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Beau Travail: Criterion Collection
In a review for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum dubbed 1999's Beau Travail, "a beautiful mirage of a movie." This perfectly encapsulates the poetic unreality that director Claire Denis and her crew create in this dreamy desert riff on Melville's Billy Budd.
The film is framed as the disjointed memories of a discharged master sergeant in the French foreign legion, as he wanders lost through civilian life (not unlike the late passages of Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker). Played by Denis Lavant, who is well-known for physically expressive roles in films like Mauvais Sang and The Lovers on the Bridge, this legionnaire, Galoup, is oddly muted. Lavant seethes with so much coiled-up rage and violence that we must suspect it will slip out at some point.
As he wanders around Marseille, Galoup flashes back to his time in Djibouti, heading a group of men whose respect for him is begrudging at best. In response, he is a brusque and hard-nosed leader. He seeks to be the perfect legionnaire, partly to curry favor with his commandant, Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor, either evoking or straight-up reprising his character from Godard's Algerian War film Le Petit Soldat). Forestier seems too weary from years of service to be moved in the way that Galoup would hope.
Complicating matters for Galoup is the presence of a newcomer, Sentain (Gregoire Colin), who quickly becomes the company's favorite. He is not only well-liked by the other men, but even Forestier takes notice of him. In Galoup's mind, Sentain becomes his nemesis and his primary obsession.
While that conflict is the spine of the film, Beau Travail more often resembles a rhythm-driven experimental film or a (staged) fly-on-the-wall anthropological documentary. Denis and her cinematographer Agnes Godard document the arduous drudgery of the legionnaires' constant training and exercise in a way that sensually emphasizes the way their bodies move. (It is no surprise to learn in the Blu-ray bonus features that many of the soldiers are played by dancers and that their training was designed by a dance choreographer.)
Images of dancing also permeate the legionnaires' downtime. They go to nightclubs where African women confidently dominate the dance floor and flirt with the foreign visitors. Galoup makes one of these women, Rahel (Marta Tafesse Kassa), his girlfriend, but it's hard to picture him having any feelings for her.
With only subtle intimations, the film makes it fairly plain that the central conflict is a love triangle. And not a clear-cut one either. Forestier quietly declares his affection for Sentain in the titular line. Sentain confides to the commandant that he was abandoned in a stairway as a baby and found by the people who raised him. Forestier smiles and replies, he was a "beau travail," which is translated here as a "nice find."
Meanwhile, Galoup, with his rough skin and lumpy face, not only seems to hate the hunky Sentain for the way he makes the commandant love him; Galoup hates Sentain because, way deep down, Galoup lusts after him too. The film's characters might be attracted to Sentain because he is a more authentic and attentive person than the bootlicking Galoup or maybe it's just because he gives off irresistible hot-person energy. In the eroticized world of Denis's film, they are essentially the same thing.
Beau Travail brilliantly dovetails its elliptical and striking visuals with a simple but evocative narrative, thanks in large part to its magnetic central performance. Denis Lavant is a force of nature, whose unique power is fully showcased in the famous final sequence (no spoilers if you haven't seen it yet). The other actors are all excellent and totally natural in their roles, but they don't stand a chance wrestling the spotlight away from Lavant. He is one of cinema's most indelible and unusual stars.
Beau Travail is packaged with a fold-out featuring an essay by Girish Shambu.
Sourced from a new 4K scan, the AVC-encoded 1080p 1.66:1 transfer is phenomenal. Agnes Godard's sensual cinematography is gorgeously reproduced. Excellent depth and detail. Great texture in the vast landscapes, the super-tight close-ups, and everything in between.
The French LPCM 2.0 stereo mix (with optional English subtitles) is similarly stunning. Certain stretches are subtle, with gentle ambience, while some nightclub scenes are intentionally overpowered by dance music. The track delivers on all counts.
(HD, 29:51) - A Zoom conversation between the director of this film and Moonlight director Jenkins. Denis talks about the influence of Godard's Le Petit Soldat, the French Legion's refusal to help make the film, and many other real-life influences upon the production of the film. The conversation was recorded in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests, and they also discuss the film's relevance to the conversation about the human vs. the system.
This is a truly great art film, full of indelible images and brilliantly evocative performances. Criterion's presentation finally gives Beau Travail its due on U.S. home video, with a gorgeous new transfer and a generous helping of supplemental material. DVD Talk Collector Series.
Justin Remer is a filmmaker, oddball musician, and frequent wearer of beards. His new holiday single, Oh Hanukkah / Last Night of Hanukkah, is now available to stream or download on Bandcamp, Spotify, Amazon, Apple, and wherever else fine music is enjoyed.