(Dir. Claire Denis, France, 1999)
“Maybe freedom begins with remorse,” former Sgt. Galoup (Denis Lavant) ponders shortly before taking his own life. Discharged from the French military following a heinous act rooted in jealousy, the morose sergeant lives out the remainder of his banal existence in Marseilles far removed from the battalion he once led in eastern Africa. Regret consumes him, and memories of his previous, neatly ordered life fill his thoughts. Claire Denis’ Beau travail begins and ends with the wandering thoughts of this troubled, tragic figure. Somewhat of a breakthrough film for Denis, Beau travail finds the filmmaker, now an august staple of art cinema, exploring the depths of Galoup’s psyche relying very little on dialogue and expanding the possibilities of visual narrative. It also serves as a meditation on such disparate themes as abandonment, jealousy, guilt, and subtle eroticism.
Denis tells Galoup’s story through lengthy flashbacks set in the African nation Djibouti revealing the director’s penchant and knack for capturing alluring imagery. The sergeant, strictly adherent to the order of military life, strives to control everything around him. He precisely irons his clothes, meticulously sets tables for meals, and obsesses over making a neat bed. When new recruits are sent to join his legion, Galoup’s perfect world comes under attack in the form of the young, handsome, lean yet muscular, Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin). Galoup immediately dislikes Sentain admitting envy over the soldier’s character and popularity. Despite his obvious disapproval of the new recruit, the sergeant keeps Sentain close to him at all times; whether through drills or meals, the young legionnaire remains within his grasp.
Exquisitely crafting this story, Denis opts to often imply action rather than show it – a night on the town that Galoup declares a “harbinger of things to come” finds Sentain gaining the approval of his comrades (though we don’t exactly learn why), or a cloud of orange smoke and floating wreckage stands in for a helicopter crash. Likewise, she allows tension to build using an effective, haunting down tempo soundtrack instead of through dialogue. In Beau travail, the image is king, and the filmmaker explores eroticism and potentially repressed homosexuality purely in a visual fashion. Her camera fixates on the male form whether her characters are wrestling underwater, engaged in calisthenics, digging, or showering.
When Sentain wins the approval of Galoup’s commanding officer Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor) through an act of heroism, the sergeant’s jealousy is brought to its tipping point. “Sentain seduced everyone,” he later reflects. Determined to rid his battalion of the legionnaire, Galoup leads his men far from the familiarity of their base to abandoned barricades up the coast under the guise of repairing a road. Here the tension comes to a head with a literal and metaphorical standoff between the two – the camera intoxicatingly swirls around these half-naked figures set to grandiose operatic music. A fight never breaks out, but Galoup’s decision has been made and Sentain’s fate sealed. The sergeant sets a trap for the young soldier: he severely punishes a fellow legionnaire for purportedly abandoning his post one night by forcing him to dig a hole till his hands bleed. Expectedly, Sentain defies Galoup’s injustice attempting to give the man water. The sergeant kicks it away and slaps him across the face. After Sentain retaliates with a fist to the face, Galoup hurriedly drives the soldier into the middle of the desert with a faulty compass and leaves him there to die.
Court-marshaled and discharged for his action, Galoup winds up back in France and never sees his victim again. Denis relieves our anxieties by including shots of Djibouti wanderers rescuing Sentain from his inevitable death, but the sergeant is never privy to this revelation. Instead, tortured by guilt and incapable of coping having been stripped of his post, Galoup chooses to end his life. Denis ends her film with the former sergeant’s decision (off-screen) then transitions to one of the most delightfully unexpected finales in cinematic history. The filmmaker cuts from Galoup lying in bed clutching his pistol to a shot of him standing alone on the dance floor of an empty nightclub. After hesitantly folding his arms, Galoup lets loose and starts to dance. His increasingly wild moves belie the rigidity of his serious demeanor that he carries for the vast majority of the film. It’s a beautiful, if not still somewhat ambiguous, metaphor for the release of death. No longer bound by the order that ruled his actions during life, Galoup embraces the fluidity and rhythm of whatever world awaits him.
Claire Denis’ Beau travail cannot readily be reduced to one of its varying themes. In a way, this serves as one of the film’s greatest strengths. Like an intricate painting, it relies on viewer perception and interpretation of its visual narrative. Her film could be about one man’s intense jealousy that ultimately consumes him. It could be an exploration of homoeroticism and the forbidden attraction between men in the military. Or, it could be about the consequences of reckless abandonment: Galoup deserting Sentain, the military dismissing Galoup, even an abandoned continent marred by the effects of colonialism. The director explores each of these in turn and offers no conclusions. Her aesthetic is daringly unique, and Beau travail stands as an important chapter in her mighty oeuvre that continually pushes the boundary of cinematic narration.