2000, NR, 90 min. Directed by Claire Denis. Starring Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, Grégoire Colin, Marta Tafesse Kassa.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 28, 2000
French Foreign Legionnaires work out under the glare of the hot East African desert sun. Their sinewy bodies are a choreography of muscular movement as they exercise and perform their drills. They go through their paces, day after day, keeping their bodies in a state of perpetual readiness, but for what we know not. There is little other activity in the scorching heat of Djibouti, and the austerity of these white and black military men contrasts markedly with the voluptuous naturalism of the African natives outside the Legionnaires' compound. Even the men's chores are performed with precision whether shaving, ironing the creases in their pants, or making their beds. The discipline that compels them is not onerous; in fact, the men seem to embrace the discipline as if it were a sacrament. There are few words spoken. Such is the climate of Claire Denis' French study of tonalities and beauty. As mesmerizing as the images are, it is difficult to isolate their meaning. Denis' story is inspired by Herman Melville's Billy Budd. Like the Melville story, Beau Travail (Good Work) recounts the experiences of a veteran of the military hierarchy who feels unaccountably challenged by the presence of a likable new recruit. Inherent in Denis' movie is its observation of how power functions among men. Observation is the correct word, too, for the dialogue is scant and the greater part of the story is told through its images and the voiceover of its narrator, Sgt. Galoup (Lavant). He, like the other Legionnaires, is a man removed from his country. But unlike the romantic idea of the French Foreign Legion being comprised of jilted lovers and wounded psyches, Beau Travail renders these men more enigmatic in their motives and drives. Their enclosed community of male rituals has a homoerotic undertone, although it stems more from the lyrical physicality of the director's images than from any actions by the characters. Women exist on the outskirts of the story and offer a stark counterpoint to this male enclave. Beau Travail is the most accomplished of all Denis' films, including Chocolat, I Can't Sleep, and Nénette and Boni. It is ruminative and mysterious, yet quite specific and immediately gratifying. The performances are strong although the characters are used as set-pieces, and the music ranges from opera to Neil Young to the explosive disco beat of “Rhythms of the Night.” Beau Travail is a stunning work of beauty, mystery, contemplation, and grit … and like sands through the desert hourglass, these are the days of our lives.