Director: Claire Denis
Writer: Claire Denis
DP: Agnès Godard
Editor: Nelly Quettier
Score: Charles Henri de Pierrefeu
Producer: Patrick Grandperret
Starring: Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, Grégoire Colin
Distribution: Pyramide Distribution
Length: 1 hr. 30 min.
"You're not African anymore, you're a Legionnaire now."
So says Master Sergeant Galoup, who makes his beliefs about being in the French Foreign Legion very clear: it entails absolute devotion to one's superiors and prioritization of your assigned duties over any others. And yet for some reason he seems disturbed by Legionnaire Gilles Sentain, one of the soldiers stationed with him in Djibouti. There's no reason for Galoup to hate Sentain. The other soldiers adore him, as does Commandant Forestier (Galoup's own superior).
But Galoup accuses Sentain of being subversive, a claim that has no foundation. He's constantly trying to warn Forestier about him, but Forestier won't listen. Part of it is that Galoup is being unreasonable; part of it is that Forestier just isn't very interested. Forestier lacks Galoup's fervor for the Legion, and never seems to exercise his authority.
Galoup keeps everything in perfect order. Forestier lies back and doesn't do much of anything. The soldiers swim and dance and celebrate. All these clashing modes of life have to coexist, but Galoup's severe zeal doesn't let them. He's smaller in frame and stature than the other soldiers, and never moves as much as they do until everyone moves in unison during the group exercises.
The exercise sequences are almost intimidating. The loud opera music that plays over them, the way each soldier's movements are reflected and augmented by the movements of other solders in the background, and the closeness of the handheld camera create such a sense of scale and power that it's like swimming in the ocean and getting caught in an enormous wave. They move in unison, and when one soldier's arms move out of view, the camera shifts and another's arms come into view. The soldiers are part of a whole, united under authority and the image of a greater ideal. They achieve a state of harmony with their environment, and their strength becomes evident.
Or does it? The exercise sequences are scarce, and between them we see of certain soldiers sitting apart from others because they can't eat during Ramadan. We see them struggling against the landscape, dwarfed by stark grey fields of angular rocks. Local citizens watch them with bemusement, and disrupt our sense of the Legionnaires' balance with their surroundings. And the further we get into the film, the more strangely unsettling the exercise scenes become, awash in eerie shades of green or depicting all the soldiers lying still on the ground, almost as if they were dead.
And the film keeps flashing forward to some time after the events in Djibouti. Then, we see Galoup in a drab, lonely Marseilles, where he lives after his dishonorable expulsion from the Legion. Even though he's been kicked out of the military, Galoup perseveres with military behavior, maintaining himself and his home within precise parameters.
The blunt straightforwardness and brutality of the film's climax drives a wedge between these emotional states. The end of Galoup's clash with Sentain is, without exaggeration, almost physically painful to watch; it's impossible not to apprehend the ugliness of Galoup's actions. We recognize his imposition, and his gaze that robs people of their individuality. He has no company but his own reflection, and he makes the other soldiers mirror him. Ultimately, we reject his exercises for their uncanny, alien treatment of human beings - but it remains impossible to forget how easy it is to be swept up by them.
Galoup believes in his obtrusive gaze because he believes in the Legion, and he uses the Legion's ideology as a weapon. This is the basis of the film's indirect attack on colonialism, and some viewers will notice that Galoup's behavior closely fits Laura Mulvey's description of the male gaze in film. From the very start, we understand the difference between Galoup's zealotry and a tactile experience that feels satisfyingly alive: the film opens by panning over a mural while a song about the Legion's ideals plays, then cutting abruptly to a scene in a nightclub full of people dancing. They're enjoying themselves in a crowd, moving freely in the small space they have and overlapping with other dancers.
There are precious few films that reach Beau Travail's level of sensory closeness, and the film twists that around on us to complicate our own experiences. The dizzying intensity of the exercise scenes contrasts with Galoup's solitude, the liveliness of the other soldiers, the agonizing denouement, and the surprising finale. And putting the exercise scenes aside, much of the rest of the film is as involving as if you were actually out by the sea, in the heat of the sun, or dancing through the night.
We never see Galoup move like the dancers, like he's really alive, until the very, very end. And it's possibly the loneliest scene for him in the entire film. It's a cathartic, weird, startling moment, and I can't even describe what I feel about it other than that I have to listen until the end of the music playing over the credits every time.