Beau Travail

dir Claire Denis
scr Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau
with Denis Lavant, Gregoire Colin, Michel Subor, Richard Courcet, Nicolas Cuvauchelle, Adiatou Massudi, Mickael Ravovski, Dan Herzberh, Guiseppe Molino, Gianfranco Poddighe, Marc Veh, Thong Duy Nguyen
99/France 3 out of 5 stars

Review by Rich Cline
Taking the bare-bones of plot from Herman Melville's Billy Budd, French filmmaker Claire Denis has made a haunting, virtually wordless film about youth and jealousy. Beau Travail is a startlingly visual film that works its way under your skin, even though very little actually happens on screen.

There are really only three characters here, surrounded by the fit young men of the Foreign Legion stationed in the coastal wastelands of Djibouti. Galoup (Lavant) is obsessed with pleasing his superior officer Forestier (Subor) until the arrival of the handsome, heroic, respected young recruit Sentain (Colin). Threatened, paranoid, jealous and no doubt lustful, Galoup plots Sentain's downfall as the soldiers repair roads and run through military training exercises along the stark African coastline.

The film basically consists of endless shots of the shirtless men doing what looks like thai chi in the desert. But there's actually a lot going on under the surface--and other sequences that give little glimpses of life. At times it feels almost painfully minimalist with its lack of clear characters or storyline, but as it grows on us we're slowly, subtly drawn into the central conflict. The performances are equally minimalist, and better for it. And Denis makes marvellous use of colour and texture in Agnes Godard's poetic cinematography, along with a wonderfully evocative song score. Yes, it's a bit like watching a painting for 90 minutes, but the imagery and themes linger meaningfully long after you've left the cinema.

[15--violence, themes, very brief nudity] 11.Jul.00
US release 31.Mar.00; UK release 14.Jul.00

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"Claire Denis' Beau Travail is a slow film, at times laboriously so, yet it has a way of convincing you that it's also a great film--perhaps not during, or even immediately after you exit, but the images have a way of invading the subconcience. The film, almost completely devoid of dialogue, consists mostly of images of muscle-bound young men of the French Foreign Legion training in an African wasteland, with little else to do but invent rivalries and prepare for a foe that will not come. On the exterior, the film could be seen as an extended fashion ad (cologne perhaps, as the threads are woefully un-hip), so by the final scene, set in an empty techo club, you're surprised at the emotional investment you've made." --Ryan M, Los Angeles.

"Unbelieveable piece. It was fantastic--my best film at Sundance this year. Very original in style. Great actors. Wonderful camerawork. Just a real film experience. Slow, thougtful, building an incrediable tension." --Bobbie L, St Louis.

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2000 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall