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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 <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Abstract film, told by contrasts, stylized swathes of life, Claires Denis stumbles upon little that is new here, but something here intrigues me a lot, most of it in the first half.
The rites, rituals and ceremonial pomp by which army units in the line of fire choose to mythologize and invoke a story of heroic braggadoccio, which Claires Denis approaches with a curious air of the solemn and the mocking, I only briefly experienced in my short time with an infantry regime. I served most of my army time in the Technician Corps, the inglorious greasemonkeys, repairing tanks or slacking. But the tedium of army life is our shared legacy with the Foreign Legion or the Special Ops.
Denis subverts this, in mocking feminism reducing that tedium to the meticulous ironing and creasing of uniforms and laundry. The savage beast is thus shown to be domesticated, fussing over a crease. It's been a man's cinema this first century, so perhaps we should get accustomed to the scorn and irony of female directors getting back at us. Nevertheless she makes a cutting remark, that fastidiousness (a matter of order and appearances) is accomplished with these creases.
Inside the discotheque, where the strobe lights and Arab pop beats are equally kitsch and otherworldly, the woman is mysterious and alluring, exudes promises of sexual danger. In this game of seduction, the Legionnaires are rapacious, overly eager boys, crossing and recrossing before the seductive female gaze and smile. This first part for me is two images. The flickering shot of an Arab girl's face, gleaming with strobing colorful lights, and the shot of Legionnaires etched in silhouette in an empty street by night.
Here lies the brilliance of Denis though. We know the emerging story of a cruel superior taking an unfathomable dislike to the innocent footsoldier from Billy Bud, Herman Melville's short story, and how that innocence of face invites a hatred that seethes deeper, but Denis reworks this entirely in terms of cinema. Looking at the sergeant's face we can read the portents of evil to come, but she further paints it with pictures.
Ideals don't matter here, so Denis aptly carries her tragedy out to a sunbaked rocky desert. Perhaps she understood what she was doing as an opera, but in those scenes where we see men flexing their muscles or performing curious rituals out in the open air, the bombast of music and image verges on camp. I don't know much about camp though, so this doesn't concern me overmuch. She also gives us a tracking shot and a wistful tune in the soundtrack, which I find both to be beneath the filmmaking she exhibits in the rest of the film.
Elsewhere she gives us images of colonial guilt, a popular subject of the European intellectual, where for example a process of Legionnaires carry a black man, then they switch and he carries a white man on his shoulders. The Djibouti natives of that desert mostly observe this ritual of male aggression with indifference though, curiosity or compassion.
A lot of what the film does is only fair, and although thematically it leaves me unfulfilled, the apogee for me is the lasting impression. Of which Beau Travail leaves a strong one.
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