Blood and sand: Beau Travail

In the latest of our essays making the case for contenders in S&S’s poll to find the Greatest Film of All Time, Hannah McGill revisits Beau Travail, Claire Denis’s rapturous 1998 exploration of male identity in crisis.

Hannah McGill
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Poll countdown essay no. 3 | from our May 2012 issue

Directed by Claire Denis, and scripted by Denis and her regular writing partner Jean-Pol Fargeau around a loose riff on Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, Beau Travail (1998) is set in a remote coastal outpost in the former French colony of Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa. Here a battalion of Foreign Legionnaires spend their days enacting gruelling training regimes on desert terrain, and their evenings circling girls at the local nightclub. Commander Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor) is admired by his men; less so is his prickly, solitary second-in-command Sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant). Galoup is more interested in being “the perfect legionnaire” than in being popular – at least until the arrival of sweet-natured new recruit Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin).

Quite what winds Galoup up so much about Sentain isn’t clear, but it seems to be the latter’s apparent contentment and ease in living. These are, implicitly, untoward character traits in a legionnaire, who ought to have been driven into exile by some stigma, trauma or misdeed. “He had no reason to be with us in the Legion,” Galoup notes in the account that we see him penning after the events, heard as voiceover. By joining the Legion, Galoup deliberately isolated himself in a context where dysfunctionality is the norm – where he would meet no resistance to his theory that “we all have a trashcan deep within.” The arrival of a loveable kid capable of using conventional social graces poses a threat to Galoup’s alternative social structure. Into this kingdom of the blind has walked a paragon possessed of perfect vision, and Galoup is none too keen on the prospect of being seen.

In which case we can’t help but note that he is very much in the wrong film. Movement, gesture and glance tend to reveal at least as much as dialogue in the films of Claire Denis. Nowhere else in her work does she push this visual language as far as in Beau Travail, a near-ballet of a film that’s at least as much a work of choreography as of verbal storytelling. But if Galoup’s scribbled notes are clearly his subjective account, it’s not clear whether his memory is our only guide. It’s tempting to assume that the film’s most abstract and movement-driven sequences represent material that Galoup has retrodden so many times in memory that it’s fragmented and become surreal: a fight with Sentain transfigured into something akin to a tango; combat training moving into what amounts to a mass bout of ritualised hugging.

By provoking Sentain to intervene in the mistreatment of another soldier, Galoup turns Sentain’s own good nature against him, in order to be justified in disciplining him. We gather that the punishment visited on Sentain – a lone trek into the desert with a sabotaged compass – is intended to kill him. But other elements of the story hinge on events to which Galoup cannot have borne witness. Does he know, or merely guess, which soldier betrays him to Sentain with the words, “He doesn’t like you. Beware”? Do we see Sentain survive his final ordeal because Galoup did – or because some self-justifying part of Galoup wants to believe that he did, as evinced by the coyly self-justifying aside, “He could easily have crossed the mountains into Ethiopia”?

Throughout her body of work, Denis has toyed with subjective and objective realities – with whether her characters are living through externally manifested events, self-protective imaginings or symbol-heavy dreams. Like the legionnaire whose original identity is masked behind a false name, Beau Travail is cagey about the point of view it occupies. Recourse to Billy Budd offers some illumination, but Melville’s text – a brief work from the unproductive late period of his career, left incomplete at the time of his death in 1891 – has plentiful ambiguities of its own, compounded by posthumous publication and multiple revisions.

Set aboard a late-18th century British man-of-war, Billy Budd tells of a sailor whose beauty and popularity stir fascination in all who meet him, and destructive envy in the master-at-arms Claggart, who frames him for fomenting mutiny and ultimately ensures his execution. The prelapsarian innocence so fetishised in Billy (who “in the nude might have posed for a statue of a young Adam before the Fall”) represents a beautiful but weak position, one powerless against the machinations of the already fallen. Billy finally incriminates himself because he lacks the sophistication to defend himself: at the crucial moment a debilitating stutter prevents him from forming words.

Modern interpretation of Billy Budd has tended to focus on its homosexual undercurrents. These are indeed hard to avoid, even with consideration of altered mores and shifted terminology: young Billy’s physical beauty preoccupies Melville’s text to an almost comic extent, while his detractor is clearly motivated in part by frustrated desire. Our narrator (a bystander rather than one of the antagonists, as in Beau Travail) invents for Billy the quasi-iconic designation “The Handsome Sailor”: one bound by his “natural regality” to secure and accept “the spontaneous homage of his shipmates”. As readers, we can’t escape Billy’s girlishly smooth face, his golden locks or the sweetness of nature that draws men to him as “hornets to treacle”. Billy’s destroyer, Claggart, regards all this bounty with “a touch of soft yearning, as if [he] could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban”.

