by Logan Gion
Directed by Claire Denis
Starring: Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, Grégorie Colin, Marta Tafesse Kassa
Beau Travail is a loose adaptation of Billy Budd, the last novel of Herman Melville (Moby Dick guy), and many LGBTQ+ film scholars consider it the definitive end to the “self-loathing, closeted gay villain” archetype. Praised for its surprising camera placement, dreamlike editing, and memory-map structure, the film sits at a 91 on Metacritic, an 86% on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 7.3 on IMDb.
This movie hits not one, but three themes. Behold:
That’s right! Not only is Beau Travail directed by Claire Denis, it also ranks at number seven on Sight & Sound’s Top 20 list released in 2022. Additionally, it features a legion of sweaty, shirtless men practicing hand-to-hand combat drills.
From his bare quarters in Paris, Disgraced Chief Officer Galoup recounts his days in Djibouti as a French Legionnaire. He admits that he made a mistake–not in action, mind you, but, rather, in execution. His commander, Bruno Forestier, considered Galoup his favorite, a man apart from the others.
–or so Galoup thought. In reality, Forestier treated everyone as sculptures on display in his private art collection. Galoup wouldn’t have minded this, so long as he stayed as Forestier’s favorite. When Gilles Sentain, a new recruit, arrived, Galoup found Forestier’s gaze drifting to the younger soldier.
Galoup, knowing that a “trash can lurks in every man’s heart,” tried everything he could to separate Sentain from Forestier, but Sentain’s popularity and an act of heroism endeared the youth to the commander even further! Galoup then concocted a plan to entrap Sentain, destroying the young man’s character along with, hopefully, his physical condition. If Galoup had succeeded, Sentain would have never returned to the unit, and Forestier would have elevated the Chief Officer to his former pedestal.
Seeing as the film opens on Galoup in exile, however, his plan was too wrinkled to pass inspection.
Like the salt flats upon which this man is resting, I found Beau Travail uneven. Well acted? Extremely. Photographed and Edited artistically? Assuredly. Brilliantly directed? Occasionally…
Memory-map structures–where the plot unfolds non-linearly in order to mimic a protagonist’s recollection of events–is tricky to pull off, but exceptionally rewarding when done so effectively. Here, I don’t think the film spends enough time grounding the audience in its different locations. For instance, I didn’t realize that Galoup was in exile back in Paris because the shots didn’t difinitively establish the change in location. For me, I assumed he was at a military base on leave, so I had NO idea what the timeline was or the stakes were until over half an hour into the movie, when Galoup is more clearly back in France.
Maybe my brain was slow to process, but I doubt I’m alone in my confusion, especially in a purposefully disorienting movie. This is a shame, too, because the paranoia, obsession, and revenge angles were engrossing. It just took me half the film to click into where we were going. I also think the filmmaking team was aware of this, because Galoup’s thoughts and letters narrated the proceedings, drowning the plot in narration that, oftentimes, repeated what the audience already sees on screen. While I’m not inherently opposed to narration, I felt babied in this case. Confused, frustrated, and infantilized are states of mind in which a filmmaker rarely wants their viewers to be–even if that’s how the protagonist feels.
Seperately, I feel that the film could have been edited more concisely. Yes, Beau Travail‘s runtime is already a scant 92 minutes, but I found my thoughts drifting around the 14th montage of soldiers marching. I’ve said before that many films underestimate when an audience gets an idea, and I believe that, in this case, those scenes could have been replaced with more intrigue and maneuvering on Galoup’s part. After all, half of the soundtrack is from the Billy Budd opera upon which Beau Travail is based. Were the stakes more operatic, I’d be salivating over this film like Forestier over Sentain.
This one’s a toss-up. If you’re in a literary, artsy mood (and your brain can differentiate between France and Djibouti), there’s plenty to enjoy here. The wry irony in the film is delightful. (The soldiers’ exercises are almost balletic, yet, when they dance with women in the nightclub, they’re awkward and stiff; Galoup is a competent chess player while Sentain “knows how the pieces move.”) The film is also brief, so, while the average viewer may have to actively participate on a level greater than which they’re accustomed, they won’t feel exhausted when the credits roll.
Many of the usual complaints (“It’s old,” “It’s in black and white,” “There aren’t enough montages of people meticulously ironing their clothes”) don’t apply here. If a viewer can overcome the so-called “one inch hurdle” of subtitles, I think most people–in the right mood–will think of Beau Travail as a nice find.
Well, yes… but also no. Since watching this movie, I could see the interpretations going both ways (a-HA-ha…). Was that innuendo outdated? So, too, is the analysis of “throw it in the gay pile, and be done with it” attitude many critics of the early ’00s took.
Perhaps I’m overthinking this, but the vouyeristic gaze of the film felt less sexual than I anticipated. While I certainly don’t want to dismiss homosexual representation or a gay reading of this work, I also don’t want to stereotype an entire orientation, especially in a situation that, I believe, is more nuanced.
Is there homoeroticism present here? Yes, though I got more of a fraternal vibe from the proceedings–sort of a “we’re all dudes, so it’s fine” attitude one would see in locker rooms.
Likewise, I don’t think Galoup is secretly in love with either Sentain or Forestier. I just think Galoup likes feeling special, like he’s teacher’s pet. I also feel that Galoup, were he in Sentain’s shoes, would stab his superior officer just to be considered Forestier’s new favorite. Sentain ISN’T Galoup, though; he just seems like a nice kid who gets along well with everyone. That makes Galoup all the more obsessed with discovering Sentain’s character flaws–he simply cannot fathom someone being nice for goodness’s sake.
Forestier, on the other hand, is practically drooling over his men. Sideways glances, late-night cigarette meetings, staring longingly from behind chain-link fence at men skinny dipping in the ocean: Forestier is as straight as a cul-de-sac. That said, he never touches his men, simply admiring them from afar, happy to gaze upon their rippling muscles during combat exercise.
My verdict? Much like the sport of rugby is like American football, yet isn’t quite the same, I believe that Forestier is a “scopophiliac,” one who gets off on watching a finely-tuned body do its intended job well. Forestier is a curator, selecting and recruiting only the most fit men for his unit, ogling them as they perform their duties. I say this because Galoup’s body is remarkably fit for a middle-aged man, yet he’s pug faced. Still, the story starts with him being Forestier’s most prized piece in his collection.
While Sentain is certainly a younger, prettier model, Galoup ultimately misjudged the root of Forestier’s attraction, especially when other exhibits in the commander’s menagerie get damaged. The Louvre would evict The Mona Lisa, regardless of her status, if she left her painting at night to burn the Monets.