Is it a dance of loss of life? A fantasy to develop into another person? The solo that ends Claire Denis’s movie “Beau Travail” spotlights the repressed, tightly wound Sergeant Galoup in methods now we have by no means seen him earlier than: free, relaxed, carefree.
His dance twists issues up: Who’s this Galoup? At this level within the movie, a few group of French International Legion troopers, Galoup has been dismissed from army service — and simply moments in the past he didn’t appear to be dealing nicely. He was mendacity on his neatly made mattress with a gun in his hand because the digital camera panned over his tattoo: “Serve the great trigger and die.”
Whereas Galoup’s solo is the movie’s most blatant dance second, a singular choreographic consciousness runs all through “Beau Travail” (1999), just lately restored by the Criterion Collection. All through the film, loosely modeled on Melville’s “Billy Budd,” our bodies, greater than phrases, inform the story.
Galoup’s downfall is introduced on by his jealousy and obsession with and a phenomenal younger man in his unit; his suicide appears imminent. However within the dance, Galoup, performed by Denis Lavant, transforms into a brand new physique, one overflowing with life. As louche as Serge Gainsbourg however with the daredevil precision of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Mr. Lavant makes use of his primal, low-to-the-ground physicality as a technique to launch Galoup’s pent-up feelings, which seep out of his pores and skin by way of motion.
The dance begins on his mattress with a close-up of his pulsing biceps and the faint, opening beat of Corona’s “The Rhythm of the Night”; a second later, he’s transported to a nightclub. With one arm stretched up the aspect of a mirror twinkling with magenta lights, he takes a drag on his cigarette and edges his means towards the middle of the dance flooring the place he walks in small round steps as if marking his territory.
He spins instantly and kneels, taking his time. He sways his arms and spins once more, however this time in the air. His limbs loosen in gangly, euphoric freedom. Even after a short interruption by credit, Mr. Lavant returns to spring up like a fish coming out of the ocean earlier than crashing to the ground with a splash after which rebounding.
For almost 90 minutes within the movie, Galoup’s physique has been mounted and onerous. Who is that this untamed individual, seemingly drunk on life, we see within the dance? Mr. Lavant, in a Criterion interview, mentioned he seen his dancing self as “a projection of who Galoup may want to be.”
The choice to put the sequence on the finish of the movie got here in the course of the enhancing course of. “Within the script, it was as a result of he was leaving for good,” Ms. Denis mentioned in one other interview. “He wished to go to the bar for the final time. He begins dancing just like the final dance of his life.”
Mr. Lavant informed Criterion that he improvised the dance, which was shot in solely two takes. (His rolling-off-the-floor exit got here within the second take, “Simply to get off digital camera rapidly!,” he mentioned.) However this prolonged solo wasn’t his solely dancing second within the movie; what made the position enjoyable for him, he mentioned, was the best way he used his physicality to shift from realism to fantasy.
“We see Galoup strolling at evening among the many barracks, and I’d take just a little step or one thing,” he mentioned, including that it was “nearly like dancing. That wasn’t in character.”
Mr. Lavant, who skilled within the circus, is a pure mover: Bear in mind his sprinting dance in Leos Carax’s “Mauvais Sang,” in which he runs to David Bowie’s “Modern Love”? (Frances Ha enjoys a touch down the road to the identical music, too.) In “Beau Travail,” he isn’t alone. The actors taking part in legionnaires embody the movie’s choreographer, Bernardo Montet, in addition to a boxer, an opera singer and dancers. In an electronic mail interview, Mr. Montet mentioned his job was to “launch the poetic energy” of their our bodies.
“With the dancer, as with the legionnaire, there’s this concept of sacrifice,” he added. “Additionally this relation with the loss of life: For one, it’s actual and for the opposite one, it’s symbolic.”
Neither, in different phrases, belongs in strange society. Mr. Montet sees the dancer in Galoup as a shaman who has “nothing to do with the present world, dance as an leisure.”
The choreography of the group is as vital because the panorama — Djibouti, in East Africa — which frames the lads with the turquoise blue of the ocean, the azure sky and the dusty earth. Army drills by which the lads climb over partitions or crawl below wires flash by with velocity and effectivity; however even these moments of motion — seemingly on a regular basis or pedestrian — could be deceiving, altering which means the longer we watch. In a single second, the lads stretch on the bottom, one leg ahead and the opposite bent behind — it’s as straightforward to see them as dancers limbering up as troopers in coaching. However once they recline all the best way with their arms raised overhead, the picture takes a tragic flip; their our bodies, limp and sprawled out, are lifeless.
There’s a purposeful double-sidedness, as if what’s dwelling inside their muscular prowess is as unpredictable as Galoup’s nightclub dance. In a single placing scene, dry grass blows within the wind and silhouettes give technique to precise males, standing naked chested with their arms raised and eyes closed. They’re nonetheless because the breeze strikes them; they meld with nature, they develop into it.
Mr. Montet mentioned that when Ms. Denis was on the lookout for areas to shoot within the desert, she was impressed by the motion of the grass and requested him to create what he calls the “grass dance.”
“It’s a technique to present their vulnerability, their fragility in these killer our bodies,” Mr. Montet mentioned. “They offer their physique to nature, to loss of life, and so they do it with full consciousness.”
There are duets, too, like when the troopers embrace and retreat — their chests smack onerous but their eye contact and the fast squeeze, a millisecond, simply earlier than parting reveals one thing about their religion of their career and in one another. “In a hug, you can provide all of your being,” Mr. Montet mentioned. “To like is to give up.”
However give up just isn’t part of a legionnaire’s mentality. The circling duet, this yet another predatory and ominous, is a face-off between Galoup and Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin), the younger legionnaire he’s each repelled by and drawn to.
They begin standing aside on a cliff overlooking the ocean and ultimately take cautious steps, transferring clockwise because the hole shrinks between them; the broad shot switches to a close-up, first of Galoup, then of Sentain, who radiates innocence even in aggression. The shorter, stockier Galoup friends up at him, his lips grim and downturned.
Their relationship is informed by way of choreography, however as a substitute of utilizing their fists, this battle builds by way of pressure. They by no means contact. What I didn’t discover the primary time I noticed the movie is that in his ultimate dance, Galoup — although alone and misplaced in his personal world — truly dances as if somebody have been standing earlier than him, and he reacts to each transfer of that phantom companion: Sentain.
There are reverberations from their duet, from the methodical opening steps to the circling sample. However within the solo, Galoup’s gaze, whereas intent, isn’t onerous; his lips half, softening his mouth. He’s extra animal than human as he goes from being the watcher — which he’s been by way of a lot of the movie — to the watched.
How highly effective can a dance be? Galoup spent a lot of the film obsessing over another person, however his dance flips that story. By way of his wild metamorphosis, he turns into an object of obsession — ours. It was simply the fitting dance at simply the fitting time.