‘If it weren’t for fornication and blood, we wouldn’t be here...’
Claire Denis is a French auteur beloved by film critics and pretty much unknown outside of academic circles. As BFI’s Sight and Sound list of the top 100 films of all time slips ever further into self-parody, Beau Travail is in many ways a symbol of that slide. And this is a shame because while it obviously isn’t the 7th greatest film of all time as claimed by that list, it is a tight and enjoyable 92 minutes…
Galoup (Denis Lavant) reflects on his life as a Foreign Legion officer and his jealousy of new recruit Sentain (Grégoire Colin). This is essentially a two-hander that substitutes aesthetics for plot. Normally that last sentence would make my eyes roll so far back into my head that I would faint from the effort of it all. On this occasion, and against all odds, I actually really enjoyed the look and feel of this movie.
While both Colin and particularly Lavant are excellent, it is Denis who is the real star here. This is one of the most visually enchanting films I’ve ever seen, making full use of what cinema can really be. Denis does this without gimmicks, tricks or pretension. Instead, she simply creates an entire world and shoots her creation simply. Despite the skinny running time, there are plenty of long lingering shots here but whether she is shooting the breathtaking scenery or the men of the Foreign Legion engaged in training exercises, Denis achieves perfection in almost every shot.
While I must admit I won’t be rushing to watch Beau Travail again, it also wasn’t the experimental slog that I was expecting. This is cinema stripped back of the flab to create something truly pure and genuinely affecting.