Dishonourably retired, Galoup looks back over his life in the French Foreign Legion and tries to make sense of his life without it: the camaraderie, discipline, rituals, and in particular his beloved commander, who he couldn’t bear to share. Inspired by the writings of Herman Melville, and in particular by his novella Billy Budd, Sailor, Claire Denis’ film casts a perceptive outsider’s eye over this unique closed male community, where identities are left behind and you can be anyone you choose as long as you’re a Legionnaire. Slow moving, but with such beautiful images that you won’t take your eyes off it.
France 1998, 93 minutes
Tough, grizzled Sergeant-Major Galoup looks back over his life in the French Foreign Legion, when he was second-in-command to Bruno Forestier. When Forestier took a fatherly interest in Gilles Sentain, a new recruit, the possessive Galoup tried to destroy Sentain’s reputation, and almost destroyed the lad himself, leading to his own disgrace, dishonourable retirement, and the loss of everything that was his life.
The Foreign Legion, a unique and bizarre remnant of the French empire, is a legend. Traditionally you join it to forget, leaving your past behind and choosing a new name and a new identity – anything you like. As long as you’re a Legionnaire, no one cares. The price, welcome to some, is leaving normal life behind, entering an all-male world of discipline, hardship and danger tempered by the camaraderie of other lost souls.
Inspired by the writings of Herman Melville (in particular by his novella Billy Budd, Sailor: the soundtrack includes excerpts from Britten’s opera score) Claire Denis’ film casts an outsider’s eye over this closed community. As the Legion makes men soldiers the film makes them images, showing us stylised, surreal ballets of men drilling and exercising in the shimmering African sun. The camera lingers on their bodies: it’s not just homoeroticism, they are beautiful. Individuality and passion are repressed by the Legion’s discipline and the camera’s eye; even their language is formal and stylised. But out of this deliberate unreality, so slow it sometimes seems about to abandon the narrative altogether, Denis conjures a relationship between the three men that is more subtle and complex than Billy Budd, and, perhaps, a future for Galoup.
Galoup: Denis Lavant
Forestier: Michel Subor
Sentain: Grégoire Colin
Director: Claire Denis
Producers: Jérôme Minet, Patrick Grandperret
Screenplay: Jean-Pol Fargeau, Claire Denis
Photography: Agnès Godard