24 Frames: Beau Travail

Finishing graduate school felt like surfacing from a lingering fog. With equal parts liberation and sheer terror, I had gotten my paper and I was free all right, but to do what? I didn’t invest a small fortune in earning a Master’s in Film Studies with any specific career goal in mind. Six months later, I’d learn to adapt and figure something out once I could no longer defer my student loan payments; in the meantime, I fully took advantage of not tying myself down to any structure. Bidding adieu to my formal education meant I could now watch all the films and read all the books I wanted to. No more assignments or syllabi—I had the autonomy (and acquired tools) to forge my own path.

Serendipitously, I completed film school at an extraordinary time for new movies. While 1999 produced its share of high-profile critical stinkers (due to its May release date, Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace ended up my first new movie in a cinema, post-commencement), it’s now considered an above-average year for film akin to 1939 (The Wizard of OzGone With The WindStagecoach), 1967 (The GraduateBonnie and ClydeIn The Heat of The Night) or 1974 (ChinatownThe Godfather Part IIYoung Frankenstein.) Brian Rafferty’s 2019 book Best. Movie. Year. Ever. made an extensive case for enshrining it; even before the year itself ended, Entertainment Weekly ran a somewhat hyperbolic but enthusiastic cover story titled “1999: The Year That Changed Movies”.

For proof, look no further than to ElectionThe Straight StoryBeing John MalkovichThe Sixth SenseMagnoliaThe Talented Mr. RipleyThree Kings and All About My Mother. Consider lesser-seen cult pictures such as The LimeyRatcatcherThe Iron GiantAmerican MovieJudy BerlinDickTopsy-Turvy and Jesus’ Son. Don’t forget expert popcorn entertainment like Galaxy QuestOffice Space and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. I could even make an argument for films I personally don’t care for (Fight ClubEyes Wide Shut) that nonetheless were positively received and part of the zeitgeist. Heck, one could even stump for The Blair Witch Project, which I never need see again but can’t ignore the seismic impact it had at the time. (As for that year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, American Beauty, I suspect it’s aged as poorly as most would claim in the Me Too, post-Spacey scandal era, but I might be into revisiting it in maybe another decade.)

It’s difficult to explain why so many important films came out that year. One could look to pre-millennium tension/anticipation, arguing that directors and studios were simply inspired to get this product out before century’s end, but I don’t think that’s all of it. Call it coincidental or a reflection of rapid technological and social change brought on by that newish invention, the Internet or maybe just the optimism of an upwardly mobile era; in any case, 1999 was (by COVID-era standards) a great time to be alive and a bountiful year for cinema. I took advantage of it, seeing as many new films as an impoverished 24-year-old could afford. Whether checking out new stuff at Kendall Square Cinema, Coolidge Corner Theatre and the now long-gone Nickelodeon near BU or older gems at the Brattle, Harvard Film Archive and Museum of Fine Arts, I kept up with most notable mainstream and arthouse titles, even if I had to wait until a few reached the then-second run Somerville Theatre or video stores (I’ve only seen The Matrix once, stoned at a friend’s apartment.)

No longer subject to required viewing, I paid more attention to new films than I had as a student, even making my first year-end top ten list in 2000 (although I could’ve easily done one for 1999.) Actually, it included a few titles technically from 1999 that didn’t receive a local theatrical release until well into the new year: Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us (#2), Eric Mendelsohn’s now-long-unavailable and mostly forgotten Judy Berlin (#3, and also the iconic Madeline Kahn’s final film) and Zhang Yimou’s Not One Less (#7) are all copyrighted 1999 but were first accessible to most American audiences the next year. This is a perennial issue for the local or amateur critic: Is Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love the best picture of 2000 or should I still consider it for my 2001 list, for I couldn’t possibly see it in Boston until March of that year?

The number one film on my 2000 list falls under the same conundrum: it first played Boston in June of said year although it premiered at the Venice Film Festival the previous September; its first domestic screening was at Sundance in January. This sort of delayed release cycle is particularly vexing when making a best-of decade list: does it belong in the 1990s or, due to such circumstances, qualify as a 2000s-eligible film? These are the kinds of questions that spark debate and keep film geeks like myself up at night, but no matter: Beau Travail, the fifth feature from French director Claire Denis, is, depending on what criteria I use, my top film of 2000 or 1999 or one of my favorites from the 90s or the 00s.

