Beau Travail, as one might expect when popping in a Criterion disc for a French arthouse adaptation of a Herman Melville novella, doesn’t exactly scream casual viewing. The story it tells is rather simple. But as is the case with many of director Claire Denis’ films, it’s presented in splintered fragments; long, observational takes, often with little or no dialogue, demand the audience to acclimate to its rhythm or quickly abandon ship.
That rhythm is ultimately what makes 1999’s Beau Travail such a distinct marvel. Despite the movie’s threadbare plotting, it’s thematically dense. This tale of a French Foreign Legion officer by the name of Galoup (Denis Lavant) and his repressed desire for a newly recruited soldier Gilles Sentain (Gregoire Colin) is rife with commentary on masculinity, colonialism and sexuality. Frankly, however, one does not need to have a deep understanding of post-colonial French military policy in East Africa (the film is set in Djibouti) to fall under the movie’s hypnotic spell.
Few films make such explicit use of the female gaze the way iDenis does in Beau Travail. One of the opening sequences shows the French troops dutifully making their way through a training obstacle course, and it’s the first of many moments in which cinematographer Agnes Godard examines male bodies in motion — often shirtless and taut with muscles. There is indeed a gracefulness and homoeroticism in the quiet way Godard lingers on their physical routines.
For all its celebration of male physicality, the film is nonetheless a mournful meditation on masculinity’s destructive effects. For Galoup, his masculine form is a thing of beauty, but it’s also a prison. Galoup’s hyper-macho environment and militaristic mindset don’t allow him to even consider the possibility of coming to terms with his own sexuality or emotional insecurities when Sentain goes from being an object of desire to one toward which he directs all his repressed anguish.
The new Criterion Collection release is undoubtedly the best way to experience Beau Travail’s mesmeric cadence. The fluid editing and stark East African scenery look gorgeous on the Blu-ray’s new transfer (remastered in 4K although not presented that way), and the restored sound brings out the granular details of Beau Travail’s hushed sound design along with Lavant’s soft-spoken narration. Godard provides commentary breakdowns of several crucial scenes for one new extra, and there’s a brief-but-revealing interview between Barry Jenkins (director of Moonlight) and Claire Denis. It’s a worthwhile blind buy for those even mildly curious about Denis’ work.