When Claire Denis’s Beau travail (1999) first appeared on American screens, the critic Stephen Holden used a striking phrase to capture its embracing of bold opposites: “voluptuous austerity.” His characterization, widely quoted since, illuminates the film on many levels, and also forecasts something important about its reception to come. Quickly, Beau travail acquired a passionate following in film culture, was voted best film of the year in the Village Voice critics’ poll in 2000, when it had its U.S. theatrical run—only the first of many surveys on which it has featured prominently—and inspired an outpouring of writing in internet cinephile spaces, film magazines, and academic journals alike. This wide-ranging response, from disparate corners, perfectly suits this work that holds in balance a rich and resonant set of tensions and contrasts.
One of these tensions can be found in the origins of the project. Commissioned by the French television channel ARTE to make a film for a series on “foreign lands,” Denis gently bent the rules in order to take up an expanded theme—that of foreignness. She set the film in the present day and centered it on a group of French Foreign Legionnaires stationed at a coastal outpost in the former colony of Djibouti, in East Africa. She wished to explore not only the experience of being a foreigner in an unfamiliar land but also what it meant to be (in her words) “a foreigner to oneself.”
This idea of nonbelonging, in both an exterior and an interior sense, is a theme and a feeling that traverses Denis’s cinema, and is shared by the filmmaker herself. Born in France, she was raised in several countries in Africa, where her father served as a colonial official. Before she made her first feature film, Chocolat (1988)—relatively late, at forty-one—she worked as assistant director to (among others) Wim Wenders, who has had a famous affinity for America, its culture, and its landscape. While traveling through the American Southwest with Wenders as they scouted locations for Paris, Texas (1984), Denis recalls wondering if there was such a thing as a landscape that she might call her own. Realizing it was neither America nor France but Africa, she went on to shoot Chocolat in Cameroon. Beau travail—the title can mean both “good work” and “beautiful work”—took her back to Africa to shoot a feature there for the first time since her debut. The fifth of the thirteen full-length fiction films Denis has made so far—spanning an assortment of genres, settings, and tones—it is the work that continues to be her most celebrated.
At the heart of Beau travail lies a male triangle. Sergeant Galoup (an electrifying Denis Lavant), part of a Foreign Legion regiment stationed in Djibouti, serves under commanding officer Forestier (Michel Subor), for whom he has a deep admiration and fondness. A young and popular new recruit, Sentain (Grégoire Colin), begins to attract the attention of Commandant Forestier after performing an intrepid rescue following a helicopter crash. Galoup, consumed with jealousy, unfairly punishes Sentain by banishing him to the desert with a faulty compass. Near death, Sentain is rescued and cared for by native Djiboutians; it is unclear whether he survives. This story is told in flashbacks by Galoup, who has since been expelled from the legion and lives in Marseille.
The process Denis used to synthesize the various source materials for the film harbored another kind of creative tension. Having at one time been struck by Herman Melville’s accounts of masculine life and experience, Denis reached first for his poems and then his novella Billy Budd, Sailor, from which she extracted the central narrative device of the triangular relationship situated amid an all-male group. She also chose passages from Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd to accompany the legionnaires’ elaborate military exercises, which were themselves stylized and choreographed by ballet dancer Bernardo Montet. Finally, by naming the commanding officer Bruno Forestier and casting Subor in the role, she established a direct link to Jean-Luc Godard’s Le petit soldat (1963), which features the same actor playing an army deserter with the same name. She imagined her film to be an oblique continuation of Godard’s, nearly four decades later. Denis’s cowriter, Jean-Pol Fargeau, began the writing process by penning Galoup’s journals, a memoir of sorts that drives the flashbacks and kicks off the narrative.
“The power of Denis’s cinema flows from the fact that it fully addresses both mind and body: the whole spectator.”
Most films that adapt works for the cinema do so by translating an existing text into a new cinematic form, with more or less fidelity. But Denis’s process of adaptation for Beau travail was unconventional: select elements were plucked from an array of sources and grafted together—a metaphor Denis herself has thoughtfully discussed in interviews. Grafting is a horticultural technique—analogous to organ transplanting in humans—in which two or more plants are joined together so they function and grow as one, combining their resilient qualities while also still retaining their distinctive identities. Denis’s aim, then, was to create a motley, intertextual composition that is powerful and coherent but that continues to vibrate with echoes of its scattered and various origins.
The power of Denis’s cinema flows from the fact that it fully addresses both mind and body: the whole spectator. Beau travail is, on the one hand, a cerebral film: its narrative is rigorously minimal, it features little expository dialogue, and its elegant ellipses sustain a state of mystery. But at the same time, it is a film with an audiovisual intensity that stirs the senses. It belongs to what Martine Beugnet calls a “cinema of sensation”—works that have a visceral, bodily effect on us. Denis and her longtime cinematographer, Agnès Godard, are masters of vivid and tactile image-making, capturing equally the elemental force of the sun-saturated East African landscape and the faces and bodies of the legionnaires in all their variety of race and ethnicity.
