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Strangers in a Strange Land
on 12 August 2010
After recently watching Clair Denis's fine film "Chocolat", set in French Cameroon, which gave a vivid description of what it means to be a foreigner in an alien land, I decided to watch another of her films "Beau Travail". This film could almost be seen as a companion piece in the way that it follows such a similar theme. Clair Denis was raised in French Colonial Africa, so she has first hand experience of what it is to be a foreigner. She also happens to be an extremely gifted filmmaker, and is able tell more in 90 minutes than some directors are able to in a lifetime of trying. "Beau Travail" might easily be labelled by some as just more arthouse nonsense, but it rewards the patient and thoughtful viewer with great riches.
The film is based very loosely on Herman Melville's unfinished novella "Billy Budd", and actually uses music from Benjamin Bitten's opera of the same name. It also uses music by the greatly talented Neil Young, and some evocative African sounds. In this version Foreign Legionnaires replace the seamen of the original story. The wonderful, craggy faced Denis Lavant plays Sergeant Galoup, who becomes jealous when a new recruit Sentain gains the popularity of his peers and Galoup's senior Officer Bruno Forestier, played by Michel Subor, in a nod to his role of the same name in Jean-Luc Godard's "Le Petit Soldat". The young Gregoire Colin, in the Billy Budd role, plays Sentain. The legionnaires are based in the remote legion outpost of Djibouti on the horn of Africa, where the film was very impressively shot. Under the hot sun, envy begins to grow into hate in the heart of Galoup, leading to an act that will change his life and others forever.
First and foremost this is a film of tremendous visual beauty that few films are able to match. Just watching it without having understood a thing, would still be a riches enough. There are some magnificently choreographed scenes of torso flexing legionnaires, who are clearly not on a fish and chips diet, undertaking a variety of physical exercises to jaw dropping desert backdrops. It is easy to see why Denis chose the accomplished dancer Lavant for the role. Watch the films brilliant ending, and you will be able to judge how good a dancer he is for yourself. This little routine comes just after the films terrifically ambiguous ending! It is also clear that the other cast members were chosen for their agility as much as acting ability. These scenes of muscular youth reminded me much of Leni Riefenstahl's hymn to the athletic body, in her documentary film of the 1936 Summer Olympics "Olympia", especially the scenes of the divers. But perhaps most telling are the scenes showing bemused locals watching the legionnaires carry out their pointless exercise routines and tasks, whilst they continue as they always have in working to live. I was reminded of a scene in Terence Malick's "The Thin Red Line", when a nearly naked islander on the Pacific Island of Guadalcanal, passes a line of American troops fighting the Japanese in World War Two, as he continues with his hunting. One knows that when the troops are gone the land will once again go back to the likes of him. The foreigners will inevitably return to their own lands from whence they came!
This is a film of striking imagery that long lingers in the mind. Watching the athletic legionnaires in the almost alien like landscape I was reminded of the science fiction story "Stranger in a strange Land". In fact Sentain resembles the Christ like main character of that novel in many ways. I have a good friend who served in the Foreign Legion, and who happened to be stationed in Djibouti. He is now back in England, which is of course his home, the reality of the legion being far different to the crushed dreams. Denis astutely observes that after all the wars and occupation, in time we will simply revert back to the role of a tourist if we are lucky. A film of great beauty that should be watched.