An Erotic Cinema Classic Finally Gets Its Due
French director Claire Denis’ stunning film “Beau Travail” has received a 4K restoration and Criterion Collection status. It could not be more deserving, writes Cassie da Costa.
The restoration of director Claire Denis’ 1999 film Beau Travail, overseen by cinematographer Agnès Godard and approved by Denis, as well as its entry into the prestigious Criterion Collection, comes at a time when non-dominant visions of the world are still largely excluded from validating institutions. We hear these words spoken again and again, but they don’t seem to sink in. As marginalized groups see their images represented more and more as branding, their artistry is still often sidelined by those with major influence and money—John Boyega reminded us just how high up this practice goes in his recent GQ interview.
The same troubles persist even in the relatively small yet passionate world of “arthouse”—or simply non-blockbuster—cinema. In an interview with The New York Times for a feature on African American exclusion from Criterion Collection, president Peter Becker admitted to his failure to see the value in the brilliant and unforgettable film Daughters of the Dust after writer-director Julie Dash sent him the film through her distributor in 1992. “‘I didn’t understand what I was looking at,’ he said, reflecting on the decision. ‘I didn’t understand it for what it was. And I wasn’t talking with people who were going to help me.’”
This embarrassing admission and the very minimal numbers of non-white directors and women generally represented in the Collection speaks not only to Becker’s and others’ ignorance and prejudice, but also to the overall failure of major institutions to be of real service to artistry. As I watch Godard’s gorgeous restoration, I remember the Criterion branding is the vehicle for the film to escape ephemerality, but not the destination. And before Beau Travail’s Criterion debut, Janus films is releasing the 4K restoration in virtual cinemas beginning September 4, which will make the film available for viewers to stream in the U.S.
Denis herself hasn’t exactly been pushed out of the canon, but she does symbolize the tokenization that noted women directors receive in comparison to their male peers, and how that often overshadows the value of the work for what it is. Black female directors are not recognized to even a similar degree as Black male directors; in fact, the only Black female director in the Criterion Collection is Martinican Euzhan Palcy, the other seven Black directors are men. What struck me about Beau Travail this time around is that the film itself speaks to the ways we end up where we do and don’t belong, how we find some way even when we’re way off track, and how this perseverance doesn’t necessarily redeem or absolve us or others, but offers clues about the future.
Beau Travail is a film that is as concrete as it is mysterious, which is very Denis and also, to be a bit reductive, very French. It’s easy to put labels on it—to say, correctly, that it addresses colonialism, imperialism, toxic masculinity, homoeroticism in the military, the corporeal, and the existential. But it’s also a fleeting film, one that drops in and out of time frames, and is as remarkable for what it leaves out as for what it keeps in.
The story, loosely based on the posthumously published Herman Melville novella Billy Budd, Sailor, follows a troop of French legionnaires led by Sergeant Galoup, played by the always exceptionally intense and intensely exceptional Denis Lavant, who narrates the film while writing in his diary, in his hometown of Marseille. As a legionnaire, he was stationed in Djibouti with a mix of mostly white French soldiers and a few Black and Muslim ones too. Many of the legionnaires have local girlfriends, and the beginning of the film opens on them, dancing in front of a large mirror in the club. Throughout the film, small and large groups of Djiboutians watch the legionnaires do what seems to be elaborate yet useless tasks. The legionnaires are both startling and beautiful—preparing to fight, kill, and suffer (exactly who and for what, Galoup never tells us)—so you can see why the locals, startling and beautiful in their looking and seeing, momentarily become transfixed.
Galoup is fixated on one of his men, Sentain, played by the soulful Grégoire Colin (perhaps a kind of broody French Adam Driver for those unfamiliar). Sentain has a kind of untouchable beauty that comes as much from his physicality as it does from his behavior—he’s transparent, honest, committed, kind. He doesn’t really seem to belong in the French legion and we find out later that he’s an orphan, abandoned as an infant, now found by military service. Galoup wants to annihilate Sentain, probably because he’s a bit in love with him, and recounts his plotting in his diary. Galoup also looks up to his Commander, Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor), and has a bracelet with his name on it. Forestier embodies the kind of sure masculinity that somehow contains a correspondent gentleness; Galoup is probably in love with him too, but fears him and respects him—happy to leave his fate in his Commander’s hands. Forestier, for his part, recognizes Sentain’s strong character and praises him. It’s a kind of love triangle, yet we only hear directly from the one delusional party.
Galoup also has a Djiboutian girlfriend, Rahel (a quiet and graceful Marta Tafesse Kassa), who sells beautiful carpets from her home in the village. Rahel has an unmistakable mix of generosity and humility in her eyes—you wonder how she is with Galoup, but then you also see how he expresses vulnerability and softness with her and no one else. Still, the way time works in the film means that this relationship does not function as a kind of softening or redemption of Galoup; instead, the compartmentalization, between his life in Marseille, in the Djibouti desert with his men, and in the village with his Black girlfriend, offer a vision of spiritual and moral incoherence. Where Sentain is able to answer to himself, Galoup is not—he disconnects, runs away. Even his diary is all over the place.
There is very little speech in the film, but when we hear from the legionnaires in real time, it’s notable. The Muslims are teased during Ramadan as they sit apart fasting, while the others enjoy their lunch. Galoup punishes one Black legionnaire for leaving his post to attend an Eid ceremony, though Sentain tries to cover for him. When another Black legionnaire comes to check on him during his grueling task, Galoup tells him to go away: “You’re not African here,” he insists. Both men are West Africans in East Africa (the French Foreign Legion allows for foreign recruits), where they still stand out despite the category Black. The meaning of Galoup’s words cascade—you’re not African in Africa, you’re not queer in Africa, you’re not you in Africa, you’re a legionnaire.
Similarly, canonization offers us the possibility of annihilating the self no matter the greater implications. If we could just fit in, win approval, outwit the hierarchy, might we join in? Sentain learns that, in his own way, no amount of goodness or dignity will ingratiate him to Galoup, though his integrity and deeds do win the loyalty of his fellow legionnaires. Still, it’s ultimately Djiboutians who are able to, whether he’s deserving of it or not, offer Sentain the kind of nurturing he’s probably spent his life looking for, and it’s somehow Galoup’s brutal exclusion that makes that connection possible. “Perdu” (“Lost”), Sentain cries out in his last line of the film. The woman tending to him has no answers; she’s just another passenger on the bus.