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French director screens powerful film

Allie Tollaksen | Thursday, November 15, 2012

Critically acclaimed French director Claire Denis appeared on campus Tuesday evening to screen and discuss her film “Beau Travail” as part of the Nanovic Institute’s ongoing film series. The 1999 film was met with an incredible amount of acclaim upon its release, winning the National Society of Film Critics Awards in 2000 and receiving the highest ratings from publications like “Rolling Stone.”
Denis originally began work on “Beau Travail” after being approached in Paris by television producers to make a film about “foreignness.” As a daughter of a French civil servant, she had grown up in in French colonial Africa, but said she never felt like a foreigner.
“I was not a foreigner,” Denis said of her life in Cameroon. “I was home, in a way. Everyone was speaking French there.”
She decided that her new project would focus on the French Foreign Legion, a wing of the French military comprised of men from many different countries who serve and eventually gain French citizenship. The Legion recruits men from countries all around the world, and Denis summarized the aims of most involved in the Legion, stating, “When you run away from your country, you get a passport to your new life.”
The story is centered on a small troop of the Legion receiving training from their sergeant, Galoup (Denis Lavant, in an incredible performance), in the deserts of Djibouti.
When a heroic and charismatic new soldier, Sentain (Grégoire Colin), joins the troop, Galoup feels immediately threatened. Tensions between the two men grow throughout the movie, leading to the sergeant’s eventual demise.
“The fiction became a sort of derivation of ‘Billy Budd,'” said Denis, referring to Herman Melville’s novella that takes place aboard a British Royal Navy ship.
Denis not only incorporated the general theme of story, but also included music from Benjamin Britten’s opera, “Billy Budd,” based on Melville’s novella.
While Beau Travail’s plot focuses on two characters in the Legion, Sentain and Galoup, the film is comprised mostly of scenes of the troop’s vigorous training and striking images of Djibouti. This way, French presence in Africa becomes a character in itself. The cinematography, done by award-winner Agnés Godard, gives the audience sweeping pans of the desert, plenty of wide, distant shots of the Legion’s routine for most of the film, and unexpected angles during dialogue.
The style of the film at first seems extremely monotonous – dialogue is virtually nonexistent, and scenes of the men running around in the desert go on for almost uncomfortable lengths of time. But as the film continues, the combination of the Djiboutian landscape and the troop’s exercises paired with the striking “Billy Budd” opera music begins to look like a choreographed art piece rather than the slow-moving military drama one may have expected.
Denis described the making of the film and the conditions under which she and her cast worked, bringing to light how the film became what she calls “an almost abstract representation” of the French Foreign Legion. She had very few actors, a tight budget and four weeks to shoot. Her initial idea of having a realistic troop of 100 men turned into a small collection of fifteen actors. Denis shared that the film was shot without any professional lighting, and instead was lit by only the sun by day and car headlights at night.
Occasionally, all that can be seen in the dark scenes of the film are the butt of a lit cigarette or the occasional glare of a gun.
Denis focuses many of her films on, as Donald Crafton of the Nanovic Institute described, “the tensions, distractions, and absurdity the colonized life engenders.”
“Beau Travail” is certainly no exception. With a small budget, short filming period and relatively no equipment, Denis managed to turn a set of 15 men in a desert into a beautiful and haunting examination of both French presence in Africa as well as the intriguing “Billy Budd”-like relationship between the two main characters, chronicling the unraveling of Sergeant Galoup.
The film ends with a simple yet striking scene of Galoup dancing, letting loose and letting go of his time with the Legion. It is perhaps the most important scene in the film, and Clair Denis chose to introduce the movie rather than follow it with questions because she hoped the audience would leave “with the music in mind.”
Her introduction was enlightening and helpful in understanding the film, but her allowance of the audience to ultimately leave with their own thoughts is indicative of the power of the “Beau Travail” and Denis as its director.
Contact Allie Tollaksen at
atollaks@nd.edu