Beau Travail review

This homoerotic reworking of Billy Budd set in the African desert and starring the French Foreign Legion is a shimmering, simmering emotional desert storm of a film

From Beau Geste to The Battle of Algiers, the French Foreign Legion has enacted on screen a strange and furtive imperial adventure - simultaneously upholding what remains of France’s martial gloire and effectively performing the services of a stateless, anonymous, mercenary group or international glasshouse-alternative: famously asking no questions of its applicants, and offering a regime of unrivalled harshness and brutality.

In real life, the Legion itself is now softening in accord with the times - incredibly, even offering “summer internships” to Sandhurst types taking a year out. But there is no hint of that in Claire Denis’s brilliant account of the legionnaire’s existence in Beau Travail, a gorgeous, compulsively poetic and semi-stylised film, transcribing with unexpected sympathy the asceticism and severity of the soldier’s life.

Denis has a keenly observant, even a reverent feel for the opaque male codes of this Moonie-esque club, and for the intense drama generated when they are disrupted. And her cinematographer, Agnès Godard, composes some really beautiful shots of the African landscape, with the alien light and unforgiving terrain against which these male bodies, and souls, are tested to destruction.

Set in the present day, Denis’s film is a variant on Melville’s Billy Budd, period-ically using the Britten opera score. But where Melville had his noble young sailor Budd executed for accidentally killing a bullying superior officer, Denis contrives a more complex relationship. Denis Lavant plays Galoup, a tough, grizzled sergeant-major, pitifully unsuited for civilian life. It is from here, among the bars and pavements of Marseilles, that he narrates his part of the story - to where, we learn, he has been exiled from the Legion in disgrace.

For back in the Legion, in Africa, Galoup has had a boyish loyalty to his commanding officer Bruno (Michel Subor), a loyalty which has elements of a girlish crush. Bruno himself is a greying, enigmatic figure, a man whose loyalties are to the Legion alone, but submitting to no very obvious further demands of patriotism or national duty, and who is on the verge of going native, with a taste for the narcotic languor of chewing the local khat leaves.

But the delicate balance of their relationship - which Denis shows as fiercely reticent, entirely reliant on the protective intimacies of precedence and rank - is upended when Bruno conceives a fatherly interest in a new recruit, Gilles Sentain, played by Grégoire Colin. Frequently, and emphatically, Bruno distinguishes Sentain with praise for his manliness, resourcefulness and courage. And in the insupportable heat, Galoup goes out of his head with jealousy.

Claire Denis’s film is a mesmeric, masculine ballet whose beauty and confident power, manifested in lugubrious scenes which suspend the normal rules of narrative procedure, simply go beyond conventional ideas of transgression or homoeroticism. She choreographs various exercises and drills for Galoup and his comrades to act out; some of these are normal workouts, but in a kind of hallucination or noonday mirage, they seem to become dance sequences and exotic tableaux. These happen either communally, or in a kind of one-on-one confrontation between Sentain and Galoup. They are juxtaposed with real dance sequences, at the Djibouti discotheques, where Galoup - though he actually has a girlfriend - makes it bitterly clear that it is only his connection to the Legion which has any emotional meaning for him.

But the “men” themselves are really just boys. One of the most touching and arresting scenes shows the squaddies gathered for a treat: an 18th birthday party, complete with birthday cake and candles, uncomfortably lit with a cigarette lighter. It could be a 15th birthday party, or even a 12th.

The men’s utter acceptance of martial discipline is combined with a childlike submission and trust: for all the implied violence and suppressed loathing, any ges tures of individual drama are somehow diffused and dispersed within the structures of military society - until the final boiling-over of tension. Denis and Godard prefer to focus upon the ritual energies and activities of the ordinary soldier’s life here, in this unique, and bizarre residue of French empire.

What is really remarkable about Denis’s film is the way she succeeds in fusing the real and the dreamlike, the naturalistic and the figurative, into one visual conceit. Never for one moment does this shimmering, simmering emotional desert storm of a film relax its grip on your senses.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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