Herman Melville meets the French Foreign Legion in the middle of the African desert in “Beau Travail,” a striking retelling of “Billy Budd, Sailor” in a minimalist, strongly visual key. French director Claire Denis’ (“Nenette and Boni”) Spartan storytelling style of few words and powerful images, as rigorous and unflinching as basic training, is already winning great admiration in fest circles. While the leisurely, quasi-operatic unfolding of the tenuous plot may put off some viewers, others will be drawn by the sensuality of young male bodies choreographically displayed. Strong critical response should spark specialty distrib interest internationally.
In Marseille, ex-marshal Galoup (Denis Lavant) recalls his life in a forgotten Foreign Legion post in the gulf of Djibouti, where young soldiers spend their days playing war games and repairing roads. In his diary, he indulges in unlikely literary reminiscences about how splendid life used to be, before it all went wrong.
Small, wiry and pockmarked, Galoup cuts a strange figure around his “boys,” shaven-headed young giants with faces as sculpted as their biceps. Short on words, these stylized, emotionless soldiers perform strenuous gymnastics and graceful tai chi, swim in the azure sea in abbreviated desert togs, and occasionally mix with local girls in throbbing dances at the local disco.
Galoup’s deep, ambiguous love for his tough commanding officer (Michel Subor) is threatened by the arrival of new recruit Sentain (Gregoire Colin), beloved by his comrades for his goodness and generosity. (To illustrate, he is shown risking his life to rescue a downed helicopter pilot.) Brooding over the Commander’s attraction to the youth, Galoup, the equivalent of Melville’s Claggart, hatches a scheme designed to get rid of Sentain forever.
But the recruits soon deduce the truth and the Commander sends Galoup packing. The iron-fisted sergeant finds himself stripped of his stripes and with a lot of time on his hands, which in the pic’s surreal coda he spends in frenzied, self-absorbed disco dancing.
The film’s anti-militarist message is evident but secondary to the personal story of the crazed Galoup, expressed in Lavant’s surprisingly offbeat perf, Subor’s rock-faced Commander and Colin’s noble innocent. The whole crew is observed with mute bemusement by the local inhabitants, like a visiting circus of curious animals.
Echoing Denis’ stripped-down dialogue and staging, cinematographer Agnes Godard empties the frame to give the film a strong, clean visual style that astounds with the colors and beauty of nature (male bodies included). The exalted mood of Benjamin Britten’s opera “Billy Budd” is refrained in several physical sequences that seem on the verge of turning into modern dance numbers.
The downside of this aesthetic approach is that it leaves the men’s feelings and emotions strictly to the viewer’s imagination, which will limit film’s audience considerably. The action is so slow in coming that the growing tension between Galoup and Sentain dissolves before it can explode. But for those who prefer hardcore cerebral thrills, this will be no problem.