War movies don’t vary much. Customarily, this genre has a singular focus: examination of an individual (a soldier, usually) inside of a system (the military, usually). Wherever the film goes from there, it can typically still be traced back to that configuration of a singular unit as part of the greater whole. The individual is entrenched — to nick a military phrase — within the system, even if the premise of the film is to have that character reconcile with or refute the system itself. And in some ways this is technically true of Beau travail, the 1999 drama by Claire Denis, as it follows young soldiers training inside the construct of the French Foreign Legion. But the treatment of those individuals and that system is so unlike that which is described above, so unique in its presentation, that Beau travail can hardly be called a war film at all.
Unit master-at-arms Galoup (Denis Lavant) leads a section of legionnaires stationed in Djibouti, driving them through a regimen of intense and endless physical training. The legionnaires climb, hurdle, and crawl beneath crude obstacles. They stand for hours with their arms raised under the hot African sun. They iron their uniforms a lot, the sharp creases a signifier of their shared devotion. Galoup undertakes these exercises with his men, screeching at them as he does his own pushups twice as quickly. He is the Legion, in some senses: a lifelong military man, minded only toward the group, toward uniformity, toward the system.
And maybe it’s because of this that Galoup is a loner. We meet him years later, writing his memoirs in solitude in a Marseilles apartment. His voiceover throughout the first half of Beau travail is ever-so-slightly forlorn, particularly in his reminiscence on his own commander Forestier (Michel Subor). Forestier is also a lifelong military man, but he’s sociable and well-liked around the camp. The same is true of the young new legionnaire Sentain (Grégoire Colin), who quickly becomes the subject of Galoup’s envy. The notion that a man can be both a distinct individual and an equal part of the Legion seems beyond Galoup, and thus is his dispute with Sentain rooted in their relation to the system.
But Claire Denis presents that system in a wholly different light than is typical of the traditional war film. We’re mostly referring to the American war film here, though the tenets are similar worldwide. Chief among them is the Us vs. Them mentality, often tied to a sense of nationalism or patriotism. Even a war film like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, in which not a single Nazi is actually shown, still results in a strong swell of pride in the British homeland. Not only does Beau travail entirely disregard the classical “enemy” of the war film, but the Foreign Legion itself — an infantry branch of the French Army — is only tenuously tethered to France. Many of the legionnaires hail from other countries, and a notable scene follows one legionnaire teaching another to speak basic French. While these men are technically bound by the same system, Beau travail inexorably sides with them as people, not simply as members of the Legion.
That said, the way in which Denis almost always chooses to present the legionnaires as a cohesive group is telling:
There’s a sensual nature to the imagery in Beau travail that jars against the uniformity it depicts, an ethereal mood arising from that dissonance. Perhaps an element of homoeroticism is another inherent facet of a great many war films, though the most “manly” and “patriotic” (again, from an American perspective) would almost certainly refute that idea. In Denis’s film there is a sequence of two men, shirtless, staring each other down as they pace in a circle, and this is simultaneously a moment of sensuality and — both in the film and in real life — an exercise undertaken to strengthen the bond within the Legion. Denis does not suggest that the system is false, or nonexistent, or even a fruitless endeavor. But as the men’s sharp creases flatten under the hot Djibouti sun, Beau travail certainly does hint at the fragility of that system.
And if the rigid Galoup is nearly a stand-in for the system, then it follows that Beau travail‘s ending would focus on his own fragility. Much like the duality presented throughout — sensual and fluid on one hand, structured and unforgiving on the other — the ending is simultaneously a moment of unbridled joy and of immense sadness. Denis referred to this as a “dance of death”, a phrase that might also describe the film’s choreographed military training sequences. Rarely does a traditional war film engender such emotion, and in that classic genre Beau travail stands as a most unique entry.
Beau travail is now streaming on the Criterion Channel.