Whether or not Melville’s main impetus was the expression of thwarted gay passion, Beau Travail – emerging as it did at a time of assertive queer cinema and queer reading of apparently straight texts – inherited the interpretation, and indeed arguably compounded it through its knowing deployment of queer-identified imagery. Certainly the intensity of Galoup’s obsession with Sentain mimics the symptoms of love, particularly love as it tends to be experienced by those film noir protagonists who identify it as an emotion not dissimilar to murderous rage.

“Something vague and menacing” takes hold of Galoup, according to his voiceover; “a sort of rancour, a rage brimming”; “something overpowering”. He also jealously identifies Sentain as a potential new favourite of his beloved Forestier: “keep Sentain away from Forestier,” runs one of his neurotic inner notes, as he predicts – somehow, through all of this – “the end, the end of me, the end of Forestier”. Is this ‘end’, in his estimation, the disgrace of a gay affair – Forestier’s with Sentain? Does Galoup intervene not out of his own love for either man, but to prevent Forestier from slipping – from abandoning the self-denial that holds their way of life together? Sentain, unlike Billy Budd, isn’t markedly objectified by his superiors; desiring looks here pass from the camera to the performers, not between the characters themselves. If there’s an intense love in this story, it’s Galoup’s for Forestier, but the tenor of that connection seems more familial than sexual. Galoup responds to Sentain not like a jealous lover, but like an older sibling displaced by a new baby.

Beau Travail does frankly foreground male beauty, thereby highlighting the tension at the heart of a military society in which sentimental notions of comradeship, solidarity and love among men must strive to separate themselves from the taboo of homosexuality. The French Foreign Legion, set up post-French Revolution to allow the state to circumvent its own laws barring foreigners from military service, quickly developed a reputation as a refuge or site of self-imposed punishment for men with troubled pasts; that implied criminality, but also sexual misdeeds of one stripe or another.

A certain camp romanticism attaches itself to the Legion’s reputation, and so does specific gay mythology. Jean Genet joined at 18 (and was subsequently ejected for a homosexual act); Cole Porter claimed to have done a stint too; the popularity of Edith Piaf’s ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ as a Legion theme song creates a delicious rapport between the personas of the tear-stained stage diva and the stoic, careworn legionnaire.

If camp as identified by Susan Sontag constitutes “the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve” all seen through “the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalisation of experience”, the modern Foreign Legion as seen in Beau Travail – policing old combat zones, offering up its rigour and grace to indifferent wildernesses, practising permanent priapic readiness for a physical engagement that never comes – is the very quintessence of military camp. (In its sly acknowledgement of the queer interpretations that strain so unavoidably at the seams of military imagery, Beau Travail might be construed as a solemn foreign relative of the Monty Python sketch in which marching soldiers chant arch taunts: “Don’t come the brigadier bit with us, dear / We all know where you’ve been, you military fairy…”)

Male identity

Desire, then, may form part of Sergeant Galoup’s crisis, but the concerns of Denis’s film reach beyond sexual acts or their refusal. At the time Beau Travail came out, angst around the matter of male identity – specifically, the post-feminist, post-industrial fear of redundancy and impotence, and the resulting querying of sexual and social identity – had considerable cinematic currency. The US cinema of 1999, for instance, repeatedly problematised the conventions of male heroism and male self-sacrifice. American Beauty and Eyes Wide Shut show groomed and affluent mid-life males thrust into confusion by consumerist decadence and aggressive female autonomy. Fight Club gives us men voluntarily cloistered away from women, the better to sublimate their emotions into physical exertion and violence (and has its own Billy Budd moment, when the narrator disfigures a gorgeous blond recruit on the basis that “I felt like destroying something beautiful”). Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr Ripley envies and desires Dickie Greenleaf, and becomes murderous as a result.

