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Duel In The Desert
by Scott Tunstall

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The title means - Good work.

The title means - Good work.
Film, first and foremost, is a visual medium. Watch Sergei Eisenstein and D.W. Griffith and you'll realize dialogue is not necessary to convey a structured plot. Movies like THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN and INTOLERANCE laid the groundwork in the early 20th century. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton took silent film to another level, but since "talkies" took over in the 1930s, movies have often become too reliant on dialogue. The French are one of the few practitioners who still regard sparse dialogue as a viable technique to utilize in cinema. Contemporary filmmakers such as Francois Ozon and Claire Denis often prefer to concentrate on mise-en-scene instead of words. It's not for everyone, but cineastes who enjoy a more experimental style appreciate the creative choice.

BEAU TRAVAIL - 1999

Has anyone read Billy Budd by Herman Melville? Do people still read? Melville's story is set aboard a French warship in the year 1797. It deals 
Staring down the enemy.

Staring down the enemy.
with a conflict between a young seaman (Budd) and the ship's Master-at-Arms, John Claggart. Jealousy leads to murder. It's a great read that is often interpreted as as a retelling of Jesus and Judas. To be honest, it's so dense it's open to several different interpretations. A classic film version of the tale - directed by Peter Ustinov - was released in 1962, but if you're searching for a more modern and esoteric re-imagining, look no further than BEAU TRAVAIL. French auteur Claire Denis created a visual masterpiece back in 1999 that is more than worth your time.

In the Gulf of Djibouti - near the Red Sea - is home to a company of French Legionnaires. Amidst the searing desert heat, three men become embroiled in a conflict of wills. Commander Forestier, Master Sergeant Galoup and a charismatic recruit named Sentain form a bizarre triangle (there is an ironic reference to three volcanoes). Sentain's youth, skill and popularity draws the attention  of
Getting to know your fellow soldier.

Getting to know your fellow soldier.
both Forestier  and Galoup. Forestier admires the young man's leadership and heroism, while Galoup views him as a threat. Galoup's envy of Sentain soon transforms to rage. Forestier's favoritism serves only to deepen Galoup's hatred toward Sentain. A physical confrontation between the two opposing forces ends badly for both. Galoup's misplaced jealousy results in his personal and professional undoing.

Denis invents an operatic atmosphere for the film. Routine daily activities become balletic displays of male bodies in motion. The repetition of ironing a shirt, group exercise and marching in unison assume an almost mechanical identity. Military films often delve into the theme of man being stripped of humanity by the disciplinary rigors instituted by the armed forces. Denis doesn't expound on this idea; she allows her striking images to do the talking. The dynamics of man vs. man and man vs. self are melded with the cumulative effects of military 
Fearing the inevitable.

Fearing the inevitable.
dehumanization throughout the narrative. Denis doesn't follow Melville's text to the letter. She focuses her vision on the most significant element: man's frustration with the inability to recapture his youth.

The story unfolds as a series of flashbacks delivered via Galoup's voice-over narration after the events in the desert. His thoughts are of the stream-of-consciousness variety and provide only minimal insight into his psyche. He seems to regret his actions, but not his motivations. His "present" life can best be described as mundane and lonely. Galoup lives by the code, "Serve the good cause and die." Without the only life he knew, he is lost in a world that is foreign to him. Denis Lavant's portrayal of Galoup is spot on; again, there isn't much dialogue, so his physical acting defines the character. Denis has cobbled a successful career in film, but her signature work is BEAU TRAVAIL. It's far from the mainstream, which is why it's so refreshing.

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Eye On The Overlooked
Every other Sunday

A lot of great movies slip through the cracks. I'm here to catch them.


Other Columns
Other columns by Scott Tunstall:

High School Can Be Murder

A Wolf In Girl's Clothing

Southern Hospitality

Ten Great Films From the 2000s

Down With The System

All Columns


Scott Tunstall
Scott is a freelance writer currently living in the Southeast. He is a film school grad with a love of theory and screenwriting. His tastes vary from obscure niche films to giant Hollywood blockbusters. In other words, he'll watch pretty much anything.


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If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Scott Tunstall by clicking here.


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