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.