Born in Paris, 1946, Denis grew up in colonial French Africa due to her father’s work as a civil servant. Her first feature, Chocolat (1988) is purportedly influenced by her childhood as it centers on a French woman looking back to her childhood in French Cameroon and the bond she developed as a ten-year-old with Protée (Isaac de Bankolé), her family’s African servant. Denis’ next three narrative features all either focus on Africans living in France or include at least one significant character of that persuasion. None of these films found as much of an American audience as Chocolat but they marked an artistic progression as Denis subverted other genres (the thriller in 1994’s I Can’t Sleep) and took on such unlikely subjects as amateur cockfighting (1990’s No Fear, No Die.)

Good word of mouth from critics I read such as Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman gradually accumulated in the months between Beau Travail’s Sundance premiere and domestic theatrical release. They raved about the performances, the conceptual savvy of interpolating Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and its brilliant cinematography among other facets. Most significant, though, was how Denis assembled it all into a complete work of art that was referential and recognizable but also something original and bold. You can bet I bought a ticket to see it on the Coolidge’s main screen opening weekend. In my estimation, it lived up to all the hype even if I didn’t fully understand everything it was trying to do—the narrative flashback structure likely went over my head during that first viewing. Really, it was how nearly overstimulated yet blissfully satiated I felt while piecing together the images and sounds onscreen, the ways they informed and occasionally contrasted against each other and how tension accumulated throughout, reaching a breaking point only to find its unlikely release at the end.

Beau Travail (which roughly translates in English as “Good Work”) finds Denis returning to the continent of her youth, following an ethnically diverse troop of the French Foreign Legion in Djibouti, a country in the Horn of Africa bordering the Red Sea. Mostly told in flashback, the film’s POV is of Galoup (Denis Lavant) in the present day from his tiny, sparse apartment in Marseille. Pushing 40, Galoup is a Legion lifer; in Djibouti, he was in charge of a section of a dozen legionnaires while also serving under his mentor, Commandant Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor, who played an identically named character (minus the title) in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat decades before.) Galoup spends his days in the desert leading his section in training exercises such as aggressive calisthenics and challenging obstacle courses (like jumping over hurdles and fences and in and out of deep pits.) At night, he and his men visit the closest village’s chintzy but well-attended disco, dancing with and romancing the local women. 

This would seem a conflict-free existence, stationed on a remote edge of the world during peacetime. However, the arrival of a young recruit Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin) upsets the fine balance Galoup has indefinitely maintained. At once, he’s suspicious of the tall, charming, handsome-verging-on-gawky Sentain and the attention everyone pays him. Galoup also admits to some jealousy: “Sentain seduced everyone; he attracted stares,” he reminisces from Marseille without entirely clarifying why this bothered him so much. Did Sentain’s being the center of attention simply shift focus and authority away from him? Perhaps something deeper was festering, his envy a manifestation of a contained desire. Within this troop, it wouldn’t be without precedent. When Sentain later informs Forestier, “I was found in a stairwell” regarding his provenance, the Commandant responds, “Well, at least it was a nice find.”

It’s tempting to paint Galoup and Forestier as repressed homosexuals and leave it at that, but I don’t believe that’s entirely what Denis was going for here. Sure, she physically depicts the often-shirtless young male legionnaires as god-like specimens—one training exercise even consists of them in groups of two, violently “hugging” each other repeatedly as a means of attack (or maybe saving the other from harm?) On first viewing, I thought it was one of the gayest things I’d ever seen onscreen. Perhaps if a gay man such as Kenneth Anger or Derek Jarman had made the film, then such homoeroticism would be undeniable. As a woman, however, Denis suggests other interpretations. The body positivity of an all-male principal cast may be homoerotic by default, but with Denis at the helm, one also can consider the female gaze—a radical concept in itself because we simply don’t see it anywhere nearly as often as its male equivalent.

Whether Galoup really wants to fuck Sentain is also less relevant than the disruption of power the film explores as an adaptation of Billy Budd. In Melville’s novella, the young, titular character, a sailor, strikes and kills an officer who has falsely accused him of mutiny. In Beau Travail, the Budd figure (Sentain) hits the officer (Galoup) after the latter severely punishes another soldier for a petty offense and yet, he does not kill him. Instead, Galoup reverses the table when he reprimands Sentain by dropping him off in the middle of the desert with a faulty compass, essentially leaving him to die. When found out, Galoup is discharged from the Legion and shipped back to Marseille, thoroughly stripped from the purpose sustaining his identity and life.

