Beau Travail (1999) – Movie Review

Director:  Claire Denis
Writers: Jean-Pol Fargeau, Claire Denis
Starring: Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, Grégoire Colin
Runtime: 90 minutes
Rating: PG

Based on Herman Mellville’s novella Billy Budd, Beau Travail is a film that has delighted critics and spectators since its realease back in 1999. With time, the piece only becomes more interesting, and as filmmaking changes it’s ways, this film remains as a reminder of originality and visual innovation. Claire Denis’s story about a French troop of legionnaires is slow and taciturn, but absolutely compelling and worthy of exploration.

Beau Travail tells the story of Seargeant Galoup (Denis Lavant), a reserved, quiet, and disciplined man who leads a troop of French legionnaires in their camp in the arid country of Dijibouti. Extremely fond of his superior Commander Bruno Forrestier (Michel Subor), Galoup becomes troubled when Forrestier begins to pour his esteem on young Legionnaire Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin). This attention sparks friction between Galoup and Senain, and their conflicted relationship becomes the catalyst and driving force for the resolution of the film.

Beau Travail

The score and cinematography in Beau Travail are a match made in heaven. The training sequences of the troupe are simply remarkable, and they show Denis’s talent and capacity for capturing unique sights. The hyper masculine ideals of war are mixed with graceful and fluid movements that border on the sensual and make for a terribly desirable vision. The sequences in the club where the local women dance in front of a mirror are hypnotic, and they give the final scene of Seargeant Galoup a much more interesting angle than it would have had on its own. The music chosen in these club scenes is also interesting, since it gives the film a completely different feeling from the scenes when soldiers are training.  Although the landscape through most of the film is dry and empty, visually, the film is everything but this. The shots are interesting and beautiful, and make the film worth watching just to be able to see them.

Beau Travail

Beau Travail is one of Denis’s most cryptic pieces. Understanding the story without any outside reference is difficult, and relations between characters are unclear; it is one of those pieces that becomes clearer the more you watch it. This fact doesn’t detract from the merit of the film, but it could somewhat prevent total immersion in the work. Since it is based in a novel, perhaps reading the book first would make things clearer to the spectator, but it is certainly entertaining to try to figure out the nuances with just the information provided by Denis. A lot of the film relies on the characters’s faces and expressions, but the very fact that this group is a military troop makes them even more difficult to read. While Sentain is beautiful and mysterious, he is young and his face reveals some sort of emotion, but reading Sergeant Galoup is nearly impossible. Lavant’s stern face is perfect for the character, and it is his alluring demeanour that drives the film and keeps the spectator wondering in which ways he will act next. Although many of the characters have very limited and measured expressions and reactions, the acting in the film is excellent. The troop as a whole work great together, and the dynamics between Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, and Grégoire Colin are very engaging.

Beau Travail

In the arid landscapes of Dijibouti, this story unfolds with reticent characters and a plot that is hard to follow and understand on first viewing. The film as a whole, however, is everything but dry and reserved. Beau Travail has ample gifts to give as a sensory experience, and sound and image come together to create a mesmerizing work that is sure to continue impressing critics and enchanting viewers. Whether or not you are an old Claire Denis fan rediscovering her work, or simply someone looking to expand your knowledge of French cinema, Beau Travail is the perfect way to start, or end.