Thursday, November 28, 2013

DVR Diary: BEAU TRAVAIL (1999)

The French Foreign Legion was an obsessive subject of pop culture for generations. P. C. Wren's oft-filmed story Beau Geste was but the tip of the iceberg -- or the tip of the sand dune, to keep the right atmosphere. Foreign Legion stories were a staple of the good old pulp magazines; authors like Georges Surdez (best known for inventing or at least popularizing the concept of "Russian roulette" in a Legion story), Robert Carse and J.D. Newson made the subgenre their specialty in the pages of Adventure, Argosy, Blue Book and Short Stories. The Legion archetype lent itself to parody, particularly the notion that men joined "to forget." In the pulps, service in the Legion was a proving or redemptive ordeal, a test of both courage and discipline. The Legion could be a nightmare of discipline, but that discipline, often combined with the discovery of camaraderie, usually made a story's protagonist a better man. The main motifs of Legion stories were the harsh discipline and the threat of savage enemies wherever the troops were deployed, be it in Morocco against the Rifs or against the first generations of insurgents in Indo-China.

For the pulps' adolescent or young-adult target market, the Foreign Legion was an allegory for rites of passage to come, from work to war. But the protagonists of those stories were often older men, people with pasts for whom the Legion offered escape and exile as well as ultimate regeneration. And because director Claire Denis populates her Legion story almost exclusively with young men, a viewer who knows the Legion mainly through pulp fiction or pop cinema might not recognize the troops of Beau Travail as the French Foreign Legion. The pulp archetypes of Anglo-American fiction have little to do with Denis's film, though it's probably no accident that her film is called Beau something. Ironically, however, Denis sees the Legion through an American prism -- specifically the prism of Herman Melville and more specifically Melville's sea story Billy Budd, if not also Benjamin Britten's operatic adaptation of the story, excerpts of which are heard on Denis's soundtrack. For those familiar with Billy Budd it will suffice to stay that, while converting the sea tale to a Legion setting, Denis has also shifted to make her Claggart figure, the officer Galoup (Denis Lavant) the main character. For those less familiar -- and I've only seen the Peter Ustinov film of Billy Budd and haven't read the Melville myself -- Galoup is a conflicted disciplinarian who grows jealous of a handsome, popular new soldier (Gregoire Colin), whom he sees as a rival for the regard of the commanding officer of the troops stationed in Djibouti. In Billy Budd, Claggart basically drives the title character to kill him, despite Billy's essential innocent nature, as if hoping that the act would ensure Billy's destruction -- as it does. In Beau Travail, Galoup goads his nemesis into striking him, but lives to take revenge by leaving the legionnaire in the desert with orders to find his own way back -- with a damaged compass. It's the Claggart figure, Galoup, who ends up facing the doom of a court-martial, if he doesn't release himself and all his repressed impulses the easier way first....

Beau Travail is probably most noteworthy for the way Denis subjects the Legion to the female gaze, though she also arguably follows a homoerotic thread in both Melville and Britten. Rather than the hard-boiled boot camp environment of pulp fiction, Denis's Legion is more like a frat house full of hunky young men. Despite occasional reminders of the dangers of their work, the legionnaires' routine often looks more like play than work. Denis focuses on their workouts as they run obstacle courses in a manner preminiscent of the notorious al-Qaeda training videos and practice underwater hand-to-hand combat. There's more dancing and chanting than one recently immersed in pulps expects to see in the Foreign Legion, and a much more casual environment. There may be something sinister or psycho in Galoup's attitude, but he hardly compares to the martinets one encounters in Beau Geste and other Legion stories of yore. Instead, he contributes to an illusion of domesticity with his obsessive attention to ironing his uniforms, while underwear hangs from clotheslines conspicuously. Something seethes beneath his gruff surface; Denis hints at it repeatedly with scenes from some Djibouti dance club (or whorehouse?) Galoup frequents. The easy answer to everything is that Galoup is a repressed homosexual, but that doesn't necessarily get to the heart of his issues. The characters motives remain essentially mysterious and monstrous, especially after Denis closes the film with a moment less revelatory than transcendent. Galoup is back in France awaiting his court-martial in a bedroom with a pistol. Then he's in a dance club as the dance-club standard "The Rhythm of the Night" plays. Out of nowhere Galoup starts a frantic yet expressionless breakdance. Denis cuts away from this to show us the acting credits, then cuts back as the acrobatic Denis Lavant throws himself about before finally exiting the screen. It's a tremendous moment of release that may symbolize Galoup's suicide but could just as easily be a mental release or breakdown, and is certainly an enigmatic catharsis worthy of (or influential upon) Paul Thomas Anderson's most recent films, while the way Lavant's personality seems to shift instantly may well have helped inspire Holy Motors, the recent showcase for Lavant by his most consistent collaborator, director Leos Carax. Beau Travail definitely wasn't the sort of Foreign Legion movie I had expected, but Denis follows her own influences and impulses to make her film an indelible pictorial experience.

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