‘sert la bonne cause et meurt’ (serve the good cause and die)
Despite being adapted from a 19th-century novella, Beau Travail is an incredibly cinematic work that explores questions of memory, identity, and sexuality, all through the language of the visual image. Directed by Claire Denis, the French filmmaker whose authorial style spans numerous genres, Beau Travail is arguably her most significant film in terms of her status as an auteur. Set in the ex-French colony of Djibouti, Beau Travail shares similar themes to Denis’ early work; namely, the conflict of post-colonial French identity and the relationship between the body and the land. However, in Beau Travail these themes are woven into the very fabric of the film’s stylistic and narrative construction, resulting in a much more experimental and visceral approach to these recurrent reflections and concerns. The film speaks through its images, expressing those emotions that are too difficult to convey through words alone.
Starring Denis Lavant as Sergent Galoup, a senior figure among a small band of French Legionnaires stationed in Djibouti, Beau Travail is not only narrated by Galoup, but the on-screen images and events are recalled from his own memory. In what serves as an unconventional circular narrative, the opening scenes serve as visualizations of Galoup’s memory as he reflects on his time as a Legionnaire and the events leading up to his court-martial. Interestingly, these visualizations emerge from Galoup’s own words as he writes his memoirs alone in his Marseille apartment. Memories turn into words, words turn into images, and a cinematic narrative is constructed around these dreamlike vignettes.
While Galoup himself is present in many scenes—thus supporting his memory of these events—there are also scenes in which he is absent and would have had no recollection of their occurrence. For example, when a Legionnaire played by Grégoire Colin is rescued from the desert by a group of Djiboutian herders. Ultimately, the viewer is unable to separate the events that transpire on-screen from Galoup’s own subjective point of view. Galoup’s story is not only being told but he is the one telling the story. However, as Galoup finishes his memoirs and the past becomes the present, he loses all sense of agency and control. Galoup is the master of his own narrative, but once his story has been told he is lost and alone.
This is where Denis’ ability to imbue her characters with life and meaning is most apparent. The film’s ending sequence begins with Galoup routinely making his bed before lying on it topless, clutching his pistol. Unlike in Galoup’s flashbacks/memories, there is a palpable sense of calm as the camera focuses on different parts of his body. A hand, a tattooed chest, an arm, each shot pulsating with life like the vein that marks the film’s final beat.
From this apparent end the film transitions to a shot of Galoup dancing alone in the Djibouti club frequented by the legionnaires. Dressed all in black and smoking a cigarette, Galoup dances wildly against the mirrored backdrop in a moment of pure expressive ecstasy. The film grants Galoup one final dance, an unseen moment of freedom and relief for this tortured soldier.
Beau Travail is Denis’ masterpiece, and few of her other films have come close to replicating its cinematic approach to life and the human condition. In terms of authorship, it is Denis at her most expressive, hypnotic, and oneiric. Like the themes and questions it explores, Beau Travail is difficult to explain but readily felt.