The Rhythm of the Night: Beau Travail (1999)

La Sept-Arte/New Yorker Films

“And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.”

— Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

A man makes his bed for the last time. He does it with military precision, unhurried, adherent to the ritual of the routine. Sharp creases, ridges of muscle moving along his arms and back as he smooths the covers with care. He considers his work, hands clasped behind his back. He sits. A snapshot of another time and place briefly rises to the surface of his memory as the lonely room and cold gray light fragment, revealing
an image of life as it was before.  

(A band of men posing by the sea—half of them shirtless, relaxed, guns clutched to their chests, wind rippling their fatigues and the sun-bright water behind them. A happier time. The man, closely posed beside his commanding officer, smiles broadly at the camera. 

One face is conspicuously absent.) 

Back in his room, the man takes his service weapon and lies back on the bed. Outside, the trilling of birds. A body in stasis. The rise and fall of his stomach. The gun clasped loosely in his lap. The tattoo etched above his heart is a whispered commandment in the still, listless air. Serve the good cause and die. 


This is the moment when the stark final minutes of Claire Denis’ military drama, Beau Travail  (1999), take an unexpected turn. A despondent man meets deadly weapon meets fatalistic  inscription: fill in the blank on the other side of that equation. A decided full stop. By any linear narrative standard, ex-Foreign Legion sergeant Galoup (played with great physical restraint by the wonderful Denis Lavant) is prepared to die. But the body betrays itself. As he lies there, otherwise resigned to the thought of his imminent lifelessness, a vein throbs beneath the exposed skin of his bicep, following its own pulsing, inexorable tempo. Cue music. The beat of a darkened nightclub. A rhythmic backing track to a moment that cracks the film wide open and takes it to a place of fantastical, temporal abandon; a conclusion that lies not in an embrace of death, but in an electrifying—and moreover, life-affirming—dance. 

The scene shifts. The full stop becomes an ellipsis. The spoken confession and the written word give way to another, wholly inescapable form of expression. The fatalistic finale opens itself up to one of the most sublime moments in cinema.  


Beau Travail takes place in two disparate narrative spheres: that of ex-Legionnaire Galoup in Marseille as he transcribes the actions that led to his current disgrace and repatriation, and that of Galoup’s prior command training fresh recruits in a Foreign Legion outpost in Djibouti. In his written confession, he admits his guilt. The arrival of handsome recruit Sentain (Grégoire Colin) causes “something vague and menacing” to take hold of Galoup, which manifests as an obsessive, ultimately murderous jealousy. Sentain is well-liked. Sentain is alluring. Sentain drives a wedge between Galoup and his much-admired commandant, Forestier (Michel Subor), disrupting Galoup’s carefully constructed routine and dark, sublimated impulses in the process. Whether Galoup is aware of the simmering homoerotic repulsion-attraction that underlies his hatred of Sentain remains a matter of bare importance in a narrative where so much is left unsaid and unfulfilled among the unforgiving volcanic rock and dust. All we know is that Sentain’s presence sets Galoup apart from the rest of the men and threatens his role as a model Legionnaire—and for that, Sentain must die.  

Like any good soldier, Galoup exploits his enemy’s weakness. Sentain challenges his superior officer’s deliberate mistreatment of a fellow Legionnaire, and, when reprimanded, punches Galoup in the face. Galoup sends Sentain into the arid salt flats as punishment, knowing the exercise will be a fatal one. The trap is set. A broken compass. The final assurance that his rival will never make it back to camp. Sentain is left to burn under the merciless sun, lost and close to death, his fate ultimately left in the balance after being rescued by passing tribespeople. Galoup is stripped of his uniform and military brotherhood and sent back to a homeland now as foreign to him as the barren Ghoubbet. He is a machine built for one purpose, and, without the regimented structure of life in the Legion, finds himself adrift in a sea of self-recrimination and regret: “Unfit for life. Unfit for civil life.” The loss of command is his first unmaking. From hatred to remorse, colonizer to repatriate, practiced physical prowess to atrophied decline—the dissolution of Galoup sets the stage for the man we see in the film’s penultimate scene, inert and suicidal, service revolver clasped in his lap.  

Yet there is a final act of unmaking, another man beyond the tyrant and the penitent. The man in black. The man of frenetic dance.  

Let’s revisit the end. The scene of impending suicide shifts from Galoup’s deathbed to a dance floor. Galoup, now in dress shoes and a black outfit, moves with sensuous ease as Corona’s club hit “The Rhythm of the Night” fills the silent beat previously submerged in his suicidal body. The location is the same Djiboutian discotheque frequented by the Legionnaires throughout the film, but it has never been this empty or severed from its context. Purgatory? Flashback? A death-dream of a less inhibited self, free at last from rigorous self-control and the sharp confinement of a uniform? It doesn’t matter. In previous scenes, the dance floor is not a place where Galoup looks at home: he glowers from the sidelines or hovers by his girlfriend, Rahel (Marta Tafesse Kassa), as she moves with unaffected enjoyment to the music. Once, we see him disappear up the steps of the club and just as quickly come bounding back down, nerve lost, to walk the streets alone. In this final scene, however, Galoup is unleashed. 

