Bodies of Work: The Ballet and Bone of Beau Travail

photo: Janus Films

Languid, tensile, alluring, sweaty, supple, pliable. To watch Beau Travail is to watch the human body in motion, the day-to-day procession of existence in a corporeal form powerful enough to inspire the most primal emotions in others. From the very first moments of the film, when we see native Djiboutians dance and sway to the pulsing beat of Tarkan’s ‘Şimarik’, we are transported to a cinematic world that seeks to exist beyond mere language. The body is the central dramatic site of Claire Denis’s 1999 masterpiece, and it acts as a perpetual fulcrum between tension and release. Sudden sweeps of emotion—all the lust and brotherhood that congeals into enmity and hatred by the end of the film—are contained within the bodies we see on screen, bottled up like corks waiting for the right, or wrong, impulse to shake them loose. Under the harsh Djibouti sun, under the blurred strobelights of a seedy ex-pat bar, what lies within our bodies is brought to the surface. 

Throughout Beau Travail, we see bodies posed in tableaux, almost like classical sculptures. Denis will often start scenes with all the soldiers, from Grégoire Colin’s alluring Sentain to Denis Lavant’s seething Galoup, at rest, waiting for the command that will spring their bodies into action. “You’re a rock,” says Commandant Forestier (Michel Subor) of Galoup. “You’re in such good shape,” he’ll later tell Sentain. The repressed soldiers that populate this world exist in a state of suspended animation, waiting for the trigger that will bring their psyches to life. Often, that trigger is a call to motion. “You’re in my power now,” says Galoup to Sentain. What he means is this: As your commanding lieutenant, I place your body at my command. I conceive of and determine its motion; I decide when and where and to whom it belongs. It is no accident that much of the early part of the film is concerned with showing us the training montages that these French Foreign Legion soldiers undergo, as it is through these scenes that we see the dynamics of power that will later explode. To serve is to subjugate your body to another, to have complete trust that your body can be enmeshed with others to create a greater whole. 

“Admit that you hate me for it,” Galoup growls at Forestier after his deception and abandonment of Sentain has been revealed. As with much in Beau Travail, the message is unspoken, etched into visage and skin and bone rather than stated. Admit that you feel something for me, admit that actions my body has taken engender some feeling in yours. Admit that, if I cannot stir up something approaching love within you, that your hatred can fill the void. 

The magic of Beau Travail lies in the way that, for a movie that could be dismissed as slow, it in fact perfectly adheres to the most basic rule of screenwriting: show, don’t tell. The film operates with its characters’ emotions at a perpetual simmer; lust and rage and fear are all the more potent because they are forced to remain just under the surface. And if Galoup and Sentain and Forestier and all the other lone souls carrying out their service in Djibouti are the lobsters, then their bodies are the pot. The body in Beau Travail encases and harbors all the kinetic energy of repressed urges within it. It is capable of imbuing acts of war (the montage of soldiers storming an empty high-rise, rifles aimed at an imagined enemy) with a balletic grace, to restraining love until it curdles. “If it wasn’t for fornication and blood, we wouldn’t be here,” notes Forestier as he is driven through the Djibouti streets. Remove all the magisterial landscapes from the film, the salt flats that seem to be more white than the purest snow and the dust-covered roads that the characters tramp down, and what would remain centered in the frame is just that: blood and sinew. 

Yet despite the military viscera that forms the narrative throughline of the film, its emotional heft is given life by its choreography, the balletic poses that the soldiers embody as they crash their bodies into each other. Beau Travail is a film that shows Denis’s fascination with the dimensions of the human body and the particular shapes it can be twisted into. The camera often lingers on the characters’ bodies, seemingly drinking in their sweaty muscularity as they leap across the screen. It is impossible to watch Beau Travail without thinking of ballet, and the way that outsize emotion can be communicated through the human body on display. Just as in ballet, the human body is the canvas by which we understand the world. To see the many nearly-wordless scenes in the film is to be transported to Lincoln Center, or the Bolshoi, or any other storied theater of dance, finding meaning as a viewer in the way that a touch turns into a caress, a leg stretches out towards its partner, a body is left alone on stage or in the salt flats, abandoned by its surrounding world.

There is a certain sense of awe you feel when watching ballet. It seems unthinkable that a body can move in such a way, can contort itself into every needed gradient of emotion. One striking ballet piece for me on first viewing was Justin Peck’s The Times Are Racing, a modern dress work—a ballet performed in sneakers and streetwear rather than flats and tutus—whose constant energy and electronic Dan Deacon score combine to give it an anthemic sweep that captures the feeling of rushing headlong into love and other adventures. It is impossible to take your eyes off the dancers; their bodies seem to move through the parts with such ease that it almost seems unbidden, as if the bodies are exerting control over the dancers and not the other way around.

That same feeling of unbidden motion exists at the heart of Beau Travail, only rather than being used in service of love, it is weaponized for a form of bodily revenge. We get the sense that Galoup cannot help but loathe Sentain’s physique, whether because of repressed infatuation or envy of the recruit’s relationship with Forestier, and as a result he forces Sentain to play out the dance steps he has envisioned. Push-ups where the body motorically moves up and down without any conscious thought on behalf of the recruit, endless digging, the final horrifying image of Sentain’s body caked in salt and left to rot. Denis creates a subtle horror by simply changing the focus of your awe—rather than it being unthinkable that a body can move this way, is it not more unthinkable that a body can be made to move like this, simply because of the whims of another? When the grace inherent to ballet is brought into conflict with the harsh muscle of the Legion, it is the muscle that inevitably wins.

Ballet is about control. Being able to will the body to go beyond its boundaries, to express itself on an emotional level without the need for speech. Many ballets center on a pas de deux—an excerpt of the ballet where two performers dance with each other and not the company. The one in The Times Are Racing is particularly moving. The dancers twirl around each other, unaware of anyone else present. Their bodies entwine and the resultant feeling is of two people destined to be with, and in service of, each other. They could not exist without their partner. It is all too easy to see how this same symbiotic relationship can curdle in Beau Travail. We constantly watch Galoup and Sentain circle each other, stare at each other, spur each other to motion. But the power dynamics are wrong. Rather than leaning on each other for support and uplifting each other towards joy, as we see in the pas de deux in The Times Are Racing, Galoup wishes to push Sentain towards the ground, to render him low. The push-ups, the digging, all this serves to reify the military covenant that Galoup wishes to impose: my body quite literally stands higher than yours. I command your form.

Early on in Beau Travail, in a scene in which we see Galoup, now alone as he returns to civilian life in France after the later events of the film, cut down the branches of a tree that is encroaching on his sparse living space, he reflects on his weary body: “my muscles are rusty.” Even as he moves towards his tragic and self-inflicted end, Galoup’s reveries envision him as he was when his body was more powerful. Stripped of his brotherhood within the Legion, and the balletic grace that said brotherhood entails, he does not have the strength to carry on. He no longer has the ability to mold a body to his will, to subject it to his series of steps. It is ironic that he chooses the word “rusty” to describe himself in civilian life, as the bodies we see throughout most of Beau Travail are anything but that: they glisten in the Djibouti sun, the melodramatic heft of the characters’ emotions literally marked by the sheen of the sweat on their frames. Denis, and her choreographer Bernardo Montet, use bodies as the means by which the characters express themselves. This is a tactile movie; bodies are constantly posed against each other, smashing together, or in need of being touched. When we see them train, hug, celebrate, dance, we know what they must be feeling. As Montet summed it up: “Sometimes she (Denis) believes in bodies instead of words, and in dance we’re always talking without words.” 

photo: Janus Films

So, then, what words are inscribed by the ballet-like motions of Beau Travail? Whereas we often see the rank-and-file of the legion in close proximity to each other, as in the scene where the soldiers crash their bodies together in a gesture that is somewhere between holding each other upright and an erotic embrace, Galoup is often alone, separated by both rank and his withholding nature. In another flashback, we see him ‘dance’ with the Djiboutian local, Rahel, who seems to have caught his eye. For 30 seconds, we see her hips swaying on the dancefloor, sashaying with her eyes looking off-screen at something or someone. Pan across, and we notice Galoup, just watching. He reflects that he was “begging for a word, a gesture,” but he does not contribute any gestures himself. His body is static at the edges of the dancefloor, crying out for a human connection that he is unwilling to initiate himself. Meanwhile, the soldiers’ actions are nothing but call and response. Galoup says jump, they say how high. In not being part of this grand ballet, this force of motion that conveys so much meaning within it, it follows that Galoup’s feeling of exclusion curdles to hatred. While he is able to command motion, Galoup cannot generate it himself. And throughout Denis’s filmography, there is perhaps no state of being sadder than immobility. 

Fittingly for a film whose emotional undercurrent has such a grand sweep to it, it is not just with ballet that Beau Travail manages to transcend the traditional filmic bounds of cinematography and dialogue. Denis creates a true Gesamtkunstwerk, a work that amalgamates its various artistic influences and wears them proudly on its sleeve. Beau Travail is an adaptation (albeit a loose one) of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. Melville was one of the great chroniclers of repressed desire, and his novella about a handsome sailor whose beauty generates envy in his superiors is no lesser for being moved from the confines of a ship and left to expand into the endless Djibouti landscapes. The film needs its literary ancestor to anchor its narrative, just as it needs its choreography to give life to what its characters cannot express to each other. Beau Travail would not be the masterpiece that it is without its ability to take what makes other artforms unique and graft them onto cinema with the body as the central surface that allows these artistic experiments to happen. 

