What is there to be said about Beau Travail that hasn’t been said at this point? Not much, really, but it was the film that transformed Claire Denis from a director vaguely known in France to one of the leading lights of world cinema. Now, she is considered the greatest living director by many critics. When Beau Travail came out in the States in 2000, it became a cult sensation partly due to various critics hailing it as a masterpiece—which was surprising, given that it’s a deeply uncommercial film.
Denis was approached by the producers to make a film about being a “foreigner,” and her mind wandered to the French Foreign Legion. She grabbed bits and pieces from Herman Melville, specifically Billy Budd, and a couple of poems and some inspiration from the narration of Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (one of his best but little-seen films), and came up with this tale of fragile masculinity, physical discipline and repressed desire. Initially she contacted the French Foreign Legion for cooperation for the film, but they turned her down, saying “it was about being gay.” That’s not the case at all, and when the Foreign Legion finally saw the film, they understood what she was doing.
Denis Lavant stars as Chief Adjutant Galoup, whose entire life is the Foreign Legion. The film is told through his recollections of what transpired, as he is writing his memoirs. Most of the story takes places in the desert heat of Djibouti in East Africa, where the Legion’s training sessions have in an almost balletic quality. They train under Commandant Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor), this is a reference to Subor character of the same name he plays in Le Petit Soldat. Denis in the disc’s supplementary materials says one of the supporting actors was actually in the Legion, so from all accounts the training depicted is fairly accurate. Galoup has a beautiful local girlfriend and they go to the nearby disco often, but his world changes when Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin) arrives. He is jealous of everything about him, from his beauty to his social skills, and vows to destroy him.
Agnès Godard, the film’s cinematographer, shoots the film in a delicate fashion. The film’s dialogue is secondary to the images, which, from the close-ups to how Denis chooses to show the bodies of the men, are telling the audience how Galoup looks at Gilles. The film’s final moments are a masterclass of telling the audience everything you need to know about Galoup’s fate without explicitly saying it, from the way he makes his bed to the extraordinary dance he does in some deserted Paris nightclub. Lavant is one of the greatest physical actors alive, and this might be his signature role—which is saying something since he’s the man that Holy Motors was made around.
Beau Travail remains one of the great films of the new Millennium, and it will outlast everybody involved with the film. It’s one of the most mesmerising films ever made, and while it is extremely modern, in the end it is about timeless desires. For years the film was in desperate need of a Blu-Ray release, and Criterion has come to the rescue with its 4K restoration—and the film has never looked better. The extras include a conversation recorded over Zoom with filmmaker Barry Jenkins and Denis: Jenkins was heavily influenced by Denis’ film with his surprise Oscar-winner Moonlight. Agnès Godard does a scene-specific commentary track, and new interviews with actors Denis Lavant and Grégoire Colin, plus a video essay by Judith Mayne, round off the disc. The essay in the booklet is by Girish Shambu.