Yet it is not only strong and arresting images and sounds that make our senses tremble in Beau travail. “Cinema,” Denis has often asserted, “is montage”; she has always preferred to shoot quickly but edit slowly (in collaboration with her editor, Nelly Quettier). The spellbinding way in which her images unfold from one moment to another, leap from one shot to the next, is an inimitable aspect of her unique aesthetic. For instance, soon after the opening credit sequence of Beau travail, we find ourselves on a crowded train rattling through the desert; the dry heat is palpable. There is a startling cut to two extreme long shots: the train has exited the frame in the far distance but left behind a long wake of yellow dust that evokes its presence. A series of bold and unexpected cuts follows: to abandoned army tanks, then to quivering wild reeds, and then to shadows of human bodies moving gently to and fro, rhyming visually with the weeds. And then to the bodies themselves.
It is our first glimpse of the legionnaires as a group, eyes closed and in the middle of an exercise that seems less military than meditative or spiritual. Next, a stunning edit to a close-up of bright blue seawater glinting in the sun, over which another image appears slowly, superimposed: a notebook in which Galoup’s hand is seen writing. The image is gorgeous but also incongruous, since he appears to be setting down words underwater. Another surprising cut, this time to a series of medium close-ups of legionnaires, naked from the waist up, with bare heads, on a boat. Godard’s camera moves slowly, allowing us to register tiny differences between the men in skin color, body markings, and facial topography. Finally: a bolt of a cut to Galoup in the same boat, fully dressed and in a green beret, shot from a low angle, the image signaling his hierarchical authority and lack of affiliation with the men. In this entire sequence, which lasts just over three minutes, each edit manages to both ignite a frisson of surprise and convey meaning.
“As a woman filmmaker exploring an all-male group and its dynamics from the outside, Denis treats masculinity in an unusual and thoughtfully ambiguous fashion.”
By training her focus on the French Foreign Legion, Denis is evoking the cultural mythology surrounding this elite military group but also quietly undercutting it. In the history of cinema, films such as Morocco (1930) and Beau Geste (1939) have depicted legionnaires as brave, adventure-seeking, and embodying an iconic notion of masculinity. What has been mostly occluded in these representations is the fact that the legion, not long after its founding in 1831, went on to become a notorious colonial force that led military campaigns and helped extract resources and labor from colonized countries. By setting her film in contemporary Djibouti, more than twenty years after the country broke free of French rule and gained independence, Denis renders the legion’s elaborate military rituals—and even its very presence in Africa—absurd and anachronistic.
As a woman filmmaker exploring an all-male group and its dynamics from the outside, Denis treats masculinity in an unusual and thoughtfully ambiguous fashion. In her book on Denis, Judith Mayne points out that the film’s legionnaires are coded feminine as much as they are masculine. Some of the most memorable scenes show them performing everyday domestic tasks such as ironing, hanging up washing, or peeling potatoes. Even the military exercises are often tinged with an unexpected femininity since they were designed by a ballet choreographer. “Capturing bodies on film is the only thing that interests me,” Denis once said, and that credo amplifies the homoerotic charge of the male bodies here, their physicality and comradely intimacy often captured in ravishing close-ups. It is also a small but significant gesture of divergence from the French New Wave, whose legacy has been formative for countless filmmakers the world over, including Denis—but which was emphatically heteronormative.
While the male bodies of Beau travail have occupied a central place in both its iconography and the conversations it has sparked, far less has been said about the position and function of women—all of whom are black African—in this film. They appear in scenes at the disco, dancing with legionnaires as equals; as craftspeople, like the rug maker who also rescues and tends to the abandoned Sentain; and in groups that bemusedly observe on the street the exotic spectacle that is the legion. In one surprising shot that seems to float above the flow of the narrative, Rahel (Marta Tafesse Kassa), who is Galoup’s Djiboutian girlfriend, holds the viewer’s eyes in a long and direct look, the picture of calm self-possession. Even though women take up a minority of the screen time, their gaze (along with that of the filmmaker herself) plays a crucial role here by turning them into witnesses. As Jonathan Rosenbaum has noted, women form this film’s Greek chorus: they provide an ironic and critical frame in which to view the presence of the legion and its men in Africa.
Quite simply, Beau travail features one of the most astonishing endings in cinema. Galoup, at home in Marseille, fastidiously makes his bed, lies down in it, and places a gun on his bare stomach. Visible on his chest are the tattooed words “Sert la bonne cause et meurt” (“Serve the good cause and die”). We get an extreme close-up of his left bicep: a muscle twitches, rhythmically. We hear a house-music beat fade in, that of Corona’s Eurodance hit “The Rhythm of the Night,” and we suddenly find ourselves back at the disco, this time in a mirrored room that contains no one but Galoup. Dressed in black, and at first still, his body begins to move, slowly and deliberately, then explodes into a convulsive dance that whirls him around the room, to the floor, and finally ecstatically out of the frame.
Does this scene depict an actual event within the film’s story? Is it a dream—or a fantasy? These questions, while perfectly valid, also begin to recede in importance each time I return to this work; there is no settled answer to them. Before shooting the scene, Denis has said, she gave one brief instruction to Lavant: to treat it as “the dance between life and death.” There was no rehearsal—Lavant performed it in two takes. Unmoored from psychological justification or narrative plausibility, and yet overwhelmingly affecting, it is a passage that destroys distinctions between subjective and objective realities. Cinema reveals itself to be a medium that conjures both with equal potency: a total medium of the senses.