Ah, the plight of a film watched late in Criterion Month, when we’re all a little burned out from watching arty, cerebral movies. This makes it especially hard to write about a film as layered and exquisitely made as Beau Travail, which leaves as much to chew on as any film I watched during this year’s Criterion Month. So much so that despite how much I enjoyed my viewing of it, I didn’t zero in that much on one aspect most people seem to talk about in regards to Beau Travail (its portrayal of repressed homosexuality). Though that’s just one aspect of what’s remarkable about the film, as everything is done with so much confidence, and yet there are so many things left unspoken by the film’s end that it leaves you lingering in its dusty doorway, looking for answers.
Because of course I can’t stop being educated by our French Criterion films about the history of French colonialism, this film centers on a section of the French Foreign Legion stationed in Djibouti. Specifically, it focuses on the platoon’s chief sergeant, Galoup (played by Denis Lavant), who we see commanding his troops with the utmost precision, but also with a camaraderie that involves going out and dancing at local nightclubs. In precise detail, we see the solitary, dedicated nature of the legionnaires, while much of Galoup’s mindset is expressed through extensive voice-over. Galoup’s obsessions over perfection is eventually centered around one specific soldier in his company, the strikingly handsome Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin).
Galoup’s combination of fascination and envy toward Setain is mostly manifested in the tough love aspects of Galoup’s methods as a leader. However, this changes when Galoup tries to punish another soldier by making him dig an endless hole in the desert. Setain tries to give the soldier water, but Galoup takes this as an affront and gets into an altercation before Setain punches him. Galoup then takes things to the extreme by driving Setain to a remote part of the desert and essentially leaving him to die. Once news of this gets back to the higher-ups in the French Foreign Legion, unsurprisingly, things do not look good for Galoup’s future in the legion, the only place he seems to really know how to thrive.
I have not watched a lot of director Claire Denis’ work, as 2018’s High Life is the only other film of hers I’ve seen. But just from watching those two (very different) films, it seems apparent that there is an inherent toughness and lack of sentimentality to her films. This seems at odds with a lot of what I’ve seen in French film, though there is also a sense of playfulness in how she builds scenes on top of each other that feels distinctly French. I will also say this is the first film I’ve watched yet this Criterion Month that felt akin to our current landscape of arthouse/indie filmmaking, which I suppose speaks to how sneakily influential this film might be.
It’s also arresting how timeless this movie feels. Going in, I had no idea that this movie was set in modern day, as you’re unlikely to find a lot of modern films about the military that aren’t set in the past (though The Hurt Locker often came to mind while watching Beau Travail). While this film clearly takes place during the late ’90s world that it was filmed in, it still feels out of step with that time period to some extent. Perhaps it’s because we only ever see the characters wearing army fatigues, while the only backgrounds we ever see are of vast expanses of water, mountains, and deserts, while the modern sights of the city are often cloaked in the darkness of night. I think a lot of this also stems from the fact that its main character is trapped in the French colonialism of the past as well as the repressive nature of the military.
Of course, one thing I have to talk about with this movie is the ending. It was recently named the greatest movie ending of all time by Vulture, so I couldn’t help but have expectations about what I would see at the film’s conclusion. Though what’s great about the ending is that it defies all expectations of how you would anticipate a movie like this to end. While often somewhat dreamy, this is for the most part a methodical film about the tragedy of being stuck in a position that you were made for, but that perhaps wasn’t made for you. Meanwhile, everything about the film’s epilogue seems pointed toward despair, but then you get this moment of unfettered joy wrapped in sadness accompanied by the distinctly ’90s sounds of Corona’s “Rhythm Of The Night”. While it’s debatable how much it’s the kind of ending that will change your perception of the entire film, it assures that that song, as well as the film, will be stuck in your head for quite some time.