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'Beau Travail'

Beauty and valor: 'Beau Travail' is a provocative look at the French Foreign Legion

Friday, August 25, 2000

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

To the imperfect heart, nothing is more maddening than perfection. Perfect innocence and beauty in another serve as a constant rebuke, a constant reminder of your own inner inferiority. Though it obeys your every whim and command -- bows before your outer superiority and power -- it is a thing to be destroyed.

'Beau Travail'

Rating: R in nature for adult themes and brief nudity

Players: Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, Gregoire Colin

Director: Claire Denis

Critic's call: 2 1/2


Such is the hero's psychosexual situation in Claire Denis' provocative "Beau Travail," firmly inspired by -- and loosely adapted from -- Melville's "Billy Budd," garnished with related existential themes from Camus' "The Stranger."

Its setting is the strange, closed, all-male world of the French Foreign Legion in a remote East African outpost near Djibouti. Life there consists of grueling drills and exercises and banal domestic chores -- all performed with equal military discipline under the scorching sun.

Its narrator is neither the hero nor friend of the hero, but rather the antihero, Sgt. Galoup (Denis Lavant) -- a brooding loner who, by his own description, is "a man who left France for too long." He rules and runs his troop like a well-oiled machine until it -- and he -- are disturbed by the arrival of a brave and oddly charismatic new recruit: Sentain (Gregoire Colin) upsets the tyrannical balance that passes for harmony amongst the men.

Sgt. Galoup is not the only one thrown off by Sentain's presence. So is the kinder, gentler Commandant Forestier, wonderfully played by Michel Subor (veteran of such great French films as "Jules et Jim" in his youth, now a George C. Scott lookalike). "A rumor dogged him after the Algerian war," we are told. Homosexuality? Drugs? It is never made explicit. We are left to decide for ourselves, based on the Commandant's ambivalent actions in the Galoup-Sentain struggle.

The Legion's motto is "Honor and Valor." Forestier has the former, Galoup the latter. Only Sentain -- who dramatically rescues a helicopter-crash victim before the whole company's eyes -- has both. Plus an indefinably powerful sexuality. "He seduced everyone, he attracted stares," complains Galoup, obsessed with him. "There must be a chip in his armor. We all have a trash can underneath."

Director Denis ("Chocolat," "I Can't Sleep") is at the forefront of the French female New Wave. "Beau Travail" is her lyrical exploration of the most repressed Euro-emotional conflict in the most exotic African setting -- a kind of "Lawrence of Arabia" meets "Lord of the Flies." Its subtle homoeroticism is all the more fascinating coming from her female instead of male perspective -- and spellbinding visually. Her pace and photographic composition of the training rituals are odes to the masculine body and mystique, stark images of raw muscular beauty, shirtless men whose movements are more like dance than military exercises -- more choreographed than directed -- to an appropriately spare, minimalist musical score.

It's a difficult film but a rare one, whose photography and philosophy -- equally profound, equally ponderous at times -- fully merge. "Maybe freedom begins with remorse...," muses guilt-ridden Galoup late in the day and the film. That's his problem, of course -- his own self-absorbed focus. Ours is the beautiful men he feels guilty about -- their lack of both remorsefulness and the need for it.

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