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Beau Travail (1999)

The exception proves the rule.

Generally I hate films like this.  I want story, character development, narrative flow.  “Beau Travail” has none of those.  I had to watch it twice just to figure out what exactly it’s about.  The answer: not much.

There is a sliver of plot: it’s loosely (and I mean loosely) on Herman Melville’s short story, “Billy Budd.”   In the French Legion, one sergeant grows jealous of a man in his platoon, and plots how to bring about his expulsion from the unit.  His plan backfires; he gets expelled instead and the man he was out to get ends up almost dead in the desert.

But, as corny or hard to watch as this sounds, “Beau Travail” is really about how people move.  I think director Claire Denis chose to film Legionnaires because their movements are precise and disciplined, like dancers, except they dance outside, against severe backdrops.  These scenes are mesmerizing, and oddly scored; it sounds like we are listening to some kind of exotic wedding march or ceremonial sacrifice most of the time.  The desert scenes are intercut frequently with nightclub scenes, as women on the dance floor pair up with the men; but the focus isn’t on the pairing — it’s on the men watching the women move, and the women, often watching themselves move in mirrored walls.

It should be boring and terrible.  It isn’t.  It’s mesmerizing and beautiful.  This is an unforgettable movie, the kind of thing all those other movies about nothing aspire, and fail, to be.   Apparently it is possible to make a good movie about nothing — it’s just incredibly hard.   Kudos to director Claire Denis for pulling it off.

Verdict: Recommended

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