He slopes from pace to pace with panther-like grace—stopping, starting, loosely held cigarette tracing points through the air, twisting into motion and just as abruptly pulling himself short. A louche shrug. He drops to one knee, rocks forward, springs into wild and frenetic movement. His hands sweep from side to side; a seductive tilt of his head. He is crouched and spinning on his heels with his hands outstretched until his form begins to blur, freed of shape, a perpetual motion machine. First cut to credits. We resume the scene with Galoup, upright, standing to attention, gaze fixed, a momentary respite from the fervent dance—until he propels himself directly upright as if from an invisible springboard, body outstretched, landing in the same position on the floor and immediately resuming his increasingly erratic and convulsive thrashing and leaping. He flings his limbs through the air as if trying to rid himself of them. Finally, he throws himself to the ground and escapes into the darkened mouth of the stairwell, which swallows him up without a trace.  

It is the dance of a man trying to break free from his body.


Since first watching Beau Travail, not a day has gone by where this scene has not crossed my mind. It has launched me into a low-grade obsession not unlike Galoup’s fixation with Sentain. I have re-watched the final scene more times than I can count in a compulsive attempt to recreate the unbridled joy I felt on first viewing. It seems appropriate that the only other scene to have inspired a similar feverish need to absorb each individual gesture into my subconscious is the final dance scene in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979). Both choreographies exist in an atemporal space; both see their protagonists released in one last act of crowning, fantastical potency; both can be expressed as dances of death (“in his final appearance on the great stage of life!”).

Death bookends both sequences in diametric ways. It literally brings Joe Gideon’s number in All That Jazz to a screeching halt, revealing the cynical existential core behind the flash and the glam—a showman’s distraction before the final image of a body bag closing with terrible finality over Joe’s pallid face. However, in Beau Travail, the dance is an escape route. The logical path to death precedes it—not only in suicidal intent, but on a more metatextual level, in drawing the line between Galoup and his counterpart from Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (on which Beau Travail is loosely based). The punch that Sentain throws in response to Galoup’s deliberate provocation is one that kills Master-at-Arms Claggart/Galoup in Melville’s novella. Galoup should die—by his own hand if not Sentain’s—and yet his death is ultimately displaced by the sheer exuberance and disruptive quality of his electric physical outburst. The dance is an escape from his own body, yes, but also a flight-line from the narrative resolution of his own death. 

Why does this moment hold such a powerful effect? Part of my fascination runs with the physical performance of Lavant himself, as a display of sheer vitality and gesture and instinctual  movement. It’s easy to be impressed by a dancer for sheer mastery of their choreography and body (the taut lack of tremor, the grace, the sheer lines and flying feet) in the same way that the viewer is impressed by the balletic, controlled, beautiful movements of the Legionnaires’ daily exercises. Their bodies are perfect in their conformity. Contrast this with the leaping, windmilling arms, the limbs tearing through space. 

Lavant is an actor well-known for his physical presence—he has performed cartwheels and  handsprings, and even breathed fire onscreen prior to his role in Beau Travail—but there’s a sense  of completion and skill to these acrobatic movements despite their unstudied air, a mastery  behind the sense of play. He has never moved like this. His improvisation approaches a kind of  dancing mania—the antithesis of the version of Galoup that he has been playing up until this point. The man coiled with jealousy and unfulfilled desire gives way to the man on the dance floor, surrendering at last to impulse. 

It’s a breathtaking change of pace. As much as I might like to play and replay the final scene as a restorative shot of pure, invigorating adrenaline, I admit that it remains most effective in its end-place context in the film. Everything before it lingers. The film pulls you along in its wake, treating landscape and body with the same slow pans and solemn close-ups—the discursive eye drifting through memory and space, past “wild camels…shepherds appearing from  nowhere…women in bright colors in fields of stone, all those images.” Galoup’s journey through the past is interspersed with his own civilian rituals—writing, coffee, introspective metro rides—that underscore the apathy and mundanity of his post-Legion life. He wets and combs his hair. Carefully irons a familiar black shirt. All these drawn-out, narcissistic preparations building toward a final scene that departs with startling vigor from the glacial, routine imagery before it.

Throughout the film, Agnès Godard’s camera lingers on shifting muscle, the stretch of fabric, bodies in action and supine repose, unbearably sensual, palpable with sweat and heat. This way of looking creates an undoubtable seductive closeness and intrigue. Conversely, in the final dance scene, weand Godard—take a step back. The camera remains distant, static, locked in place. It’s a generous way to allow Lavant to make use of the space, and for us to see his body in action, uninterrupted and unedited—freed from other viewpoints, or “angles of attack.” The distance also adds a certain secret joy to every re-watch, as each time I find a new gesture or detail on which to focus. The fragmented movement in the mirror behind Galoup. The brief flash of teeth. The moment when the ever-present cigarette slips from Lavant’s fingers as he throws himself into motion (!!!). The liberation from spectatorship and expectation and calculated movement when the man in black finally tears his eyes away from the mirror and begins to dance in earnest, self-appraisal and self-critique vanishing at last! What is it if not an act of self-effacement? Of dissolution? The colonial body escapes from its strictures and disappears into the darkened stairwell, undignified, freed from militaristic conformity and ritual and rigid self-control.  

Only the dance floor remains. All those details and gestures part of a kinetic moment that could never be contained: a clothesline in the wind, tufts of grass rippling and flickering under the relentless heat of the sun, a bustling city at night, plumes of dust rising from a line of perfect bodies scattered in the sand. I see Galoup in his lonely apartment and I pity him, failed murderer that he is. His military haircut grown soft at the nape of the neck. The hard edges of his body dissolving with disuse. Who wouldn’t wish for release? A dizzying catharsis? A moment where the body no longer obeys but flings itself to the furthest corners of its reach and comes out dancing? It’s a scene that is compelling precisely for its lack of choreography, of control, of beauty. Farewell to stagnation. Farewell repression. There’s only so much confession a man can take. Better let the body do the talking.