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Hélène de Saint-Père
This film focuses on ex-Foreign Legion officer, Galoup, as he recalls his once glorious life, leading troops in the Gulf of Djibouti. His existence there was happy, strict and regimented, but the arrival of a promising young recruit, Sentain, plants the seeds of jealousy in Galoup's mind. He feels compelled to stop him from coming to the attention of the commandant who he admires, but who ignores him. Ultimately, his jealousy leads to the destruction of both Sentain and himself.Written by
L.H. Wong <firstname.lastname@example.org>
An effective study on what military life does to human expression.
Claire Denis' Beau travail, alongside Bruno Dumont's L'Humanité, is a French film I wouldn't suggest to those who get easily bored in a movie theater. But if one is willing to forget the conventions of narrative cinema and accept the sometimes documentarian, sometimes corporeally poetic way Beau travail approaches it's subject, this should be a true treat for both the eyes and the mind.
The story of the movie is thin as paper: Galoup, a sergeant in the French Foreign Legion, has to deal with his jealousy when a new recruit called Sentain becomes a hero in the eyes of his men. Alongside Galoup's soldiers, the only other important player in this bizarre drama is Forestier, Galoup's superior, who he obviously admires, but who doesn't share his resentment for Sentain. Gradually, Galoup's envy for Sentain becomes too much for him to take, and his downward spiral begins.
Denis depicts, with great sense for details, how the military routines dominate every aspect of the legionnaires' (and especially Galoup's) life. This is portrayed effectively in the beginning of the film, when the soldiers' crude attempts to dance in a disco are compared to their beautiful, elegant movements during physical training. To Galoup, military discipline has become the only form of self-expression, and for this reason he hates Sentain, who tries to bring a little more humanity to the camp. Or does he? A curious aspect of the film is that we never see any of the things Galoup, in his narrative, accuses Sentain of. Only in the end Sentain acts against Galoup's strict orders, and this could be seen as counterreaction to Galoup's obvious hatred and unreasonable forms of punishment; the humane deed Sentain commits is something any soldier who isn't thoroughly programmed would do. So, since the story is told from Galoup's point of view, it could be argued that he has become paranoid, that as soldier without a war or an enemy he is only looking for an object to his emotional output (which the military life has distorted into hatred and envy), and Sentain, because of his one act of heroism, happens to be an apt target.
The above, however, isn't the only way to interpret the story. It is quite possible that Sentain acts the way Galoup says he does, and this turns the movie into a triangle (or a rectangle) drama between Galoup, Sentain and his men, possibly even his superior. The only thing Galoup's seems to (or is able to) care about is the military, and disciplining the legionnaires is his way of showing his affection. But this balance is broken by Sentain, whom the men admire, and who's actions are approved by Forestier. Since Galoup fears he is about to lose the very substance of his life, he reacts the only way is familiar with: by tightening his rule. Galoup's behaviour is, of course, bound to have repercussions, but there is no other option he can possibly think of.
Besides the way military life takes control of the men, Denis' other obvious point is to show how absurd and pointless the army routines seem in the eyes of an outsider. During the film we see countless training numbers and war excercises and witness the soldiers dull everyday life, but never do we see them doing anything useful. At one time the legionnaires build a camp in the desert, but the only reason for this seems to be Galoup's desire to get some action to the bored men. Beau travail's antimilitaristic theme becomes even more obvious, when the legionnaires' life is shown in contrast of the Africans who neighbour them. These people shepherd their herd, weave mats, sell things, make food, and watch with astonishment as the soldiers dig a hole in the middle of nowhere. The personal drama in the film becomes even more tragic, when Denis shows just how meaningless is the system that produces these kind of human beings. In the terrific final scene of the film we see the whole scale of Galoup's desperation as it becomes obvious, that he could never be anything else than a sad, retired army officer with no chance of fitting into the civilian world.
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