By day, they drive their rippling torsos beneath the blinding desert sun, pausing intermittently to gaze sexily into the distance. By night, they head for the open-air discos of Djibouti to get squiffy with the locals. When time allows, they wash their socks, shave and wander around in cylindrical white caps. They are the men of the modern French Foreign Legion, and director Claire Denis (Chocolat, Nénette et Boni) sensuously explores their pecs...er...souls in her latest work, Beau Travail.
Based loosely on the structure of Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor, Denis' latest film is a slow, poetic montage of vast North African desertscapes, adorned with a somewhat generic array of taut buttocks and pulsing biceps. Supposedly, it is also a story of machismo, pride and valor, and how these elements can be ruined by alienation and jealousy. Well, since that's the pitch, let's take a swing at it. The tale--what there is of it--is narrated by Chief Master Sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant, smoldering), a hardass Legionnaire whose actions have just bought him a return ticket to France in a less-than-honorable discharge. "I felt something vague and menacing take hold of me," he cryptically explains, adding, "Maybe freedom begins with remorse." The film unfurls as samples of his soul are scraped away, his detached monotone guiding us through the troop's harsh existence.
Most of the men involved are simply meat, strewn artfully about the frame in assorted positions of straining and yearning. In addition to Galoup, there are only two other proper characters, the venerable Commandant Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor, rock-solid) and the enigmatic new recruit, Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin, glazed). Forestier is the moral backbone of the group, a veteran who grinds his men hard but who has endured enough suffering to treat them with respect. Sentain is a mystery, a slim and dewy young fellow who, in Galoup's green-tainted eyes, seduces his comrades with calm demeanor, openness and insight. In time, both men get Galoup's goat--Forestier by playing the role of an unappreciative father, oblivious to Galoup's soldierly precision, Sentain by effortlessly outperforming his superior officer, like a plucky, ne'er-do-wrong kid who doesn't know when to quit. Caught between them, his brains baked by too many years in the sun, Galoup's moral barometer starts to go haywire.
Rather than go for the obvious and well-worn Joseph Conrad tics, however, Denis plays her military drama cool and classy, avoiding the sort of dementia we have come to expect from overworked soldiers in exotic lands. This choice has positive and negative effects. On the plus side, the director and her adventurous cinematographer Agnès Godard (a veteran of six previous Denis films) offer us an exotic martial reverie, elegantly tailing their subjects across barren wasteland, beneath azure waves and through many obstacles. The downer is that the repetitive maneuvers and body worship (enough with the glutes!) eventually become soporific; there's no sparring with the spahi, no propulsive conflict to push us forward. After about an hour of detail-oriented visual poetry, Rambo starts to seem appealing. Naturally, so do the jokers from Stripes.
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As a study of intolerance and as an ethnographic document, Beau Travail is reasonably successful. We never really get into the local culture, but we catch sound bites of soldiers insulting the practices of Ramadan, and we see brightly attired women bartering for sitting mats or flirting to a queasy Eurodisco beat. Most keenly, we get the feel of the coarse terrain, but in terms of action, Denis is better at telling than showing.