NYFF REVIEW: "Beau Travail" Retreads Melville with Beautiful Imagery, No Story
by David Bourgeois
The second - and hopefully last - French film of 1999 to be "inspired" by a Herman Melville story, Claire Denis' latest film "Beau Travail" (as yet not picked up for distribution) has at least one thing going for it: it's not nearly as gluttonous as Leos Carax's "Pola X," the other French film loosely based on a separate Melville story.
In "Beau Travail," based on Melville's "Billy Budd," we're introduced to a French Foreign Legion troupe who spend their days performing simple military exercises under a scorching African sun in the harsh and beautiful seaside town of Djibouti (in the African republic of Djibouti). The soldiers run through an obstacle course, rigorously cook their meals, and perform stretching exercises in unison through the din of haunting classical music. When night falls, the men head to the western-style discos where they attempt to mix with the local women.
The troupe's pensive and reclusive Sergeant Galoup (the chiseled-faced and scary looking Denis Lavant -- ironically a regular actor in many of Leos Carax's films) narrates throughout. Actual dialogue is infrequent, giving the film an almost subconscious feel, punctuating a psychological study of the typical soldier's internal workings versus a typical narrative structure.
For reasons unknown to the viewer, Galoup worships his older and god-like superior, Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor), and views himself as the commandant heir-apparent. The two often discuss vague militaristic themes, but are not friends and have no bond beyond the Legion.
Life moves at an excruciatingly slow pace for Galoup and his men. His stoic routine is shattered, however, when Forestier lavishes a single praise upon Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin), a young and strapping new recruit. The polished Sentain immediately becomes a bad taste in Galoup's mouth; an itch he can't scratch. After years of military training without so much as real hand-to-hand combat, Galoup finally has found his enemy.
The most interesting aspect of this film isn't the narrative (which is basically nonexistent), rather, it's seeing a female director attempt to invade and purge the closed male world of soldiering. For this, Denis gets points, as her directing skill has never come into question. She does a particularly good job of evoking a misogynistic, military unit. The film has no female characters, and there are several scenes where the men are doing what they might consider "women's work": ironing, cooking, cleaning -- various household tasks to keep order in the barracks.
Many of the scenes of the soldiers working and training are beautifully shot by cinematographer Agnès Godard. Her impressive display of rich aquas, blues and mud-like browns of the African landscape boldly fill the screen. Godard also adds sweeping shots of the black-gray arid land mixed with the lush turquoise blues of the Gulf of Aden. Without this photography, the film would be a total waste.
Denis, director of "Chocolat" and "I Can't Sleep," is known for her subtle direction and velvet pacing. She doesn't stray from the course here, as she earnestly attempts to retell the Melville story. She is clearly more interested in the emotion and idiosyncrasies that make up a military unit than in the story of one soldier's disdain and hatred for another (the basis for the original "Billy Budd"). This choice would have been fine if the story was engaging or the characters were interesting. The problem with the film is that there's too much psychological study without much to back it up.