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Isaach De Bankolé,
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Hélène de Saint-Père
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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 <email@example.com>
With Beau travail, Claire Denis freely retells Herman Melville's Billy Budd; the contemporised setting of a post-colonial Africa is parallel to the similarly epoch shattering context of post-French Revolution Europe; her sailors are correspondingly men in their prime, but here land-bound legionnaires. The dreaded cycle plays out as in the novel, with Denis Lavant playing the officer (Galoup) with an acute irrational dislike of Grégoire Colin's Billy Budd (Sentain).
However, the narrative tone is shifted in solidarity with the former, who has a voice-over, and whose fragmented remembrances seem to dictate the film's considerable ellipses, including cuts from anxious drama on the base somewhere in Africa to Galoup hanging out his washing in the suburbs of Marseille. This action, common to military and civilian life, is important to Beau travail, and, in an instance of extraordinary cinematic originality, is shot particularly well. It also represents Denis's subversion of the character of Claggart, an external softening that makes his hatred all the more upsetting; likewise, he dances and dresses with an almost effeminate, consummate stylenotably in the hypnotic credit sequence, which has to be seen to be believedyet he has the face and demeanour of a boxer. The clash of cultures is also significant, with the circumstances of the not unwelcome French occupation being distilled in the legionnaires' studied performance of Tai Chi (Denis opts for the poetic over the openly political); ironically, Michel Subor's Commandant expresses the greatest resentment of the French colonialist presence.
Elsewhere, Denis's diversions from the source text can be attributed to the conditions of cinema. A striking example is the democracy imposed by the camera: in the novel, the peripheral sailors are always in Budd's shadow, whereas Denis exploits the other legionnaires almost as a beautiful backdrop, just as she uses the savage mountain scenery; it is no great leap to compare their muscles to the latter's crags and gullies. The men's bodies are exalted, filmed as objects of art. Questionably, the native people are shot in the style of a nature documentary, and remind one of meercats sitting in the sun.
The score does not come in for the slightest criticism, mixing as it does Benjamin Britten's eponymous opera, Neil Young and African dance, thus very much bound up with the concerns of the film. Similarly, the director seems to be working with the Claggart character and vice versa. For example, in making the men dig roads Galoup has a chance to get at Sentain, and Denis the prospect of sequences of nothing but semi-nude men working their muscles. Almost everything in Beau travail comes back to the male body.
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