Beau Travail

Claire Denis, France, 1999, 93 min.

A group of young soldiers train in the desert of Africa. They are French Legionnaires, and in director Claire Denis’s hands, their training becomes a poem. The men go through their days exercising, doing chores and going into the African city at night. It feels so real that it is hard to imagine that the director was never a French Legionnaire herself.

The soldier’s lives, although physically demanding, are shown in such a peacful and gentle way that you can understand why their sargeant, the narrater, looks back upon this time as his happiest. Galoup, played to perfection by Denis Levant, is quiet and brooding. He is good at what he does, but is starting to age and the lack of recognition from his commander, although not exactly a problem for him, is something that weighs on his mind.

Through his narration we learn that his time in the Legionnaires will come to an end, and when a new recruit arrives, we see his hatred grow and know that this soldier will be his undoing. Why does he hate Sentain? He’s young and lanky, and looks weak compared to the other muscular solders. But everyone takes a liking to him, and after an act of heroism (shown off-screen so as not to break the gentle mood of the film), Galoup’s commander takes a shine to him as well.

Galoup sees Sentain easily interacting with the other soldiers, and how Sentain has an equally easy time outside the camp in the city, in the dance clubs and with women. Galoup doesn’t have an easy time socializing, and this jelousy grows over time. When an altercation between the two finally happen, Galoup reacts in his usual calm and thoughtful way. But what he does is so wrong that it causes him to lose his place in the Legionnaires.

After leaving, we know he will be a fish out of water. The military lifestyle was a perfect fit for his personality. In a hotel, he still makes his bed in the efficient and tidy military manner of a French Legionnaire.

In the film’s final scene at a dance club Galoup finally allows himself a moment of real expression. Free from the prisons that he has made for himself. It is a moment that is jarring against the lyricism of the rest of the film, but perfectly suited as a catharsis for both Galoup and the audience.

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