A Film off the Beaten Track: Beau Travail? Excusez-moi?

I am going to be entirely honest here, and proudly proclaim that I am not the biggest film fan in the universe. Far from it. It is a running joke amongst my friendship groups that I have barely seen any of the “must watch” films that one apparently must see sooner or later or else they’ll face accusations of either being “uncultured” or of living under a rock.

It’s only been recently that I’ve come to the realisation that I do, in fact, enjoy watching films, it’s just that I enjoy watching different films to everyone else. I’ve not seen 80% of the classic Disney films. I’ve not seen Jaws. I’ve not seen the Godfather. I’ve not seen Jurassic Park. The Marvel universe? I don’t know her. I have seen the first half of Titanic! Before I fell asleep and slept through the second half…

Anyway, you get the gist. I am certainly not your quintessential movie buff. Having said that, over lockdown I developed a penchant for sampling films and documentaries that one might consider to be rogue. There was something exhilarating about finding things to watch that were off the beaten track, that weren’t what everybody on Twitter was obsessed with in that given moment. Beau Travail was one of those films.

The title translates from French as “good work,” which is a suitably ambiguous name for a film that leaves you second guessing throughout at what is transpiring before your eyes. I will now attempt to provide a summary that is brief, concise, and (most importantly) spoiler-free!

The plot is thought to have been inspired by Herman Melville’s 1888 novella Billy Budd, a tale in which a handsome sailor lashes out at an envious superior in a moment of aggression and accidentally kills him. The ship’s captain sympathises with Budd, but the law of mutiny forces him to sentence the young sailor to be hanged for his wrongdoing. Claire Denis, the director of Beau Travail, takes the bare bones of this story and transports it to a regiment of the French Foreign Legion in 1990s Djibouti. Galoup (the envious superior) gradually becomes jealous of a handsome new recruit, Sentain, and particularly of his relationship with Forestier, the regiment’s commander. Sentain strikes Galoup after the latter angrily slaps him for challenging his authority. However, in this adaptation Galoup survives the altercation and chooses to enact revenge on Sentain – a decision which has serious ramifications. Indeed, Galoup is the film’s narrator and the story is told from his perspective as he is writing his memoirs and reflecting on his past military career.

Initially I was wracking my brain for ages to try and reach a conclusion on how I felt about the film, and to decide which character I felt the strongest emotional connection to. I was confused as to why I was struggling so much. Then the penny finally dropped; the reason I was struggling to express my thoughts was because the film didn’t label the characters for me. There were no “good guys” or “bad guys” in binary opposition to each other. Nor did the narrative push the viewer to sympathise with one particular character over another. I had to formulate my own judgement almost from scratch… a process which I oddly enjoyed.

Claire Denis is well known for her tendency to eschew dialogue in favour of telling stories through visuals, and this gives Beau Travail its strange and unnerving charm. The lack of any extended exchanges of dialogue between the protagonists was somewhat disorienting. My confusion was compounded by the inclusion of frequent, unexplained clips of soldiers engaging in ritualistic military training exercises with their tops off that were borderline homoerotic. However, this enabled me to appreciate small gestures and nuances that I probably would have missed had I been able to rely on the familiar crutch of dialogue to ascertain the narrative. It also allowed the movement sequences to shine more prominently, and these highlighted the fascinating contrast between the arid salt flats where the soldiers trained, and the garish discotheque where the soldiers mingled and danced with the Djiboutian locals.

Although the film undoubtedly had a low production budget feel to it, I was nevertheless truly captivated. Beau Travail is a world apart from the big budget Hollywood blockbusters, but that made me vibe with it even more. The 90-minute running time was a real bonus too given that concentrating for long periods of time isn’t really a skill of mine. So, if you ever have a spare 90 minutes on your hands (or you feel compelled to procrasti-watch something that’ll make your brain spin), then I would certainly recommend digging through Box of Broadcasts and giving Beau Travail a watch!

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