[Virtual Cinema Retro Review] ‘BEAU TRAVAIL’ at 20, still an illuminating visual poem

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James Clay // Film Critic

BEAU TRAVAIL

Not rated, 92 minutes.
Director: Claire Denis
Cast: Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, Gregoire Colin

Is there a person alive who doesn’t have a particular part of their lives they recall as the glory days? The time when you felt most confident in your abilities when you felt like your purpose was being fulfilled in life; now strip it all away and the only thing left is bitterness and all-consuming ego. This is at the center of storied French director Claire Denis’ 1999 international breakthrough BEAU TRAVAIL (French for “good work”). Denis is breaking down masculinity to its most simple terms by giving an outsider’s perspective into what makes a man tick and if you’re paying attention it can be a how-to guide about letting go of the past, and reinvent yourself even if you don’t have the skill-set to take a peek internally to do the actual good work, and learn how to change. 

BEAU TRAVAIL gets a much-needed reintroduction to American film consciousness this month by hitting virtual cinemas across the nation on September 4th before getting a release into the Criterion collection on September 15th with a pristine 4K restoration. (Restoration supervised by director of photography Anges Godard. 

Denis’ visual poetry comes into the frame as her cinematic eye shines a light on the French Foreign Legion’s occupation of East African country Djibouti, a region filled with ultramarine waters, and beautifully bleached landscapes. She purposefully doesn’t give the viewer any context for the politics of the region and instead focuses on the influence of colonialism upon the African nation. (A theme she practiced later in her career with 2009’s WHITE MATERIAL.)

The power that lurks around the setting is the uniformed soldiers practicing their balletic training drills led by squad leader Galoup ( a perfectly weathered Denis’ Lavant), who’s capable of quality leadership, but has zero self-awareness of how to achieve the respect of his fellow soldiers. 

He sees himself as more of an authority figure than a brother in arms, and anybody who gets in the way of his praise from Commandant Forestier (Michel Subor) will feel the passive-aggressive fury of Galoup’s ego. Enters a new recruit Sentain (Gregoire Colin), a handsome, physically fit soldier who begins to earn the respect of his superiors. Becoming obsessed with Sentain’s appearance and supposed rising status Galoup begins to unravel and the result is Denis’ unflinching and passively judgmental look at the curse of masculinity and colonialism.  

The brilliance of BEAU TRAVAIL rests in the privilege of having hindsight. Galoup releases his most personal thoughts as he writes his memoir sometime after the events taking place. He recites little musings like “maybe having peace is feeling remorse.” Denis is able to reduce the human condition of jealousy to one line of dialogue, and the French director is right, having remorse has the ability to be blissful. Being free of concern for your own personal sense of narcissism, Denis is saying to the audience, let it go man, just be free, life is too short. 

Denis’ visual language consists of long shots existing in a only few, yet potent locations that highlight the performative nature of existence. From the strenuous exercises of the Foreign Legion that often times leading to showing off for your peers, to smooth dancehall sequences where soldiers attempt to show off for the opposite sex while harboring their own repressed homosexual feelings.

Simple, yet complex Claire Denis’ BEAU TRAVAIL is the kind of subtle brilliance that’s still relevant over twenty years later. Even at only 90 minutes Denis’ film pulses against every sensory expression possible, from elegance to tension and a forever cool final moment where you can lose yourself to dance. And make sure to watch through the final frame because nobody does ending credits quite like Claire Denis. 

Grade: A-

From the press release announcement. 

Janus Films will release the film in virtual theatrical release at Film at Lincoln Center in New York, Laemmle Theatres in Los Angeles, the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, Violet Crown in Austin, Coolidge Corner in Boston, the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, the Salt Lake Film Society in Salt Lake City, the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, and more. A full list of participating theaters and playdates is available here

BEAU TRAVAIL opens in Virtual Cinemas September 4th.