Nowhere is this more evident than in one of the films’ major setpieces, when Sentain and Galoup circle each other at the edge of a sheer cliff face, scored by Benjamin Britten’s music for the 1951 opera adaptation of Billy Budd. Here, the mass of strings and baritone and stinging brass we hear over Lavant and Colin’s shirtless torsos imbues the scene with a mythic grandeur. This is something gladiatorial; these are two men who are filled with the high passions that we tend to associate with opera and who will not rest until the other is destroyed. No words are needed to convey all this melodrama. In another era, this is how we would depict gods. Standing at the edge of their own demise, waiting once again for the triggering impulse that will cause their bodies to leap into action. The relative stillness of the scene—Sentain and Galoup simply move towards each other in ever-shrinking circles—only makes the operatic score more striking. “You’re in my power,” Galoup told Sentain earlier, following it with, “I will destroy you.” Faced with such grand sweeps of operatic intensity, it seems unthinkable that all this could lead anywhere other than destruction. 

photo: Janus Films

And so, of course, we arrive at the conclusion. Rightly lauded as one of the greatest endings in film history, Beau Travail chooses to finish with a dance. Denis Lavant’s bereft Galoup repeats the words he has tattooed on his chest, Sers la bonne cause et meurs (“Serve the good cause and die”). We see a brief memory of the soldiers—his soldiers—posing for a group photo, with Galoup center frame. They all look happy. Their bodies are at peace. Galoup, now alone and outcast, picks up his pistol and, presumably, shoots himself. Then, another Denisian magic trick. Corona’s “The Rhythm of the Night” blasts out, and we see Galoup on the same mirrored dance floor we’ve seen throughout the movie. The first impulse is to chuckle; after all this seminal artistic achievement, we are bookended by cheesy Eurodance hits. Then you see the final act of motion in the film. Galoup hurls himself through the air, paces, spins madly on the floor like a man possessed. All the tension and repressed emotion that has bubbled in his soul throughout the film explodes outwards. This is the rhythm of the night, the rhythm of my li-ife. In death, his soul finally finds release in the ecstasy of dance, a kinetic ball of energy finally able to access the motion that he has denied himself for so long. All these flickering memories, all these longings, are interfused with the body and given life. In a final starburst of choreography, Galoup escapes his state of suspended animation. He is a dancer, and his flesh is renewed

Once again, we see the unbidden motion of ballet. The body exerts its control, pushing the human it is associated with to new heights of emotion. The climax of The Times Are Racing comes when the entire company oscillates like a rippling wave around the leads, as if enthralled by their presence. The same sense of rapture exists at the heart of Beau Travail’s final scene. Galoup’s body gives itself entirely to the music, finally exploring the joy that it has long denied itself. However, even this joy is inextricably tied to a sense of lack. When we see him hurl himself at the floor of the club, there is no one there to catch him. He is a dancer performing a pas de deux for one. Galoup achieves his ecstasy of motion, but not without first ensuring that there is no rippling wave surrounding him. His rapture is his own, and no-one else’s. 

The two minutes of release that form the coda to Beau Travail would be impossible to create without non-filmic influences. The flowing motions of his limbs comes straight from the world of ballet, the call to joy and love a Eurodance staple. The ecstatic release of its operatic score, the fluidity of ballet, the grandeur of its literary foundations, the visual stimuli of film: this is a polyrhythmic film. As a viewer, you let yourself be borne by those rhythms to the heart of the film, with all its passions lying dormant and on the verge of explosion beneath that harsh Djibouti sun. Until that final moment of transcendence: the uplifting rhythm of the night.

“How do they do it?” is a question that brings you back to childhood. It is a question of wonder, of awe. It’s the question you ask when seeing a transcendent ballet, or a magic trick. “How does she do it?” is the question you ask when watching Beau Travail. How is Claire Denis capable of infusing the human body with such depths of meaning, how does she render it so volatile? How does she so perfectly use the choreography of ballet to deliver all the meaning we need? Human motion, and emotion, have never been more achingly represented on screen than in Beau Travail. Yet the most wondrous thing of all is that in an ending of a man alone, twirling into nothingness, she can still find transcendence: the body transforming the spirit and giving it new dimensions. All it needed was the right steps.