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‘Beau Travail’ Finds the Rhythm of Life (and Dances Away the Pain)

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‘Beau Travail’ Finds the Rhythm of Life (and Dances Away the Ache)

Is it a dance of dying? A fantasy to change into another person? The solo that ends Claire Denis’s movie “Beau Travail” spotlights the repressed, tightly wound Sergeant Galoup in methods we’ve 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 couple of group of French Overseas Legion troopers, Galoup has been dismissed from navy service — and simply moments in the past he didn’t appear to be dealing properly. He was mendacity on his neatly made mattress with a gun in his hand because the digital camera panned over his tattoo: “Serve the nice trigger and die.”

Whereas Galoup’s solo is the movie’s most evident dance second, a singular choreographic consciousness runs all through “Beau Travail” (1999), just lately restored by the Criterion Assortment. 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 option to launch Galoup’s pent-up feelings, which seep out of his pores and skin via 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 time”; a second later, he’s transported to a nightclub. With one arm stretched up the facet of a mirror twinkling with magenta lights, he takes a drag on his cigarette and edges his means towards the middle of the dance ground 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 fastened 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 considered his dancing self as “a projection of who Galoup may want to be.”

The choice to position the sequence on the finish of the movie got here through the modifying 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 instructed 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 function 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 a little bit step or one thing,” he mentioned, including that it was “virtually like dancing. That wasn’t in character.”

Mr. Lavant, who educated within the circus, is a pure mover: Bear in mind his sprinting dance in Leos Carax’s “Mauvais Sang,” during which he runs to David Bowie’s “Fashionable Love”? (Frances Ha enjoys a touch down the road to the identical tune, too.) In “Beau Travail,” he isn’t alone. The actors enjoying legionnaires embody the movie’s choreographer, Bernardo Montet, in addition to a boxer, an opera singer and dancers. In an e-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 may be this concept of sacrifice,” he added. “Additionally this relation with the dying: For one, it’s actual and for the opposite one, it’s symbolic.”

Neither, in different phrases, belongs in atypical 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 boys with the turquoise blue of the ocean, the azure sky and the dusty earth. Army drills during which the boys climb over partitions or crawl beneath wires flash by with velocity and effectivity; however even these moments of motion — seemingly on a regular basis or pedestrian — could be deceiving, altering that means the longer we watch. In a single second, the boys stretch on the bottom, one leg ahead and the opposite bent behind — it’s as simple 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 putting scene, dry grass blows within the wind and silhouettes give option 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 change into it.

Mr. Montet mentioned that when Ms. Denis was in search of 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 option to present their vulnerability, their fragility in these killer our bodies,” Mr. Montet mentioned. “They provide their physique to nature, to dying, 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 occupation 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 another predatory and ominous, is a face-off between Galoup and Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin), the younger legionnaire he’s each repelled by and interested in.

They begin standing aside on a cliff overlooking the ocean and ultimately take cautious steps, shifting clockwise because the hole shrinks between them; the large 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 instructed via choreography, however as an alternative of utilizing their fists, this battle builds via pressure. They by no means contact. What I didn’t discover the primary time I noticed the movie is that in his remaining dance, Galoup — although alone and misplaced in his personal world — really 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 via a lot of the movie — to the watched.

How highly effective can a dance be? Galoup spent many of the film obsessing over another person, however his dance flips that story. Via his wild metamorphosis, he turns into an object of obsession — ours. It was simply the proper dance at simply the proper time.

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