‘Beau Travail’ depicts the military through the female gaze
Elizabeth Gregory | Friday, September 11, 2020
A stunning remaster of Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail” was released to streaming services Sep. 4. On Tuesday, this incredible Blu-ray version will join the Criterion Collection. The 1999 triumph is an overdue addition to Criterion’s canon-setting cinematic collection. Amidst charges of tone deafness and curation driven by white men, the choice of “Beau Travail” for the September Collection is safe but not in any way unwelcome.
“Beau Travail” has been difficult to acquire over the last 10 years. This 4K restoration comes on the heels of Denis’ 2019 film “High Life,” starring Robert Pattinson. The remaster of “Beau Travail” essentially sharpens and enlivens the film, highlighting its deep sensuality in 4K.
Denis has been widely lauded as one of the greatest working filmmakers right now. Barry Jenkins, director of “Moonlight,” happens to be one of her many fans. The influence of “Beau Travail” on “Moonlight” is clear. Both unfold with vibrant sensuality, suppressed eroticism and tender portrayals of masculinity.
“Beau Travail” focuses on a French Legion stationed in Djibouti. Denis brings an interesting and sensitive portrayal to her depiction of French imperialism because of her childhood years spent in West Africa at the “end of the colonial era.” The movie adapts Herman Melville’s posthumously released novella “Billy Budd, Sailor.”
“Beau Travail” also references a previous adaption, the opera of the same name by Benjamin Britten and E.M. Forster. The music from this opera makes its way into the movie in mystical and expansive ways, most strikingly as the soldiers hold tai chi poses in the desert. The scene takes on a religious, powerful and sensual weight imbued with all the force of the previous operatic version of “Billy Budd.”
Though the movie unfolds primarily in visual language, the narrative generally revolves around two characters. Sentain, a young new addition to the Legion, is the envy and hate of his adjutant, Galoup. Galoup is rough, isolated and brutish. His reality seems fragmented between his time in France, his girlfriend in the village and his duties with the Legion. Something about Sentain’s youth, charm, elegance and compassion destabilizes the egotistical walls Galoup has built around his identity. Galoup processes this insecurity slyly and cruelly, at one point implicating Sentain to the Commander and later scheming his ultimate destruction.
The film’s strength lies in what it does silently and subtly. The framing and directing master the eroticism that underlies the narrative. Nowhere else do bodies move so entrancingly and reveal so much about the story. With lyrical clarity, Denis is able to transmit sexual tension and brimming conflict. The pockmarked face of Galoup glares up at the towering figure of Sentain, and in that glance all is known. In the final moments, the tension finally bursts. In a matter of two scenes, all the silly repression of Galoup — and the white army in general — explodes into passion, chaos and revolt. It is quite simply unforgettable.
Denis’ film does something extraordinarily radical. It depicts masculinity through the female gaze. In doing so, “Beau Travail” captures ego, violence, repression and isolation with a gentle eroticism. This enlivens a harsh and masculine story with awe and intimacy. In a world where male depictions of the female experience in cinema abound, Denis’ unique voice deserves and demands 90 minutes of your time.
Movie: “Beau Travail”
Director: Claire Denis
Starring: Denis Lavant, Grégoire Colin, Michel Subor
If you like: “Moonlight,” “High Life”
Shamrocks: 5 out of 5