Three Reasons: Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1999)

beau travail
Considered one of the best films of all time by the illustrious Sight & Sound people, Claire Denis’ Beau Travail is indeed an interesting movie to watch and discuss. In true Criterion fashion I will give you my Three Reasons for enjoying this film as much as I did. It is however the third reason, the ending of the film, which really sold it to me. In fact I loved the ending so much it made me want to make a post about movie endings, but then that’s not really an easy topic to discuss. How do you talk about a film’s ending without spoiling it? 

I’ll do my best to spoil as little as possible here, but still if you trust my judgment skip Reason III and just enjoy the ending of Beau Travail without knowing anything about it. Hope I didn’t hype it too much for you. If you don’t care about spoilers I have included a clip of the ending (unfortunately in poor quality), so if you don’t have time or don’t believe me you can see for yourself. If you’ve seen Beau Travail, please do chime in and tell me just how right I am about that ending.

Reason I: A War Film From A Female Perspective
a war film from a female perspective
Now, admittedly I’m not an expert when it comes to the war film genre, but I’ve seen my fair share of classics and none of them were written & directed by a woman. Claire Denis is indeed a woman and she directed this film. Not to sound like a broken record, but we need more female directors. I don’t want to sound sexist, but I think only a woman could have directed Beau Travail and I mean that in the best possible way. She brings her own sensibilities and points of views, granted most of them have nothing to do with being a woman, but just being a human being, but how is this film different from other war films?

Well, for starters it looks much better than your average war film (my Reason II actually, so more on that to follow). It doesn’t focus on the action or violence like most war films I’ve seen so far. There’s actually very few explosions, deaths and blood so if you don’t like that stuff you’ll be fine with this film. It’s mostly a character study, but it’s also a study of how the war works. What drives men to each other? What causes wars? Her theory is greed. I love how she explains that in one simple line of dialogue. The whole film is basically about showing how non-sensical war is.

The great thing is that Denis doesn’t just state: “War makes no goddamn sense, y’all” or keeps making a point of showing how horrible it is. She just shows how soldiers live. It’s everyday life stuff, which is mostly boring I guess, routine really. There’s nothing cool or “hey I want to be like that” about it. In showing the mind games and rivalries within the French military organization she smartly recreates a microcosm to show how the world works and how wars start: Envy and discontent playing a big part in this as well. It’s a remarkable achievement and I realized that I’m starting to fall in love with French cinema.

Reason II: The Stylish & Artsy Shot Composition
the stylish and artsy shot composition
Another unusual thing for a war film is to have fantastic cinematography. In the case of Beau Travail it’s Agnès Godard‘s great eye and attention for detail that make the picture so memorable and enjoyable. It’s a good thing that the film looks great, because there’s not much going on in terms of plot and so you at least have always something engaging to look at. It’s a very artsy look, if you enjoy art house cinema you probably know what I mean, if you don’t that means that it’s not an usual traditional look. The angles are unconventional, the framing etc.

It’s something very specific and unique. It’s like she knew exactly how she wanted to photograph the film and just did it. It’s delicate and particular, but at the same time very beautiful and timeless. The colors are very interesting, because they make the film look very alive, there are some club scenes which are photographed like you would do with a comedy/drama film, but it somehow feels out of place with the gritty and harsh look of the desert. Again, I don’t want this to sound weird, but you kind of sense that a woman shot it. It’s a bit “girly” I guess.

Reason III: The Ending
the ending
Most people, myself included, probably discovered or first heard of Denis Lavant thanks to his incredible performance(s) Leos Carax’ Cannes sensation Holy Motors (2012). In Beau Travail he is great as well, but when I saw the ending of this film I was like holy shit! Not only is it an incredibly bold move on the part of the director to end her movie that way, but it’s pure genius. I was a bit lukewarm on the film before the ending and was ready to shut down my computer as soon as the credits rolled (which I rarely do), but then this scene comes on and it’s pure gold.

I’ll try to be as vague as possible, to avoid any major spoilers, but it’s just something you have to see to believe and to get the full effect of it, you probably shouldn’t watch it divorced from the whole movie. Although if you’ve already seen the film that’s a fun scene to re-watch on its own or just listen to the song: Rhythm of the Night by Corona. It’s like the director saying: Yep, whatever life goes on. At least that’s how I see it, but I’m sure it’s something to do with pop-culture and disco. I don’t want to overdo this, so I’ll just say that it’s awesome! One of my new favorite endings for sure.

Those are my three reasons. What are yours?

4 comments

    • davideperretta

      Cheers and thanks 😀
      Sage choice, my friend! I think it works best if you see it in the context of the film.
      I only featured it for those who needed a bit more convincing, don’t care about spoilers or just wanted to re-watch it 🙂

  1. literaryvittles

    I’m a little ashamed to admit that I haven’t even heard of this film. I think it would be an interesting watch coming on the heels of Apocalypse Now, which I finally watched on Friday and really, really enjoyed. A war film by a female director! You are right, that alone is unusual and enough to convince me to watch it, along with the tantalizing ending.

    • davideperretta

      Nice! Apocalypse Now is definitely one of the best war films in my opinion. Just don’t expect too much from this one. It’s kind of a low key film, lots of voice-over (kind of bugs me), but like I said: That ending! 🙂

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