Young Hollywood actors like to boast of the hellish basic training they go through to star in war movies like Saving Private Ryan or U-571. Their stories are always similar. The message is always the same: Playing soldier will make a man of you.
The extraordinary French director Claire Denis hired a choreographer, not a retired Marine, to get the cast ready for Beau Travail, her eighth feature film. As enlistees in today's French Foreign Legion, the film's strapping corps of young men--scarred, shaved, and shirtless--are built for action. Yet in these postcolonial times, there's not much action to be found on the African coast of Djibouti, where the story is set. The camera pans across the legionnaires as they carefully iron perfect creases into their dress whites. Their training exercises begin as calisthenics, morph into martial arts, and become a vigorous form of modern dance. Meanwhile, a hulking tank sits nearby, empty and forlorn.
The director's sensuous style and cinematographer Agnès Godard's ravishing images are reason enough to see Beau Travail, which is showing up in art houses after playing the film festival circuit. This is a director at the absolute top of her game, a painter of moods whose canvas is primal and intimate, mysterious yet always compassionate. Unspooling on their own time and logic, her films demand engagement, without relying on arid tics left over from the avant-garde. At their best, as with Beau Travail and Nenette and Boni (1996), they can leave you weak at the knees.
The camera again leads in Beau Travail, but the luscious visuals rest on a powerful frame: Billy Budd, Herman Melville's tale of innocence destroyed. Set just after the French Revolution and filled with anxiety over the changing social order that threatened to follow, Melville's novella already had a subtle French accent. Denis and co-screenwriter Jean-Pol Fargeau move the story to present-day Africa, where France's oncemagisterial empire has become exhausted. The military's golden rule--"Forms are everything"--is even more resonant in this scorched landscape, which houses but never welcomes these protectors from elsewhere.
Keeping the legionnaires in line is Sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant), who stands in for Melville's embittered master of arms, Claggart. While Billy Budd is narrated from a distance, soberly considering each character and his fate, Beau Travail climbs inside Galoup's head and never leaves. The film unfolds like a painful memory, told by the sergeant after he has left the legion and is counting out meaningless days in a spare Marseilles garret. "Maybe freedom begins with remorse," he notes in his diary, and the subsequent tale, fluidly moving between Djibouti and Marseilles, is, in a sense, a suicide note--for one misguided soldier, certainly, but also for the militarized masculine ideal that, he realizes too late, has let him down.
"Upon any abrupt unforeseen encounter," Melville memorably writes of Claggart, "a red light would flash forth from his eye like a spark from an anvil in a dusk smithy." Squat and pock-marked, with a thudding brow, Denis Lavant has just this scary intensity, especially as he puts his men through their paces. Alone in front of a mirror, where we find him again and again, Galoup is a very different specimen of man: vain, unsure, yearning. The "subterranean fire" that consumes Claggart is, in Galoup, not envy but a hole in the soul. He despises himself far more than anyone else can. The director's delicate treatment and Lavant's beautifully shaded performance create remarkable sympathy for the character. In forging a corps out of a motley assortment of individuals, Galoup demands discipline and obedience. But he doesn't possess the masculine grace that allows them to sail through their training. In every ropy muscle of his neck and shoulders, you can feel the strain of self-improvement, the making of the perfect legionnaire. All in the service of a bitter irony: As their superior officer, Galoup can no longer share in the easy camaraderie. He is twice removed, from the men he leads and from the nation he once called home.
Sentain, a new enlistee, makes it all look easy. Grégoire Colin, the young co-star of Olivier, Olivier and The Dreamlife of Angels, is an ideal Billy Budd. Perfectly ordinary in some shots, his sharply planed face assumes an aristocratic hauteur in others, separating him, if only slightly, from the other men. In an echo of the novella, Galoup first takes note of Sentain during a night away from duty. Wandering the streets alone at dawn, he stumbles across the legionnaires carrying the young man on their shoulders, heading back after a drunken night on the town. Galoup's obsession grows when his own beloved commander, Forestier (Michel Subor), singles out Sentain for heroically saving a soldier injured in a helicopter crash. The paunchy, sad-eyed commander, prone to gazing aimlessly at the sea, is among Galoup's only human connections. The thought that Sentain will usurp his favored place is too much to bear. Denis subtly ratchets up the tension as the sergeant's discipline grows harsher, and his charges' tolerance begins to fray. In a rare moment of rebelliousness, Sentain stands up for another legionnaire, who has been subjected to a brutal regime of hard labor. Galoup pounces, sending his rival on a forced march that should guarantee his elimination.