Denis’s choice of the French Foreign Legion as a setting for Beau Travail originated in a commission from the television channel Arte to make a film on the theme of foreignness, but it can also be seen to reflect this prevailing millennial concern over male and female place and function. Submitting stoically to suffering, severing emotional connections, rejecting domesticity and blood family: the French Foreign Legion offers an escape fantasy neatly tailored to the popular stereotype of the masculine temperament. Denis’s film acknowledges, not least in its title, the sad glamour that has adhered to the French Foreign Legion since P.C. Wren’s 1924 novel Beau Geste popularised the perception of the legionnaire as tragic hero rather than mere runaway criminal; but it also supports the notion that all-male environments harbour obscure and inevitable threats. Sexual desire is reconfigured as the threat of dominance, violation and feminisation; the hope of reproduction dies; love, rendered inexpressible by taboo, turns toxic. (Four years after Beau Travail, Gaspar Noé would begin his Irreversible in the supposed ‘hell’ of two all-male spaces – a prison and a gay nightclub – and end it in the hope-suffused ‘heaven’ of a pregnant woman alone in nature.)

Impotence in the face of social change is further emphasised in the imagery of near-defunct colonial outposts, whose continued existence both indicates the survival of a colonial legacy and emphasises its collapse. Military power, like the sexual energies of the recruits, is in abeyance, but continues to inform interaction with the African populace. Denis – herself a child of the French colonial experience, having moved around Africa as a child with her government-administrator father – shows the locals observing the legionnaires with amused curiosity rather than suspicion or awe. To the local girls they hit on at the disco, the legionnaires are suppliers of sex and gifts: part of a satisfying system of exchange, but hardly a source either of threat or salvation.

Of course, the fact that Denis is herself a woman – and was working in this case with a female cinematographer and editor, Agnès Godard and Nelly Quettier respectively – further complicates Beau Travail’s position on masculinity. Denis has been criticised for appropriating a perspective not her own – that of a closeted gay man – and then associating that perspective with negative traits: envy, asociality, destructive and self-destructive drives. But the assumption that Beau Travail’s prominent enjoyment of the male physique constitutes an effort to replicate a gay male gaze risks negation of the existence of an active female gaze. Since there’s nothing ‘homo-’ about a woman regarding the male body, it might be argued that the sexual perspective of Beau Travail is straightforwardly erotic – and that some of the discomfort it has stirred is down to its unusual standing as a film about men primarily authored by women.

Frame of reference

A further significant tendency of 1990s cinema that’s identifiable in the make-up of Beau Travail is referentiality. Denis’s film is haunted by pre-existing texts: Billy Budd; Benjamin Britten and E.M. Forster’s 1951 opera of the same, which surfaces in the film in snatches of half-heard music; poems by Melville, which Denis reportedly gave to her cast in lieu of a script; Othello, with its recognition of the savage potential of envy; Fassbinder’s Querelle, which knitted elements of Billy Budd into its frankly erotic take on Jean Genet’s novel Querelle de Brest; Beau Geste (itself famously filmed in 1939, with Gary Cooper) and its sequels Beau Sabreur and Beau Ideal, if only in their association of the word beau (‘good’ but also ‘beautiful’) with the Foreign Legion’s traditional conflation of nobility and physical elegance.

Another significant antecedent is Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (1960), from which Beau Travail appropriates snippets of dialogue as well as the whole character of Bruno Forestier (who’s played in both films by Michel Subor). Godard’s film is set during the French-Algerian war; if Forestier is the same character in Beau Travail, his presence in the French Foreign Legion might be construed as either penance or escape. Forestier in Le Petit Soldat is also the mouthpiece for Godard’s famous maxim defining cinema as “truth 24 times per second”; authenticity of representation preoccupies him, and surely also complicates his presence in Denis’s film.

Whatever else is implied by Beau Travail’s exhilarating and befuddling final sequence, in which Galoup dances alone in a mirrored nightclub to Corona’s ‘Rhythm of the Night’, it certainly points at a final bid for personal freedom – if one that’s ironically characterised by a cheesy club anthem and a mannered, self-regarding routine. Perhaps Galoup is dead (we’ve seen him stretched on his bed, revolver nearby; going over his notes might have been a way of setting his house in order pre-suicide). Perhaps, in imagining himself back at the nightclub in Djibouti, he has found release in recognising his own physical grace, instead of obsessing over that of Sentain: freedom through narcissism. Or perhaps he’s imagining an out gay life, in the only terms that his limited life experience provides (start by imagining dancing in public; move on to the matter of actual sex later!).

At its close, Beau Travail is still inviting us to guess – to feel rather than learn the rhythms of its storytelling. It’s this audacious looseness, this elegant unfixability, that keeps Denis’s ‘beautiful work’ so fresh – and asserts it as one of cinema’s most compelling and original meditations on the need for, and simultaneous resistance to, intimacy.

Beau Travail is available on DVD from the UK’s Artificial Eye and international distributors.

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