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Beau Travail

Beau Travail(1999)

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teaser Beau Travail (1999)

"Maybe freedom begins with remorse."

Those words, spoken by Galoup (Denis Lavant), French legionnaire troop leader, near the beginning of the extraordinary Beau Travail (1999), give a hint as to the nature of Galoup's personal downfall. This legionnaire speaks to the audience from a present day in which the events of the movie have already happened and his life irrevocably changed. What's different, what's important, is that Galoup regrets those actions and lives in disbelief that he ever steered his life in such a direction. As he says later, "Now that I'm travelling this road through the past, I'm sorry I was that man, that narrow-minded legionnaire." What's tragic is that not even Galoup can understand why.

Beau Travail was based loosely on Herman Melville's Billy Budd, very loosely. It has the same basic conflict at the center of its story but a vastly different conclusion and outcome for the characters. Galoup has spent years becoming the best legionnaire there is and wants nothing more than recognition by his commander, Forestier (Michel Subor). He wants to be valued and admired and necessary. Above all, he wants to be necessary.

When a new volunteer joins up, Sentain (Gregoire Colin), Galoup feels an immediate unease with him. Sentain gets along with everyone and is the perfect legionnaire but Galoup feels nothing but animosity towards him. Sentain will get the recognition Galoup so desperately craves and feels he deserves. Galoup becomes consumed with Sentain and waits for the moment he can destroy him.

The simple fact is, nothing more really happens in the movie, as far as the story or plot are concerned. Claire Denis, its director and co-writer (with Jean-Pol Fargeau), has done something remarkable in telling her tale. She has told the story through emotions, feelings, and instincts rather than tight plotting and revelatory dialogue. Her film uses tranquil imagery of landscapes, meditative shots of exercise routines and observation of simple actions (ironing, eating, smoking, washing) as the means of advancing the plot. Beau Travail begins and ends with images of dance clubs and each time the result is transformative, though the last time is also emotionally cathartic as well.

Claire Denis has remarked that when putting together a movie she tries to avoid clich. That is something a lot of directors may aspire to but Denis takes it a step further and attempts to excise from her films even the audience expectation of clich. Watching Denis' films, especially Beau Travail, gives the viewer an understanding of what she means. There are no swelling music cues to signal emotional reactions from the viewer, no, but there is also, through astonishing editing, no general feel of the type of straight ahead linear story telling techniques so evident in most movies, no matter what the country of origin. The intercutting of disconnected scenes rids the viewers of any cumbersome anticipation of where the story will go and, instead, grants the viewers the freedom to drop their guard and let the movie dance before them. And dance it does.

Many of the scenes involve the troop performing exercises and Denis claims there was a former legionnaire among them that taught them the exercises to do. She says she didn't intend for the exercise scenes to appear choreographed but, in fact, they play as elegant dances and, at times, even have excerpts from the Billy Budd opera playing beneath them. And Denis Lavant seems to build his entire character as if performing one movie-length long interpretive dance. He and Sentain even have a scene, a beautiful and unexplained confrontation, in which they slowly walk in a circle, drawing ever closer to each other but never fully engaging.

Because Claire Denis tells her story in a loose, visual method rather than as a talky or tightly plotted film, there are never full explanations for anything that happens. Is Galoup in love with Sentain, merely attracted to him or simply jealous of the attention he gets? What drives Galoup to take such extreme actions as attempting to destroy Sentain? What are we, the viewers, to make of any of it? That, according to Claire Denis, is up to the viewer. It's been said that once an artist finishes their work, it belongs to the world. Often, the artists themselves don't quite understand what they've created. Denis switches scenes around from their original placement in the script and fully trusts that her actors will make the emotional connection with the viewer (she's even stated that she doesn't trust herself nearly as much as her actors).

By providing the barest outline of story and linear narrative to the viewer, she insures that the viewer will be the one to derive the meaning from it. It's a way of trusting the audience, something too many directors never do. Thanks to that trust, movies like Beau Travail are richly rewarding cinematic experiences that the viewer can return to many times and each time make a different connection to what they're watching. Beau Travail is widely hailed as Denis' masterpiece and considered by many to be one of the greatest movies ever made (it currently resides inside the top 100 of the Sight and Sound poll). It surely is but it is also one of the most emotionally devastating and beautiful films ever made, a tribute to Claire Denis' talent for avoiding clich. Producer: Patrick GrandperretDirector: Claire DenisWriter: Claire Denis, Jean-Pol FargeauMusic: Charles Henri de Pierrefeu, Eran ZurCinematography: Agns Godard Film Editor: Nelly Quettier Production Designer: Arnaud de Moleron Cast: Denis Lavant (Galoup), Michel Subor (Commander Bruno Forestier), Grgoire Colin (Gilles Sentain), Richard Courcet (Legionnaire), Nicolas Duvauchelle (Legionnaire), Adiatou Massudi (Legionnaire), Mickael Ravovski (Legionnaire), Dan Herzberg (Legionnaire)

By Greg Ferrara

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