It’s a story ripe for Greek tragedy, tracking Galoup’s hubris, his inability to adapt or see beyond the prescribed duties and goals he’s set for himself and how one poor decision bites him in the ass and essentially ruins life as he sees it. Yet little about Beau Travail feels heavy-handed or excessively downbeat, not even with the ostentatious strains of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd opera woven throughout the soundtrack. In fact, that grandiosity becomes absurd in this context as it plays over men training to fight in a nonexistent war—men often rendered as insignificant specks in an extreme, beautiful, cruel landscape on an edge of the world, teeming with wide swatches of deep blue skies, sparkling, cerulean seas and a whole lot of nothing. This sort of irony runs rampant through the film but at an elevated, artful level. We’re both encouraged to register the utter pointlessness of a military in peacetime but also understand what it means, what palpable value it holds for souls like Galoup who don’t care to know anything else.

If Denis’ longtime cinematographer Agnes Godard is responsible for the film’s spectacular look (nearly each frame stuns in its use of mise en scene and/or negative space), then Lavant gives Beau Travail its soul—not an easy proposition since Galoup is such an internal, closed-off figure. Best known for a trio of films made with director Leos Carax (The Lovers On The Bridge), Levant, with his short, wiry frame and pockmarked face already cut a distinctive figure only enhanced by his acrobatic approach and kinetic fury. Since Galoup is nearly the opposite of all that, Levant’s performance exhibits a fascinating duality. Even as he’s all decorum and procedure on the outside, his interior monologue (the decision for him to narrate in voiceover is an effective one) has more the demeanor of a boiling yet closed-off teakettle. Upon first seeing Sentain, he says, “I felt something vague and menacing take hold of me.” Later, rather menacingly backlit against a bonfire, he notes to himself, “We all have a trashcan deep within.” One senses that Galoup’s own can is fairly cavernous, full of so many things he can’t dare openly express or act upon.

When he does act, it goes all wrong. Upon his banishment to Marseille, he retells the story of how he got there in his mind while doing what he can to adhere to the sort of highly structured regiment the Legion provided and required. He meticulously makes his bed with hospital/military corners and painstakingly irons his dress shirt as if preparing a Papal garment. He lies down on that flawlessly made bed, a gun in hand across his stomach. One can easily guess his intent, to end a life that has no longer carries any purpose. Another filmmaker might’ve concluded with him pulling the trigger, or a quick cut to black just before. Instead, as the camera captures the small pulse of his bicep, music fades in from the background—Corona’s Eurodance diva house hit “The Rhythm of The Night” from a few years before, its big beat thumping along with Galoup’s pulse.

Then, a cut—not to black, but to Galoup standing alone in a familiar location, the chintzy Djibouti village nightclub. He’s cladded in a black dress shirt, a cigarette dangling from his fingers. He stands still, almost nonchalant against a diagonally mirrored wall adorned with colored blinking lights. The Corona song plays loudly as Galoup takes a few steps, walking around the dancefloor as if scoping out the scene. The camera occasionally moves with him but does not cut. In time, he does a little twirl, reacting to the energetic beat and the music’s joie de vivre. Each movement he makes is deliberate yet feels effortless. Eventually, he almost organically transforms into a whirling dervish, dancing as fast as he can, like a man on fire embracing the flames as they consume him. After a cut to black, with the film’s ensemble cast names appearing one by one on a black screen, we return to Galoup, standing still again before immediately diving back into his frenzy, rolling around on the floor, in and out of the frame.

It’s one of the most astonishing endings in cinema—as entirely unexpected and abstract as anything by Tarkovsky or Kiarostami but a whole lot more fun. Is dancing on his own in an empty nightclub Galoup’s final vision before his death, or might it be his ideal afterlife? We’ll never know for sure; what matters is how it serves as a means for him to release all the tension, repression, guilt, desire, irritation, madness, etc. that he had built up over a lifetime. Suddenly, it makes perfect sense to cast Levant as such a constipated soul if he’s given this climax, this chance to burn it all off onscreen not through self-harm or acting out against another body but in a mad tango with himself on the dancefloor. It may be a fantasy, but it also transcends the idea of a fantasy sequence for how it flips the switch on Galoup—look who was hiding in plain sight all this time. His life is still tragic, for he can only achieve such transcendence alone. For Denis to share it with and in doing so completely take us by surprise, however, is where Beau Travail, like many other films from that era on the cusp of two centuries attains its singularity.

Essay #11 of 24 Frames.

Go back to #10: Close-Up.