"They are tall, they are handsome, they smell deliciously of soap or, failing that, of hot sand." Thus does Edith Piaf pay tribute to French-fried mercenaries in her famous chanson d'amour, "My Legionnaire." Since it was founded in 1831, the French Foreign Legion has been shrouded in myth, both for its derring-do and for its derring-don't--its back-slapping adventure and its back-breaking discipline. "For five years, nothing but death can remove you from the Legion," Christopher Wren wrote in his 1925 novel Beau Geste, which was made into a classic silent film starring Ronald Colman and a classic talkie starring Gary Cooper. But Beau Geste consisted mostly of back-slapping adventure; and Morocco, Cooper's other tour of duty as a Legionnaire, consisted mostly of romantic Leave it to the French--a French woman, no less--to give us the smell of hot sand. Claire Denis' Beau Travail, which is screening on campus on Saturday, Dec. 2 (7:30 p.m. at 4070 Vilas Hall), is about as far from, say, The Mummy as you can get. Set (and filmed) in East Africa's Djibouti, where the Red Sea flows into the Gulf of Aden, it's a stunningly beautiful film, but there are no trick shots, no f/x, just Djibouti's magnificently parched landscape shot using only the available natural light. Denis and her cinematographer, Agnès Godard, head into picture-postcard territory--the sweeping vistas, the gorgeous sunsets, the gemlike turquoise of the water--and then just keep going, until the landscape, with its rocky outcroppings and crystalline salt flats, seems as strange and haunting as the surface of the moon. A self-described fille d'Afrique (she grew up there), Denis understands the way the African sun can bore into your brain, bake your thoughts. And, as a filmmaker, she's always been more interested in inner conflict than in outer conflict. The result is that Beau Travail may be the only film about the French Foreign Legion in which nary a shot is fired--not on-screen, anyway. And the one act of true violence is turned into a glancing blow by the way Denis edits it. Not that the director is a pacifist. On the contrary, she seems mesmerized by the flexed stasis of military training--the drill, the routine, the homoerotic undercurrents. When the men in Beau Travail perform their morning exercises, Denis slows the camera down, lingering on their arms, their legs, their chests and butts. Call it Gaze in the Military. But not Gays in the Military. The homoerotic undercurrents remain just that, undercurrents. And the movie's title seems a better clue to what it's about: beau travail, beautiful work, work as a refuge from the world of feeling, a cordon sanitaire. There's a monastic feeling about the film as the men, in group formation, wash and iron their clothes, laboring over the crease in a pair of pants like it was the key to the Kingdom of God. Based rather loosely on Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Beau Travail imagines what would happen if a snake were slithering through this rocky garden. The snake's name is Galoup (Denis Lavant); and, like Sergeant Claggart in Billy Budd, he's almost preternaturally evil. Almost. Claggart's dead before he has time to think about what he's done. Galoup has all the time in the world. The movie drifts back and forth between Djibouti and Marseilles, the past and the present. In Marseilles, Galoup's an ex-sergeant who clearly isn't cut out for civilian life. In Djibouti, he leads a small platoon of soldiers through their training, rarely exchanging a personal word with any of them. And he might go on doing this forever if not for the arrival of Sentain, a new recruit who's perhaps supposed to be more charismatic than actor Grégorie Colin lets on. In Billy Budd, of course, Billy's an outright Christ figure, goodness personified. Sentain, who almost never opens his mouth, is a lot harder to figure out. Nevertheless, Galoup has the same reaction to him that Claggart had to Billy. "I felt something vague and menacing take hold of me," he tells us when he first lays eyes on the boy. In other words, Galoup's in love. Alas, the closest he gets to admitting it--to us or to himself--is when he says, in voice-over narration, "I was jealous." Ultimately, Galoup is as impenetrable as the barren rocks he calls home, but Lavant, with his beady eyes and scaly skin--it's the face of an iguana--does manage to convey the deep-set pain of a man who's a stranger even to himself. (Speaking of which, Camus' The Stranger, with its blazing sun and lonely acts of self-definition, seems relevant here.) Joining him in estrangement is Michel Subor's Bruno Forestier, the Captain Vere of Beau Travail. Except Billy Budd's Captain Vere was a man of conflicted ideals, whereas Forestier, who holds Galoup's fate in his hands after Galoup sends Sentain on a suicide mission across the desert, is, in his own words, "a man without ideals."
It's all a bit...French, somehow. But Denis gets past the arid philosophizing by concentrating on the sensuous aspects of men stripped to their waists, preparing for battle. At its worst, Beau Travail is like a Dockers ad. At its best, it illuminates the military mind's love-hate relationship with itself, as when Galoup and his men perform this bizarre exercise where, in pairs, they rush up and try to squeeze the breath out of each other. What does it all mean? We don't really know, nor do the native Africans who, throughout the film, impassively look on, apparently dumbfounded by this display of postcolonial je ne sais quoi. Among the many valuable insights Denis shares with us is that, nearly two centuries after its founding, the French Foreign Legion remains as French and as foreign as ever.