Monday, April 16, 2012

Billy Budd

Film: Beau Travail
Format: Internet video on laptop.

I’m continuing with the all-internet video all the time program for the moment, although I have to assume that I’ll continue to bust through NetFlix DVDs as they show up—otherwise, I’m just wasting money. Still, I’m finding this an interesting process at the moment. I’m watching things that most people don’t based simply on availability at the moment, and in some ways, it feels like I’m blazing a sort of trail. Beau Travail is a film that is currently unavailable on NetFlix, and not available in my various library systems, meaning it’s yet another that leaves me at the whims of internet availability.

This is an odd duck of a film, a modern military film that doesn’t touch on a war. Instead, we see troops training and patrolling, practicing, doing mock drills, and fighting. There is a sense of military school in this film, although the soldiers are not of school age. Oddly, the film that I am most put in mind of in scenes like this is Shaolin Master Killer with the endless training and drilling.

The story here is a very simple one. We are told the tale in flashback through the eyes of a man named Galoup (Denis Lavant). Galoup recalls his time in the French Foreign Legion, working and drilling his men in the heat and dust of Djibouti under the tutelage of Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor). It’s evident that Galoup desperately wants the approval of his superior, and that while he is well thought of, he’s not thought of that often.

The trouble starts with the arrival of a soldier named Sentain (Gregoire Colin). Galoup’s world changes in significant ways with the arrival of this new soldier. Sentain good looking, dedicated, and well-liked among the men. He also proves himself to be exceptionally brave when he saves victims from a helicopter crash nearby the legionnaires’ camp. All of this would seem to be a good thing, but in the mind of Galoup, it is not. It quickly becomes evident that there is a great deal at work here. Galoup is threatened by the young man, threatened for very specific reasons. First, Sentain is an excellent soldier. More significantly, it’s equally evident that Galoup is attracted to the young man, and this sends a jolt through the man’s world.

Certainly there is a great deal of homoeroticism in the film. This is due in no small part to the frequent shots of lines of men exercising with their shirts off, grappling, embracing and otherwise training. Many of the most masculine activities have this touch to them, whether intentional or not, and it’s most certainly intentional here. There is no other purpose for the relative close-ups of half-naked men stretching for minutes at a clip.

Because Sentain is such a threat to him, Galoup reacts out of his own fear and pain, sabotaging the man at every opportunity. He channels his attraction to the younger man into a sort of burning hatred, convinced that Sentain is set to destroy him and dedicated to the idea of destroying him first. So, when Sentain falls afoul of military discipline, Galoup has his chance to act, sending him off into the desert with a broken compass in the hopes that he will die of exposure, thus freeing Galoup from his presence.

That’s really the whole film. As you might expect, this is a slow movie. Anything like an action sequence is really nothing more than a training montage. Additionally, the drama here is entirely internal and never fully expressed outwardly. We’re left to divine everything for ourselves, even the basic attraction that drives the slim narrative to its conclusion.

Beau Travail is tragic in the traditional sense in that it tells the story of a man destroyed by his own inner character defect. Galoup’s actions are beyond his own control, and while he is not forced to act by any traditional measure, he is also powerless to prevent his own acting.

This is not an easy film. The narrative is sparse, as is the dialogue. Instead, the story is told through glances and camera angles, through the looks given by one character to another and through anything that we can gain by what we infer. It is filmed beautifully, and fans of cinematography will not even need the story to find this film worth watching. For the rest of us, the simple story simply told and the rather surprising and bizarre ending make for an unforgettable film experience.

If you're of a literary bent, Beau Travail owes a great deal to Herman Melville's Billy Budd. I don't remember as much homoeroticism in that work, but it certainly wouldn't be out of place on board a military ship out to sea for months at a time.

Why to watch Beau Travail: A visual feast.
Why not to watch: Not much happens.


  1. You are right to compare this to Billy Budd. Psychologically damaged people who are in positions of power can be a dangerous thing. Beau Travail is a slow film, but I found the cinematography captivating and the performances both quiet and strong.

  2. While I too found this film mesmerizing to watch, I have to say that my favorite film with a psychologically damaged person in power is The Caine Mutiny, and I miss its inclusion on the list. Another great (and similar) film is Mr. Roberts.

    It occurs to me that many of these films deal with the military. There has to be a reason for that, doesn't there?

  3. Would you be willing to share where you were able to watch this? If it's that hard to find I should try to knock it off when I can. If not, that's okay. If you would prefer to email it, I am at

  4. "Hard to find" might well be a relative term. There are a bunch of movies that don't exist in my local library's system, and my local library refuses to get audio/visual material through WorldCat. You may not have that issue, and this film may exist somewhere easy for you to get it from.

    But, here's the link to the first file:

  5. I just got done watching this. Thanks for the link.

    In my opinion, the primary reason this film exists is to show strapping male soldiers in various states of undress (mostly shirtless), flexing their muscles in various ways.

    Somehow I highly doubt that if a male director made a film about a set of young, cloistered nuns, and filled it with any number of shots of them showering, wrestling, and swimming where we could see much of their bodies, that that movie would have made the 1,001 list. When a woman turns men into sex objects, though, that's apparently worthy.

    I also had to laugh because the film came across to me very much like a comedic commercial that used to run a few years ago. It showed a woman in the trees, in voiceover, taking notes on the actions of men "in their natural habitat" fishing, joking, etc. It was done in the style of someone like Jane Goodall trying to understand chimpanzees. I got that same vibe from this film - of a woman looking into this male world that she is fascinated by and is trying to understand. What are all these rituals these soldiers go through? Why do they do them? Etc.