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Slow, Original And (Increasingly) Powerful,
This review is from: Beau Travail [DVD] (DVD)
This 1999 film co-written and directed by Claire Denis is an original, slow moving, but mostly engrossing, account of masculine rivalry and jealousy occurring within the ranks of the French Foreign Legion. Although, for me, Denis is not entirely successful in her, at times, typically oblique storytelling approach, the film had an increasingly near-mesmerising effect on me, primarily because of its stunning (and innovative) look and feel. Cinematographer Agnes Godard does a great job mixing the more intimate moments of beautiful male physicality with some stunning desert landscapes, whilst the film's sparse use of music is also impressive (typical of Denis), with excerpts from Britten's opera Billy Budd (and from whose Melville novel of the same name Denis drew the inspiration for her narrative), plus the more modern sounds of Neil Young and 90s disco (The Rhythm Of The Night by Corona).
At the centre of Denis' film is the triumvirate of Denis Lavant's dour sergeant-major, Galoup, and his ('worshipped') Legion superior, Michel Subor's commandant Bruno Forestier, into whose midst comes new recruit Grégoire Colin's young Gilles Sentain, whose physical and mental prowess gradually rouses in Galoup feelings of jealousy. That, in a nutshell, is Beau Travail's entire storyline - a narrative with which Denis skilfully builds the tension (though, for me, without exploring adequately the reasons for Galoup's grudge against the 'interloper'). Dialogue here is at its most minimalist - I doubt there were more than 10 pages in the entire script. This doesn't help with the narrative, of course, but the acting is consistently impressive - what lines there are, are (often poetically) incisive ('Backstabbing isn't in the Legion's honour code', warns Forestier) and the film's visual appeal is never less than intriguing.
Denis and Godard depict the soldiers training routines with a mix of masculine endurance and homoeroticism, whether the Legionnaires be simply standing, hands raised in the North African desert winds, scuttling under barb-wire, precariously tight-rope walking or doing repeated press-ups. There are many other beautifully shot sequences, including that of Galoup and crew sparring underwater with knives and that of the troop digging terrain against a stunning sea and cliff backdrop, plus many brilliantly fusing music and visuals, including that of soldiers marching to Neil Young's song Safeway Cart and (unusually) the 'nightclubbing' military dancing to an infectious beat at a local disco. At the film's conclusion, as well as including (yet) another stunning sequence of Sentain's banishment to the desert (following Galoup's provocation), Denis also brings the film's (always present) undercurrent of colonialism to the fore as Galoup stares at a bust of de Gaulle in a Paris bar, before concluding with his amazing dance sequence (as brilliant as it is surprising).