In English, “Beau Travail” translates out to “good work,” which is the perfect way to describe what one is to expect from what the characters do in Beau Travail. Claire Denis’s film Beau Travail is one that embraces how it feels to have achieved something that truly happens to be so great, but also the jealousy that would come forth especially from a field that is often touted for being the greatest service to humanity. But Claire Denis makes a different sort of film about the military, one that many others wouldn’t ever manage to come close to creating because it’s an angle that often seems to be unfamiliar to films with similar subject matter. If there’s anything else to be said, it’s also what makes the work of Claire Denis every bit as hypnotic as it is, for you’re sitting there watching her strip down masculinity to its bare bones in order to make one of the best films about repressed emotions and their effect on the human condition. It’s a film that’s so beautiful for its own nakedness, but among the many hypnotic qualities that Beau Travail carries they neither stop nor end there.
Loosely adapted from Herman Melville’s final novel Billy Budd, Beau Travail tells the story of soldiers from the French Foreign Legion in Djibouti. Told through the recollections of Galoup (Denis Lavant), a former officer, we get a clear picture of the reputation that he has established for himself: a tough leader who takes no compromise from his own troop. But despite this, jealousy starts to build on the inside from him the arrival of a new recruit by the name of Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Collin) – a man noted for his physical beauty, one that soon casts a shadow over the once glorious life that Galoup recalls himself having once lived. In her lens, Claire Denis already gets you to feel the jealousy as it slowly finds itself building on the inside of a man who seemingly has a position of power over others. But with a title that translates to “good work” in English, you also have the perfect setup for where the jealousy can start. Everything all finds itself amounting to how much work one can put into doing what they do best, and Beau Travail tells a story of the effect that dedication can place upon oneself, as it slowly turns obsessive.
Claire Denis’s camera is one that observes the jealousy as it takes over our own instincts, but even in less than an hour and a half, what she shows us here is a certain poignancy that most other films of the sort would not have tapped into. You’re already shown paradise in a visual sense, for the cinematography has you absorbed into what the beauty of the area would look like even if there’s so little else that goes on elsewhere – but it’s also the perfect place for everything else to unfold on the inside. But even without any gunfire present, there’s so much that Claire Denis already establishes as a battlefield on the outside and yet the real battle is one that takes place in a more psychological sense as Galoup slowly becomes even more jealous of Sentain’s presence. As a result, there’s another layer of homoeroticism that shows itself all the more clearly because Denis unveils the repressed emotions building on the inside of Galoup’s mind, as they slowly ruin himself more and more. It’s the notion that he can’t ever find himself in this position that empowered him anymore that already feels threatening to him, but even he finds himself imprisoned by that dedication towards what he does too – and a perfect tragedy is formed.
But taking the text of Melville and recontextualizing it to the setting that Claire Denis has applied it to also shows yet another sort of mastery from the auteur especially when one familiarizes themselves with Melville’s writing style. It’s one that always unfolds in smaller details as they fill up the pages extensively, but Claire Denis gives it another lens that makes the story unfold in a more personal sense. Listening to Galoup’s voice as it tells you what’s going on in a land that does not belong to these men also leaves you with a more introspective perspective of what’s happening in front of your eyes. But Denis still sticks towards Melville’s highly descriptive writing style when letting her own take on male insecurities even in these positions of leadership unfold on the screen, as it adapts beautifully. It all creates a feeling of being imprisoned, as we observe everything from these perspectives in a very voyeuristic light for Claire Denis also knows that there’s something ready to provoke one’s own senses from simply being in the area. You just feel the regrets building up on the inside as they manifest into your worst qualities, but you know where moments like these can strike you at your core.
When talking about the famous final sequence of the movie, this is where Claire Denis’s themes come clear. Even from the setting you ask yourself all about what it is that these men simply want to achieve, for they only are under the idea that what they are doing is nothing more than simply “good work.” In the film’s final sequence, you only see nothing but pure self-expression as one realizes their own freedom. But it also comes out at a moment where the catharsis has already built itself to a boiling point and this is where being free can take yourself because this ending sequence finds Denis at a more expressive point in her own story. It’s another side to Galoup that we have been waiting to see the whole time, and he finally has a chance to let it out – but even before that moment, the very image we see beforehand is one that stings in a more haunting manner. It’s a moment that takes you in awe because you’re wondering if Galoup had truly ever found himself feeling happy doing what he claims beforehand had made him feel that way.
There’s a transfixing experience to be had with Beau Travail that would already be difficult to capture in words, it’s something that just must be seen in order to be believed for what it is. The real battlefield in Claire Denis’s eyes is not one where shots are continuously fired, but one that also takes place because of the jealousy that one builds on the inside when they feel their work is being threatened in one way or another. But the expressive nature of Beau Travail is also what makes every moment of it so beautiful, because Claire Denis unveils something more beneath the masculinity in a field that only ever builds itself upon these aspects of life. You just feel it all on the inside, even without an explicit sight, you already feel that tension building between Galoup and Sentain as these repressed thoughts come to light. But it also brings into focus Denis’s fixation with human skin, for that’s all one needs in order to provoke the homoerotic atmosphere all throughout. And Denis has you feeling the aftereffects of the denial, but it’s also the perfect deconstruction of the masculine psyche as those feeling linger with you for a long while. Putting it lightly, Claire Denis is a master of her craft, and Beau Travail isn’t only one of the pinnacle achievements of her career but of its own time – just like the rhythm of the night.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Pyramide Distribution.
Directed by Claire Denis
Screenplay by Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, from Billy Budd by Herman Melville
Produced by Patrick Grandperret
Starring Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, Grégoire Colin
Release Date: 1999
Running Time: 90 minutes