Galoup (Denis Lavant) makes his bed with military precision, the discipline of his many years in the Foreign Legion lingering in his bones even after his unwanted repatriation to France. He lies down and holds a gun to his bare stomach. On his chest, a faded tattoo etches in flesh an imperative also whispered in voice-over: ‘Serve the good cause and die.’ By now, the narrative of Claire Denis’s exquisite film Beau Travail (Good Work), inspired by Herman Melville’s 1888 novel Billy Budd, has played out: Galoup’s obsession with the young legionnaire Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin) has degenerated into cruelty, violence, sabotage. Whether undertaken out of envy, unspeakable desire or some combination thereof, the pockmarked officer’s actions have led to the pretty Sentain lying salt-crusted in the Djiboutian desert, a near-corpse to be found by a passing family; Galoup himself has been expelled from the Foreign Legion for his transgressions, cast out of its motley family of men and into dishonour. Back in Marseille, gun in hand, his pulse is visible in the vein of his bicep as the house beat of Corona’s ‘Rhythm of the Night’ (1993) fades in on the soundtrack.
Superlative pronouncements about the history of cinema are fatuous, but I’ll risk one nonetheless: what follows these desolate shots of Galoup, supine and suicidal, is perhaps the best ending of any film, ever. In Beau Travail’s final minutes, Denis returns to the Bar des Alpes, a disco that appears throughout the film, where the legionnaires mingle with local girls on a mirrored dancefloor. Now the stage is solely Galoup’s. Clad in black, he smokes, cruises, poses. He begins to dance with grace and force, precision and abandon, first as if in communion with an invisible partner, then determinedly alone. He builds to explosive, spasmodic movements that propel him up against the wall and down to the floor, rolling frenetically until he exits the frame. In a film that consistently muddles chronological time and confuses the distinction between mental pictures and real events, it is impossible to assign a clear ‘what’ or ‘when’ to these unexpected images. They are out of time, after the end. Is Galoup dead or alive? Denis mocks such certainty.
Early in the film, alone in the cold light of France, declaring himself ‘unfit for life, unfit for civilian life’, Galoup proclaims that freedom perhaps begins with remorse. If this is true, his charged encounter with Sentain sows seeds of emancipation, albeit seeds that might only bear fruit in death. Rather than depict this transformation in psychological terms, Denis turns to the energies of the body, to the extraordinary physicality of her lead actor. In death, in dance, Galoup is liberated, given access to the joy and spontaneity that eluded him in life.
Beau Travail is filled with group choreographies of corporeal discipline, with the legionnaires performing callisthenic exercises in the open air, sometimes accompanied by the operatic grandeur of Benjamin Britten. In one routine, the men appear to embrace, but do so with such force that any hint of intimacy is drowned out by their grunts and the percussive slap of skin on skin. They cross brutality with beauty. After nearly 90 minutes of this highly disciplined homosocial milieu, after the despair that emanates from Galoup, seemingly unable to comprehend what drives the animus he feels for Sentain, the film’s coda turns to another bodily repertoire. Alone amidst mirrored tiles and twinkling lights, Galoup finds a rhythm of life that follows none of the patterns of colonial, patriarchal power the film so skilfully traces and complicates. On this impossible dancefloor, he inhabits a utopia of movement without rules.
Erika Balsom is a critic and scholar based in London, UK. Her most recent book is An Oceanic Feeling: Cinema and the Sea (2018), published by the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Zealand.
First published in Issue 200