PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Beau travail
Claire Denis


September 15, 2020

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry Beau travail is not a traditional anti-imperialist film, but it is one of the most elemental. Set in the rugged desert terrain of Djibouti among a diverse troop of French Foreign Legionnaires, the film is an impeccably cohesive deconstruction of our concept of manhood and national identity. It's a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst that have rippled throughout civilization. But this expression comes in the form of wandering camerawork, fragmented voiceover, free-associative editing, and a diffuse narrative, combined in a sublime and sensitive subjectivity unlike any found in the canon of war and military cinema.

Beau travail is a difficult film to talk about in some ways because its story is as stubborn and stagnant as its subject. Adapted from Herman Melville's novella, Billy Budd, the narrative of Beau travail swirls around the memories and thoughts of former Foreign Legion officer Galoup (Denis Lavant), who reveals through inner monologue his journey of self-discovery and self-destruction in Djibouti. With the arrival of a soldier named Sentain (Grégoire Colin), who immediately earns the affections of Galoup's beloved Commandant Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor), Galoup slowly loses all self-control to the potent pressures of jealousy and sexual desire clashing against his identity as the "perfect legionnaire".

Using Galoup's perspective, Denis depicts a Legion largely removed from the context of its nationalism and the larger apparatus of state power, and instead motivated only by its ritual tribalism. Beau travail does not revel in the traditional scenery of imperialist conquest—of battle, glory, and subjugation. It evokes colonial war only in its margins.

Denis and cinematographer Agnès Godard's gaze does not otherize or exoticize the few Djiboutians present in the film's borders, either; instead, it transforms the legionnaires into alien forms who participate in bizarre and inscrutable ceremonies that fall outside our typical understanding of who soldiers are and what they do. We see small bursts of manic and violent acts of flagellation and intimidation in their training, but they are divided by casual routines of order and quiet domestic maintenance—ironing, cooking, hanging clothes to dry, etc.

Water drop by qimono (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

The film is ultimately a conversation of haphazard images depicting foreigners and foreignness wrapped in a poignant, interior poetry with the twinge of memory, the cold pang of regret, and the ever-encroaching shadow of damnation swelling in Galoup's psyche. It's only sensible that a film about suppressed identities would subvert our view of the masculine military ideal in this way.

Beau travail has a non-linear, impressionistic sense of time that allows us to see Galoup's emotional development as he interacts in the present with his memories of Sentain and Forestier. We witness freeform montages of the troop laying camp, engaging with the urban nightlife, and exercising in the harsh African sun. These movements are interrupted with scenes of Galoup, back in France years later, adjusting to the civilian world with solemn frustration. The film's flashbacks build to the moment of his tragic split with the Legion, and in that juxtaposition, we see the results of his staunch dedication to his assumed identities.

In France, Galoup writes in recollection of his downfall, "Maybe freedom begins with remorse." Denis sets this questioning of personal liberty—embodied in Galoup's regretful voiceover—in contrast with the rigidity and guiltlessness of manly identity, symbolized in the obstinate structure of the Legion's drills, exercises, and marches. Traditional masculinity, the film points out, is a barren waste of suppressed and unexamined feeling, coiled and dried like desert weeds and sterilized in salt, until the weight of the sand and poison dust sets it all into collapse. It seeks the eradication of life—of passion, sentiment, and empathy—to claim space for the elevation of power for its own sake. By the end of the film, we understand just how impotent it all is.

But if the film is critical of the egocentric malice that the ethos of traditional masculinity upholds, it shows at least some admiration for the physicality of masculine bodies. Beau travail may be the most vibrant examination of the male form in cinema since Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia (1938), but where Riefenstahl's film—commissioned under the Nazi regime—was designed in part with an uncritical fixation on the strength evident in the bodies of fit men, Denis seeks a deeper understanding of machismo in her imagery of polished musculature and rugged postures.


Specifically, Denis shows bodies on the move not in aggression but in stasis, twisting and stretching in sensual expressions of balance and harmony. Godard's cinematography writhes in stark angularity in the same way, evoking both the beauty and precarity of the Djiboutian landscape. Certain exercises the Legion performs are as hostile as they are powerful expressions of brotherhood; in a spellbinding sequence, the shirtless legionnaires hurl themselves into each other, collapse into violent embraces, then fling themselves apart.

On the one hand, it's a concise illustration of how men embrace only in the toxic routine of domination and repression, and commune only in the conditioning of control. But their unity signifies a greater potential for manhood, for a constructive passion and synergy just as powerful as their capacity for carnage.

This dance of male forms reaches its apex in the film's iconic final scene, Galoup's surreal solo dance sequence set to Corona's Eurodance classic, "The Rhythm of the Night". It's a rapturous and explosive moment, when Galoup finally conveys the intensity within him in a way that's true to himself. It's a vision of what he could be were he not bound to his readymade identity—one based on the illusion of superiority and the delusion of control.

Beau travail is a film that shows men as the victims of their own ideology, particularly how they seek to bring objects of desire under their control to the point of destruction. All Galoup earns is his unfulfilled desire, but Denis leaves us with a reminder of the sublime capability that exists within him nonetheless. If only he were to break from his self-imposed limitations—of machoness, of Frenchness, of straightness—he could discover a true freedom.


* * *

Claire Denis' legendary Beau travail has long deserved a home video release from a boutique label that would treat it with due reverence and showcase it in the impeccable technical quality that it warrants. Many film lovers (including myself) no doubt first saw the film in suboptimal conditions on the soft and dingy DVD releases that were among the only ways to watch it for years. Beau travail remains a spellbinding enigma in any circumstance, but there's no doubt that the Criterion Collection's new Blu-ray edition with its gorgeous 4K digital restoration—supervised and approved by Denis and Godard—has finally given us the pristine version of the film we've long asked for.

Key among the newly produced special features for Criterion's release of the film is a 2020 interview between Denis and director Barry Jenkins, in which they discuss what drew Denis to the Foreign Legion as a subject, conflict with the disapproving military, the influence of Jean-Luc Godard's Le petit soldat (1963), and the meaning behind several specific scenes. Agnès Godard is featured on a new select-scene commentary, in which she details the process of location scouting in Djibouti, camera and lens selection, "blind shooting" without dailies, and several other technical and artistic considerations.

Levant and Colin each get their own newly produced interviews, in which the actors discuss their working relationship with Denis, the unique nature of their respective roles, and the peculiarities of the production. Finally, in a new video essay, professor, film scholar, and author of Claire Denis Judith Mayne analyzes the thematic contrasts present in the film, the motifs of dance and movement, and the special significance of the Forestier character.

It's not often that such lauded masterpieces of cinema are as neglected as Beau travail has been, only to be released on home video with immaculate video and audio quality and supplemented by brand new, incisive special features. While it would have been nice to see one or two special features contemporaneous with the film's 1999 release so that it didn't feel so much like a retrospective, I can't really complain. Many of us have been waiting for a release like this for years, and now that it's here, it's better than I could have hoped.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.