The first time I watched Beau travail, on DVD, in my childhood bedroom, in the spring of 2014, I didn’t know how it would end. My face split into a grin of disbelief as the credits rolled and I rewound the final scene. More than 20 years after its initial release, that set piece, soundtracked by Corona’s 90s Eurodance hit ‘The Rhythm of the Night’, with its climactic burst of feeling, is as well-known as the film itself.
It started as a sort of joke. Claire Denis was commissioned by the TV network Arte to make a film about foreignness and so, wryly, provocatively, she made a movie in which her own people were the foreigners. In Marseille, Sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant) reflects on his time as ‘a perfect legionnaire’ in Djibouti, East Africa, serving the French Foreign Legion. He and his soldiers, including the undeniably pretty and unusually well-liked Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin), perform highly choreographed military drills in the desert heat. Under the blazing sun, resentments simmer. In the evenings, the men dance at a nightclub with the local women, who are beautiful, modern and ambivalent. Djibouti, a former French colony, gained independence in 1977. These soldiers are irrelevant; the colonial project is obsolete. ‘Unfit for life, unfit for civilian life’ is how Galoup describes himself in his diary.
But feeling unmoored from one’s purpose – feeling like a foreigner to your own life – is a timeless conundrum, and one that seems to resonate with both film lovers and filmmakers (Barry Jenkins has mentioned its influence on 2016’s Moonlight). It remains Denis’s only true crowd-pleaser.
Denis’s great gift is her ability to evoke emotion with gesture and juxtaposition. In the Djibouti desert, water shimmers and ripples, naked shoulders perspire and black mosquito nets recall sheer lingerie. In a Claire Denis film, dialogue is sparse, but images are charged with meaning. ‘Making films, for me, is to get rid of explanation,’ she told the Guardian back in 2000.
The final scene is pure release: a wordless explanation after 90 minutes of tension. Visual references travel through quotations in other works and, in recent times, through the internet. Films are portioned up and divorced from their original contexts, re-appropriated and shared as memes. I wonder if the renewed popularity of Beau travail in this decade’s Greatest Films poll is a result of its increased visibility among a younger generation, many of whom have likely encountered, or at least revisited, its euphoric dancefloor-set conclusion via their computers.