That's the plot, but only half the story. Like a choreo-grapher herself, Denis assembles the narrative in loose ribbons that tighten, with time, into recognizable form. Her adroit use of music guides the way. Many of the intense training scenes in Beau Travail are set to Benjamin Britten's oper-atic Billy Budd, but you don't need to know that to be stirred by the juxtaposition of soaring voices and straining bodies. A legion march through the desert, orchestrated by Galoup to keep Sentain far from the commander, is accompanied by Neil Young singing "Safeway Cart." Culturally, nationally, histor-ically, the music makes no sense. But the quietly sung lyric perfectly sums up the aimlessness of the entire enterprise.
Much of the director's reputation rests on her personal history, a child raised in Africa, the daughter of French civil servants. Her 1989 debut, the semi-autobiographical Chocolat, conjured racial and sexual tensions in 1950s colonial Africa. A worldwide success, it has largely shaped the director's reception since. Recent films, like I Can't Sleep (1993) and Nenette and Boni, are immersed in the worlds of the marginal, portraying immigrants and ethnic minorities, not the chic Parisians who sashay through much French fare. But a woman's steady gaze at soldiers in Beau Travail reminds us how interested Denis has been all along in the troubled nature of masculinity. Based on a true story, I Can't Sleep finds compassion for Camille (Richard Courcet), a black gay transvestite who murders elderly women. Featuring some of Denis's most nakedly emotional sequences, Nenette and Boni focuses on horny, lovelorn teenagers on the cusp of adulthood. The callow and hotheaded Boni learns what it means to be a man when his 15-year-old sister returns home pregnant. Conflicting emotions overwhelm him when he first studies the film of her ultrasound. He slaps her for saying she wants to give up the baby. Then his own tears come, and he's frozen in place. The film ends with Boni tenderly cradling the newborn child.
Beau Travail takes Denis back to the farthest fringes of French society. She became fascinated by the Foreign Legion, she told The New York Times, during a Bastille Day parade in Paris. "They were very solemn and proud," she said, "and they never mixed with the other soldiers." Placing the military corps in a remote outpost magnifies this sense of isolation. Here, every Frenchman is an outsider, warily eyed by the African men and women who can't fathom their rituals. Even within the unit, racial and ethnic differences are never fully submerged. The film keeps one eye on the three Muslim legionnaires who, observing Ramadan, sit outside the circle as the others eat. And it's no accident that Galoup engineers his revenge against Sentain by first punishing a black soldier, counting on the new recruit to come to the soldier's aid.
Men and nations, the film suggests, continue to place their faith in codes that have lost their usefulness. Indeed, both masculinity and empire depend on estrangement, men from themselves and empires from the people they seek to dominate. In a French twist on gender politics, Beau Travail breathes life into Susan Faludi's argument in Stiffed about "the betrayal of the American man." The closed male world of the legionnaires grinds out a corps that is disciplined and selfless, but for what purpose? It builds a team, but there is no opponent. Beneath the uniforms, the musculature, the rituals, the camaraderie is, well, what exactly? Emotions that go unexpressed. Doubt. Need. Broken promises. "The male paradigm of confrontation has, in fact, proved worthless to men," Faludi writes.
Innocence is doomed in Billy Budd, but Sentain gets a second chance in this adaptation. Rescued from a sure death, his fate rests with the native Africans, who squire him back to safety. His final words are an ambiguous epitaph for a man given new life: "Lost, lost." In Marseilles, Galoup meticulously makes his bed. Memory cleared, remorse expressed, he lies down, his revolver resting on his stomach. The camera closes in on the tattoo above his heart: "Serve the good cause," it reads, "and die." ¤