Beau travail ("fine work") is among the freest, the most lyrical and inventive of films. Denis follows the example set by the Nouvelle Vague in the '60s, but across her fiction and documentary work she has evolved her own distinctive style and view of the world.
Beau travail is a completely poetic piece, characterised by an unusual combination of images and music (classical and pop music alike), a minimal dependence on plot, and an approach to bodily gesture and movement which is much closer to dance than naturalistic drama – in fact, Denis collaborated with a choreographer, Bernardo Montet on the staging of the action.
The film's premise is simple: nominally a portrait of the French Foreign Legion stationed in contemporary Africa. This may seem an odd or anachronistic idea, and that is exactly the feeling which Denis wants to promote. (Four years later, observing this region's role in a new war, she ruefully commented: "I thought I was filming the end of something, not the beginning.")
Her military men are mere figures in a landscape, detached from any reality but their own. Their code of honour and rituals of masculinity are given a highly surreal air. Discipline, training, bodybuilding – all these cyclical, daily activities of the Legionnaires are shown with an amused but also fascinated gaze.
Beau travail shows the interaction of two starkly different worlds: the Legionnaires in their strange, ascetic bubble, and the African society all around them, sensual and vibrant. Where the soldiers seem forever separate from a forbidding, dry landscape, Denis, who has made several films on African themes and herself grew up in Africa, shows this also as a clash between a world of men and a world of women. The women dance and laugh, providing an ironic perspective on the ingrown world of the men.
Within this microcosmic world of men, however, things are stirring and seething. The core of the story, sketched in a very economical, almost diagrammatic way, is the mysteriously homoerotic triangle that forms between the head of this outfit, Bruno (Michel Subor), a new recruit, Sentain (Grégoire Colin) and the small, intense guy who runs the show from day to day, Galoup – who is played by the extraordinary Denis Lavant, familiar from Leos Carax's work.
Much of the film is told through the memories of the disgraced Galoup, as he struggles uneasily to fit back into civilian life in Marseilles. Yet Galoup brings no particular hindsight or wisdom to his account. Instead, we enter into the intense world of his jealous fantasies and passions, his love for Bruno deforming any natural personal or professional relation he might ever have had with the unfortunate scapegoat Sentain. These interpersonal tangles build to a level of tension and dread, of true drama and catharsis, which is unique in world cinema.
I have been frankly puzzled by some of the slightly bemused and defensive local reactions to Beau travail, which often seem to apologise for its careful pacing, its reliance on pure images and sounds over old-fashioned dialogue, and its modern approach to storytelling. But this is a film which compellingly creates its own frame of reference, taking you into its vivid world and commanding your full sensory and emotional attention.
Beau travail is a masterpiece, a film whose rich inner life only becomes more absorbing and intricate with repeated viewings.
© Adrian Martin March 2001