Criterion Prediction #97: Beau Travail, by Alexander Miller

12 Jul

Title: Beau Travail

Year: 1999

Director: Claire Denis

Cast: Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, Gregoire Colin, Richard Courcet, Nicolas Duvauchelle

Synopsis: French Foreign Legion officer Galoup (Lavant) reflects on his life in the Gulf of Djibouti, where he presided over the fellow officers and held them to a regimented schedule of training exercises and drills. Matters are complicated when an up and coming recruit, Sentain (Colin), becomes the center of attention, making the otherwise strict Galoup jealous and unpredictable, conflicting his sense of camaraderie and loyalty.

Critique: A subtly mapped out web of emotional suspense and internalized conflict punctuated with countless scenes of trance-inducing workouts and exercises that transcend their literal value into a veiled form of body art. Beau Travail is indeed a reworking of Billy Budd, but its introverted narrative and execution are both dynamic and transgressive.

Denis eschews clichés of male bonding in the military system. Beau Travail doesn’t give off the whiff of political oratory. Perhaps because of her upbringing (Denis, raised in French Africa) doesn’t impose any ideals as the Legionnaires presence in Djibouti and the lost identity of the film’s focal character Galoup carry a natural sense of substance.

Galoup’s covertly bold demeanor is thanks to Denis Lavant, who might be the most mysteriously alluring actors in recent history and is a treasure to see on screen.

Lavant’s feral yet boyishly sweet swagger (that was expertly utilized in Carax’s The Lovers on the Bridge) is transformed into the petite yet fervid watchdog of the Legionnaires. His presence is just as impressive and captivating as his work with Carax but his internalized stoicism is starkly profound. Here he’s the opposite of the fire-breathing vagrant of The Lovers on the Bridge. As an actor, he seems so relaxed and intuitive, and his innate features make this pockmarked loner an unexpectedly beautiful subject. Galloup’s send-off dance allows us endless interpretations: Is this a celebratory release of energy, attempting civilian life after years in the military; a conflicted dirge for Sentain; or could this be some symbolic purgatorial state after eating his gun?

Denis’ aesthetic thread, applied to the workouts and training exercises, operates like a filmed act of performance art. Her collaboration with choreographer Bernardo Montet provides weightlessness to the movie’s sense of time and motion. At certain points, the camp feels like a Spartan arena, where confrontations carry a primal connotation. Other moments in Galoup’s recollection of the sunbaked African landscape reflect a deviated Eden for the dejected Sergeant.

Why it Belongs in the Collection: The case for Beau Travail as a potential candidate for The Criterion Collection is pretty solid; distribution-wise, it doesn’t seem like Denis’ movie is tethered to any major DVD/Blu-ray distributors that would rival Criterion/Janus Films ala Kino Lorber or Twilight Time. The New Yorker Films DVD, a fifteen-year-old release, is serviceable, as is the Region 2 Artificial Eye release. The average price for a used copy of these on Amazon or EBay range from twenty to 30 dollars. But, wouldn’t it be better for everyone concerned to spend that same amount on a restored DVD/Blu-Ray of the film if it received the Criterion treatment? Claire Denis’ White Material, spine no. 560 has likely spurned people’s interest in the filmmaker; ergo, Beau Travail would be a good companion to the director’s sole entry in the collection.

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