Beau Travail (1999)

Rates: * * * * *

Why Did I Watch It? Classic film club selection

Cast, crew, etc.

On a sun blasted rock in Djibouti, a squad of young Foreign Legionnaires serves their time at a ragged military outpost. Their days are filled with physical training exercises and army drills, with little else to occupy their bodies and minds. Such an empty existence creates a void, that the worst elements of human nature soon rush to fill.

A handsome and popular new recruit, Sentain, upsets the regimented order of the base when he clashes with the squad’s captain, Galoup (Denis Lavant). The escalating tension between these two plays out ‘Cool Hand Luke’ style; as Sentain resists the older soldier’s orders, he is punished in ever more extreme ways.

The rest of the squad are torn between these two, while the commanding officer of the base seems to have slumped into a torpor, and merely watches on. This chain of events, inevitably, leads to tragedy, and Galoup is forced out of the army in disgrace.

Clair Denis’ primal, eye-popping character study grabs you, moment one, with its formidable visual design. Shot on location in Djibouti, the base and surrounding region provide a stunning series of vistas: crystal blue skies, radiant white sand, and otherworldly black volcanic rock. Denis frames many of her shots so that the soldiers appear with just these backgrounds behind them; real slabs of brilliant colour, in front of which the actors contort their bodies during their military exercises. It is arresting and unique; full credit to the director and her cinematographer Agnes Godard.

The film highlights the abnormality of this environment, and how it corrupts these soldier’s behaviour. What they are being asked to do – stand guard over a barren wasteland, minding a local population that despise them, filling their days with pointless busy work – is slowly stripping them of their humanity. This, cleverly, impacts the characters differently; spurring indifference in the commanding officer, rebellion in Sentain, and a vicious sadism in Galoup (it is suggested that this last character’s behaviour is also tinged with repressed sexual desire for his victim). But all of these behaviours are linked to the enormous pointlessness of their mission.

I read this as a criticism of monolithic, western-style institutions; not just the army, but the government say, or the church. Any organisation that has no issue with asking its members, or forcing them, to conform to behaviours that are against their nature; and the film demonstrates how these demands create intolerable pressure, that eventually explodes in extreme behaviour.

The film’s framing device, and coda, add another layer.

Galoup, now out of the army, lives in Marseilles and reflects on his time in the service. What we have just watched is a bit like a psychological horror story, ‘Lord of the Flies’ on a benighted army base. But Galoup’s sad reflections indicate he thinks of this as a glorious time, when he had a purpose, now absent. This, ultimately, is how the system depicted can continue; the people running it will always find recruits who are willing to put up with ANYTHING, in exchange for some power over others.

A powerful, raw movie, with not a wasted frame. Quite an experience.

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