Thoughts on: Claire Denis’ ‘Beau Travail’ (1999)

Grégoire Colin in Beau Travail

I guess the ultimate irony of that title is throughout the whole of this movie the guys that we spend so much time staring at don’t actually do any good work at all. Sure, they do a lot. They’re always running drills and exercising and patrolling the community, but it’s peacetime in Djibouti, and they’re stationed as the remnant of the remnant of the remnant of a colonialist force that the country has all but discarded.

Denis spends a lot of time with her camera trained upon the locals, observing how their lives are lived with purpose, while the soldiers at this movie’s centre struggle to find enough meaning to fill their days. They are small men, hoping that being set against the wide backdrop of Africa’s brush will be enough to make them seem large.

A large concern of war cinema is to pose the question ‘what makes a true solider?’ Usually these films are supposed to be bland and patriotic and answer with the same sortsa platitudes about conviction and courage and all that, the anti-war ones tend to veer off hard in the other direction — if a true soldier is an implement of war, then the best must be those that can be best sanded down into the cog required for the machine to run.

This film’s response is just to shrug and admit that well, none of these folks are real soldiers. They look the part, and can act the part, but a part’s all it is. They are real soldiers playing pretend at the type of soldiers that they really wanna be.

No wonder they’re all so obsessed with the aesthetics of the thing. Perfectly cut bodies, uniform pressed, shoes shined, beds made. If there’s no actions available to define you then you’re sure as hell gonna project the right image.

And that troubles Denis Lavant’s Chief Galoup because for some reason he can’t explain his image is wrong. He can’t socialise with the men easily, he feels detached from his girlfriend, he becomes obsessed with Grégoire Colin’s Sentain, who seemingly manages to make himself the part effortlessly. He sets on a long slow campaign to shame and exclude and ultimately try kill the man.

This is intercut with his life back in France, having been kicked out of the army and writing a memoir to try understand why it was that he did these things. His own impulses seem to escape him, but the way that the camera emulates his gaze as it lingers on the flesh of the men in his command is undeniable.

Long sections, accompanied sometimes by opera, sometimes just the scuffle of footfall and the sound of the men, become visual poetry — the sight of bodies in motion. It’s important maybe that it ends on long still shots of disco dancing, a body in a rare moment of freedom in which it does not feel constrained or manipulated by the medium of film itself.

Maybe it is not an invitation to find meaning at all, more a shrug of acceptance that there’s none to be found. Not in what these men are doing there, not in what they decide to do while there. Part of Denis’ thing is that she grew up in an around Africa, the daughter of some diplomat, and she perfectly captures the colonialist’s placelessness in the world that isn’t their own.

One of it’s strongest critiques comes when Galoup drags his men out to the desert, admitting through voiceover that out there they would pretend to build a road. Throughout it all no objection is raised, why would they? Pretend is all this is to them and yet it keeps costing all these lives.

The boring thing that old men argue is that it’s all worth it, helps men find their position in life. But does it, is it? Whenever we talk about good action it’s always the choreography, heck the amount of John Wick reviews on here that call it balletic.

This film openly admits it. Focuses on the bright and beautiful and homoerotic, those bits of ourselves that society dictates we aren’t allowed to find in such environments. I’m sure it might be an unspoken fear for many: what if you eventually got home and realised that all you missed were the men?

Beau Travail is currently available to stream as a part of Mubi’s season on the films of Claire Denis.

Grégoire Colin in Beau Travail

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