If you squint long enough at Claire Denis's amazing Beau Travail--you'll have to squint, given the African sunlight--you will make out the faint contour of a story. A young recruit--call him Gilles--shows up at a French Foreign Legion post near present-day Djibouti. Here the natural world is vast in its indifference; the people, intimate in theirs; and so the soldiers are as self-encapsulated as if they were living in mid-ocean. They have only one another; but their sergeant, Galoup, lacks even that comfort. He is a man apart, and he detests Gilles on sight.
"He seduced everyone," Galoup mutters in his voiceover narration, exposing the rancor of a homely veteran (dog face on top of fireplug body) for the tall, slim newcomer with the almond eyes and faultless demeanor. Having nothing else to think about, given his isolation, Galoup concentrates on hating Gilles. He develops a plot against him and then, with joy, watches it succeed, as he incites the subordinate to strike him.
Does it matter that Claire Denis has borrowed this mere outline of a story from Billy Budd? Maybe; a little. (She also has mentioned two terse, enigmatic poems by Melville as having inspired Beau Travail.) But what matters more is the sense of something mute and weighty in the film's events, which appear before you not as a narrative stream but singly or in small groups, like a set of archaic sculptures.
Like such sculptures, the scenes are most often found in fragments. You could almost wrap your hands around them--a torso here, an abandoned leg there. Yet for all their tactility, piece by piece, they prove to be phantasmagorical. The entire film takes place within the tortured mind of Galoup, who recalls these images from his exile in Marseilles.
Here's how Galoup's mind works. You first see a crude mural painting of black silhouettes against an orange field: soldiers crossing a rocky landscape, beneath "Africa's burning sun" (as a men's chorus sings on the soundtrack). Let's call this an establishing shot, which lays before you the stiff, simplified, two-dimensional landscape of Galoup's thoughts. That's where the story will take place--or will it?
As if jumping into a different mental register, you next find yourself looking at an African woman, all dressed up and marking time in a strangely silent discotheque. She performs an air kiss, which seems to operate as a signal, since the frame suddenly erupts with music, flashing lights and dancing. Africa has now become a fully three-dimensional press of bodies--female, mostly--which glow with an unashamedly mercenary allure.
Another cut: An African man, wearing a New York Yankees cap, is yelling into a telephone, saying something about Djibouti. Having named the locale, he disappears almost before you can register his presence, to be replaced by the light of a scorched landscape, visible through the crossbars of a train's window. The train rolls on for a long time. (Apparently, the distances are great in Galoup's mind.) Then the traveling images give way to still pictures of pebbly earth and low shrubs; and then a shadow appears.
It is the shadow of a man. The camera follows it to its source: a muscular, bare-chested African who is standing with his eyes closed while stretching his arms toward the sun. Other men in the same eerie pose--similarly young, similarly well muscled--are arrayed near the first in the raking, golden light. These are Galoup's soldiers. On the soundtrack, a chorus from Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd gives voice to the men's longing for the sun, or (just as likely) Galoup's longing for the men.
Bizarre, abrupt and disjointed, these opening images introduce you to Claire Denis's narrative tactics but not to the fullness of her themes. She needs time for those to develop: time to show you the routine. You see ample, gorgeous footage of soldiers throwing themselves through an obstacle course, practicing an assault at a construction site, whooping it up in town on their night's leave, ironing their uniforms. Yes, ironing. The Legion instills elegance in its men, says the post's khat-chewing officer, Bruno, and perfect creases are a part of that elegance.
You can see at once why Sergeant Galoup adores Bruno with a canine devotion. He can tolerate Bruno's spending evenings with Ali, the guy who supplies the khat. But when Bruno starts eyeing the new boy, Gilles, it's too much. Bruno even meets Gilles one night outside the barracks, under a full moon. This is how Galoup remembers the scene (or how he imagines it, now that he's alone and unemployed in Marseilles): The officer saunters out of the blackness, cigarette in hand, and with heavy eyelids and ponderous vowels asks for a light. Gilles obliges. Then Bruno, with gruff but languorous elegance, blows smoke, as he drawls a suggestive compliment on Gilles's looks.
This is not the craziest moment in Beau Travail; but it will do as a place to pause and take stock of the main theme, which is not merely isolation but uselessness. What's the point of the exertion, the loneliness, the sheer boredom of life in the Legion? Why burn up your muscles jumping in and out of pits, and your nerves pretending to capture the empty shell of a building? Why put those perfect creases into your pants, only to get them soaked with beer and sweat in the bars, where your money's wanted and you're not? Colonialism is finished, but the Legion is still out there, and nobody, starting with Bruno, knows or cares why. "I served for two years at home," a Russian-born soldier explains at one point, recalling how he joined the Legion. "But it's impossible to fight just for an ideal." To which Bruno replies, "What ideal?"
And Claire Denis adds, "What fight?" The only struggle available to these particular soldiers is the one with themselves. Maybe that's why Galoup, the sole Legionnaire who seems born for battle, settles his hatred on Gilles, to make up a use for his talents--and once he's fully committed to the fight, the movie really goes nuts.
Galoup invents an off-base mission for the men, repairing a virtually nonexistent road in the middle of a wasteland. (How's that for an image of uselessness?) The scene shifts from a normal barracks to an encampment in the wild. Instead of running an obstacle course and practicing maneuvers, the soldiers now perform exercises that might be seen in a class in yoga or modern dance. Around the time Galoup springs his trap, you see the soldiers paired off, hurling their bare chests together for an embrace, then bounding backward to do it again. Love and murder, boredom and futility, the onetime colony and colonialism's human jetsam. "Goodbye, Frenchie, and good riddance," Galoup says to himself, dreaming the voice of an African woman, as he prepares to return to a France that's foreign soil to him.
Galoup is played by Denis Lavant, the slit-eyed, pockmarked, furrow-browed acrobat who is best known for bringing grit to Leos Carax's movies. (He's been the sand in the oyster, the real toad in the imaginary garden.) It's worth the price of admission just to see Lavant at the end credits, dancing alone before a mirror, his body set free at last, as he seems to translate all the film's events into a fit of disco madness. Gilles is Grégoire Colin, who has worked with Denis before (on Nénette et Boni) and was also seen as the heartless rich boy in Erick Zonca's The Dreamlife of Angels. Here, as the lowest-ranking of Legionnaires, he scarcely gets to utter a word. The scene of his performance is confined to the surface of his skin; he breathes the character through his pores. Bruno is Michel Subor, his face composed into a mask of cynicism. Underneath it lies a glamour-puss past, which Denis calls up by showing a head shot from the years when Subor appeared in Jules et Jim and Le Petit Soldat.
How to sum up a film that's both audacious and immaculate, crazed and beautiful, eloquent and yet, at its heart, profoundly silent? Maybe the best I can do is to Anglicize the title: Nice work.
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Film critic David Walsh writes to draw my attention, and yours, to recent attacks against Deepa Mehta, who has been attempting to shoot a new feature, Water, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. It appears that local groups of Hindu nationalists, egged on by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, have rampaged through Mehta's set and issued death threats against her. The state government has joined in by blocking production, on the grounds that Mehta provoked the disturbances.
Information about the attacks can be found on the World Socialist Web Site (www.wsws.org). The site is also soliciting statements of support for Mehta. Whatever small help you can extend to her, through wsws.org or elsewhere, please do. A government, a political party and a religious organization are all allied against this one unarmed woman, in fear of the colored shadows she might throw upon a screen.