Viewed February 28th
While stationed at a Foreign Legion base in Djibouti, French soldiers find that endless routine with nothing to do leads to a mounting tension.
In retrospect, Claire Denis' Beau Travail has got to be one of the key films of the 1990s or, perhaps, one of the key films that could be described as "pre-9/11" in that it captures the state of things in the world before the September 11th, 2001 attacks in a way that few artworks, film or otherwise, were able to achieve. In fact, the climax and the classic final moments in the discotheque almost terrifyingly predict 9/11.
You have these soldiers representing former Colonial glory, stationed on a beach far away from anything they know, with nothing to do except perform rituals and train endlessly and iron their shirts. It's the '90s, the Cold War is over, people are writing books about "the end of history," all we can complain about is Bill Clinton's sex life. Beau Travail captures this odd quiet moment of history. There's an absurdity and a dreadful humor that Denis is able to pull out of the situation, but mostly there's a sense of mounting dread. That sense of dread mounts internally between the soldiers and something has to give. Maybe it's sex maybe it's violence, but they can't keep performing these endless, pointless rituals forever. With this minimal plot, it could be boring rather than tense, but Denis is able to create such an amazing rhythm that when it feels boring, the boringness only amps up the simmering pot feel of the whole thing. She's able to make good-boring rather than bad-boring.