beau travail or, lavant, queen of the desert

It is not often that I stop watching a film before its end, but this week I lapsed. I have prayed to the many-eyed cinema gods, and they have seen fit to punish me with a free ticket to Grown Ups 2. The abandoned film in question was one that appeared on almost every ‘Best Of’ poll for 2012, but one that I found too weird, disturbing and disconnected to persevere.

This was Holy Motors, a two-hour series of odd vignettes that include (at least in the first hour) mo-cap artists having sex and a deranged ginger man dressing Eva Mendes in a niqab while he sustains a knobbly erection. Perhaps it was the time, the setting, my mood, but I just could not face any more of the madness.

holy motorsThere were, however, moments of interest, primarily thanks to the central conceit that the main characters in each vignette are all played by the same actor, Denis Lavant. He adopts many postures and prosthetics to become almost invisible, save for his trademark cavernous cheeks.

Despite my failure to finish Holy Motors, a conversation the morning after brought Lavant back into my consciousness, as the ending to Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1999) was discussed. The film (available on YouTube) depicts the French Foreign Legion stationed in Djibouti, and is an almost dialogue-free, loose adaptation of the opera Billy Budd (Benjamin Britten, originally a novella by Herman Melville). Beau Travail follows Lavant’s stony sergeant Galoup as he carries out his safe routines and becomes increasingly jealous of pretty new-boy Sentain. The closing moments are famous as they depict Galoup posing, and then madly dancing to the kind of track played by Heart on a Friday night, Rhythm of the Night by Corona.

The ending is not as wholly out-of-place as some have suggested. While the majority of music in the film comes from snatches of Britten’s opera and traditional Legion songs, we frequently see the Legionnaires hitting the town and grinding with the locals to popular hits, including, oddly, a foreign-language version of Kiss Kiss by Holly Valance. Galoup too, is not the party-pooper some would have him as, despite his descent into near-madness. He, unlike his inferiors, has a Djiboutian girlfriend who he visits frequently in his black shirt and shiny shoes.

It is never totally clear why Galoup is so envious, but there are evident homosexual tones. Sentain is twenty-two, lithe, muscular and popular. His pointed, boyish features give him the look of a Persian king, and director Denis pads much of the film with erotic shots of the Legionnaires training on a gruelling assault course. As Galoup becomes more jealous and unhinged, the lengthy training montages are replaced with something softer. The soldiers are seen playing in the sea, taking a break from a threat that never seems to materialise, and enjoying a birthday party. The travail dur still exists, but it becomes balletic, beau. Work in formation transforms into an elegant routine, with stretches, poses and body extensions. In one short scene, we see the Legionnaires carrying out an aggressive hugging ritual, while in another Galoup and Sentain circle each other as in the opening of a tango.

OEFM_Beau Travail_01_low

beau-travailGaloup’s envy soon turns into hate, and eventually he punishes Sentain for disobeying orders. The young soldier is left in the desert with a faulty compass, doomed by the aging queen who wants him out of the picture. Fortunately, Sentain is saved by the curious locals, and Galoup is discharged for his actions. In the penultimate scene we see Galoup meticulously make his bed (another routine) and lay on his back, tantalisingly tickling a handgun. Denis then cuts to the aforementioned final scene, with Galoup in full Tony Manero mode.

So what can we make of this ending? It is nothing new to see Galoup in the nightclub, nor in his disco-wear, but there is a tentative freedom here which suggests his suicide. Corona’s lyrics are predictably unenlightening, but there is something in the way in which Galoup moves. He begins by walking very slowly, taking long drags on his cigarette and inspecting himself in the mirrored walls. He then moves into a turn, finding the rhythm of the music (which may of course be non-diegetic), contemplatively kneels and considers his next actions. It is not until the chorus of the song that Galoup finds his feet, and his swinging arms. But there is still restraint at this point. This is a character who enjoys routine; his whole being centres on it. The more active movements of Galoup are, at this point, testing the water. Eventually he feels comfortable enough to entirely let go (perhaps this is the point of death) and proceeds to whirl on the dancefloor like a helicopter. It is a massive release, and before Galoup fully exhausts himself, Denis cuts to the credits.

We do return to Galoup after the cast list, although this section has the feel of the outtakes seen at the end of the Rush Hour films. Galoup throws himself to the floor and seems to be in/on ecstasy, rolling around like a child at a Tenerife mini-disco. But he is free from routine, free from hierarchy, and free from the mysterious Sentain. In this closing disco dream, Denis offers an oddly uplifting yet tragic ending, which set against the stark panoramas of arid Djibouti, cements Galoup as the true queen of the desert.


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