at the wrong time.