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Claire Denis (dir), 'Beau Travail'

Artificial Eye Film Co, France 1998, UK video release 2000. Running time 90 mins [French with English subtitles].

A dreamlike account of dysfunctional life in the modern French Foreign Legion. Stuck in Marseilles after being cast out from his beloved military “family”, Staff Sergeant Galoup recalls his time in Djibouti as a sun-baked idyll.

From Galoup's remembered perspective the East African landscape seems to be populated with happy, compliant locals and the eroticised bodies of legionnaires. But as Galoup himself says, “viewpoints count”, and this nostalgia-laden view of the post-colonial world is slowly unpicked as the film progresses. The stunning imagery more than compensates for the languid and minimal plot. The plot rewrites “Billy Budd”, Herman Melville's ship-bound narrative of intense male power relations, and much of Melville's claustrophobia remains. Galoup is infatuated with his mysterious Captain, Bruno Forestier, but this bond is shaken by the arrival of a fresh-faced new recruit (Gilles Sentain) who seems to draw the Captain's eye. When Sentain allows another recruit time out from guard duty to attend a religious event, Galoup loses his self-control and orders an over-the-top punishment. He leaves Sentain to make an impossible walk home across the desert, effectively sentencing him to death.

The unresolved colonial history of the Legion haunts the film. When Galoup disciplines his black subordinates by claiming they “are no longer Africans, but Legionnaires”, they are obviously not convinced, and they are not alone in questioning the continued presence of the Legion south of the Mediterranean. On the way to France, an angry off-screen voice tells “the Frenchie” to go away and “never come back”. What makes the film interesting is Galoup's reaction, as he begins to see the anachronism of the Legion for himself, and regrets his previous blindness to the world beyond the base.

This change from “rock” of the Legion, “unfit for civil life” (the way he describes himself), to something less militarised is symbolised through dance. An early nightclub scene showing him unable to move is set against the balletic but regimented exercise movements he is capable of during training, and this contrast gives meaning to the final scene. As the credits roll, Galoup contemplates himself in the mirror-wall of another nightclub, finds to his surprise that he can now let go, and produces a disconnected yet enthralling dance sequence.

Where does this leave Galoup? The stunning final sequence suggests a set of life-enhancing possibilities, but the real options for disgraced ex-Foreign Legionnaires are more likely to be alcoholism and/or “security work”. In this sense the ending is as ambiguous as it is spectacular.

Topics: Gender | Culture