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This film focuses on ex-Foreign Legion officer, Galoup, as he recalls his once glorious life, leading troops in the Gulf of Djibouti. His existence there was happy, strict and regimented, but the arrival of a promising young recruit, Sentain, plants the seeds of jealousy in Galoup's mind. He feels compelled to stop him from coming to the attention of the commandant who he admires, but who ignores him. Ultimately, his jealousy leads to the destruction of both Sentain and himself. Written by
L.H. Wong <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Like all Claire Denis films, 'Beau Travail' demands constant vigilance and flexibility, never exactly forswearing narrative - there IS a plot here - but concentrating less on its mechanics than on the bits in between, the everyday rituals normally excised from the screen, a precise meditation on the landscape in which it is set, a rhythmic treatment of the titled beau travail, all seemingly irrelevant to the narrative, but making it inevitable, a linear narrative in a world of endless, pointless circles.
Like 'Once Upon A Time In America', 'Travail' opens with a sequence of seemingly random, unconnected sequences eventually bound together in an overpowering organising consciousness. A shot of a silhouetted mural of soldiers marching over craggy rocks, which look like waves, an appropriately Melvillean image, with Foreign Legion chants blared over them. The highly stylised rendering of a nightclub, which seems tiny, austere, minimally decorated, with lighting reflecting the rhythm of the music, and the soldiers between the local African women, their movements notably stilted, ritualised. The officer seated alone. The vast African landscape, a coastal desert, with abandoned phallic tanks, site of a military exercise, a group of topless men in rigid poses against the immemorial sand and sea, classical heroes. An unseen hand writing. A train travelling through the landscape as we follow someone's view out the window. The same point of view after the train has moved.
These images do have an independent function. They begin a pattern of dualities that are continued and complicated throughout the film leading to the eventual climax, always inscrutably observed by a third strand, Forestier, former informer turned commandant - water/desert; soldiers/locals; men/women; landscape/human; indoors/outdoors; play/work etc. But this is an army, and these disparate elements must be controlled, as they are, by Galoup, the sergeant. As the film opens, he embodies civilisation - he writes while others cannot communicate; he is the subject who sees, interprets, explains, while everyone else is an object in his narrative; he wears clothes while his soldiers go round naked; he is an all-seeing God who can decide men's fate, while these men are unthinking robots, sleepwalking through time-honoured rites.
The irony is that, because of all this, Galoup, the defender of discipline and convention, is the film's real outsider, not the mysterious Russian he seeks to expel, a man who learns another language to fit in, who quickly becomes one of the boys, who will defend his friends at the risk of his own death.
Is this why Galoup abhors him, his humanity in this mechanistic unit of marital discipline? Unlikely; Galoup is the only 'human' character in the film, it's difficult to tell individual soldiers, even Sentain. After all, that 's what the Foreign Legion, in popular terms anyway, is all about: a refuge for the hunted, somewhere to hide your identity and past, become part of an anonymous mass.
For me, though, there is something missing. For all the cool gazing on the masculine body, the absorbed interest in these very physical rituals, in the feminising of their military discipline (eg ironing; repeating the same tasks day in, day out, like housewives); there is a lack of the homoerotic charge lurching through Melville and Britten. The gaze of the camera is, of course, Galoup's, the narrative a visualising of what he writes; and when he lies on the bed with his gun near the end, we can't tell whether the gesture will be onanistic or suicidal. The rushed, hallucinatory climax, full of Leonesque stand-offs and ellipses, are framed by a shot of Galoup asleep, and a blazing white light when he awakes, as if he, like Noodles, has dreamed the whole thing, has sublimated his homosexuality into a murderous (but consummated) narrative, reduced vast geographical terrain (including three volcanoes whose explosive potential mirrors his own suppressed desire) to a narrow site for a private rite, a self-reflecting dance in an empty nightclub.
And how cool is it that the real president of Djibouti is called Ismael!
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