Marking time until his impending court martial, discharged former Legionnaire Galoup (Denis Lavant) laments that he is “unfit for civilian life.” He tries to keep busy in his Marseilles apartment, but is nonetheless bereft of purpose when rent from the rigorous routine life as Chief Adjutant gave him. This sense of purpose his military service provided is proven to have been an illusion, however, or at least only a temporary panacea. Lavant’s voiceover preceded this line with the assertion that the character is, perhaps, simply “unfit for life” in general. As the numerous choreographed, ritualistic exercises in Claire Denis’s Beau Travail show, his military career was in fact similarly aimless.
Set in the deserts of Djibouti, an African border country and former French colony, this loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd is a war film, only without a war. Cinematographer Agnès Godard captures the tanned, athletic bodies of Galoup’s troop as they go through endurance tests in the baking heat, run through assault courses, enact group exercises that appear more like dance, more or less always in close-up and shorn of context. We do not see Galoup leading the exercises, beginning them, explaining them. What we know is that these rituals are largely unnecessary. Djibouti is not at war. There is no conflict the Legionnaires are preparing for, no border that requires defense. Why are they even there?
In Reverse Shot’s symposium on Denis, Andrew Chan quotes how “Rob White has noted that the Legionnaires’ training exercises, despite once being preparations for violence, are now a choreography ‘evacuated’ of meaning in a postcolonial world.” There choreographed moves — and the colonialist aggression they imply — are put to use only during the sequences, including one which opens the film, where the soldiers descend upon the local women in a cheesy nightclub. Outside of that setting, it is difficult to identify a purpose in their continued presence in Djibouti, nor on the insistence on continuing to follow routine and protocol.
It is this absence of a compelling reason to continue that Galoup feels free to march his soldiers to an isolated area of the country to make camp. He admits himself there is nothing there and no reason for a military presence, cooking up the lie of a road that needs maintenance; but if they have no purpose wherever they are, does it matter where they go? It is this lack of a clear, defined mission that also proves to be the troop’s downfall, as the numbing routine gives ample room for Galoup’s jealousies towards new recruit Sentain (Grégoire Colin) to fester until such a point as he sends him to die on the salt flats beyond their camp, equipped with a faulty compass.
While much is made of Beau Travail’s camera enacting a sort of “female gaze,” or arguably an appropriated homoerotic gaze (being as the film is identified principally with its women authors: Denis, Godard, and editor Nelly Quettier, while setting aside co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau), much of the cinematography is also downright claustrophobic. While the point of using selections from Britten’s Billy Budd opera over the exercises of the men is somewhat clear — as there movements are both shorn of the context of combat, and for the camera, they are closer to performance — there are also the original compositions from Charles Henri Pierrefeu and Eran Zur, which evoke a horribly queasy dread.
The use of close ups demands we focus on what is in the frame, but the tension implied by the music suggests something awful might be happening just outside of it, or awaiting us in a cut to a wider angle. It’s a visual parallel to the psychology of Galoup who, when he is at last made aware of quite how unfit for life he is, and untethered from a sense of purpose the Foreign Legion had previously given him, allows his detachment and isolation to curdle into murderous jealousy. Having spent so much of his life zoomed in on the particulars of protocol, the opening up of the his emotional frame inspired by Sentain’s arrival is too much to take.
As the camera pulls back, the loneliness of Galoup comes into focus. He sets the table while his troops frolic in the sea. He is set apart from the soldiers in their uniforms, as they march down a street at night, or hoist each other on their shoulders during the day. His horizons are widened, and it is for the worst. Wide-angle lenses are used to capture some of the film’s more dreadful images, as with the dead body of the soldier killed in the helicopter crash floating in the sea like a bloodied buoy. The death sentence he sends down to Sentain becomes a form of self-sabotage, an attempt to zoom back in from the macro to the micro, from indelible wide shot to cloistering close up. Yet back in France, Lavant is still mostly shot in such a way as to highlight his detachment from the world around him, whether climbing a tree to prune its dead branches with an empty sky behind him and an implied drop beneath, or sat gazing out the window of an nearly-empty metro car.
The iconic coda of Beau Travail offers Galoup both the closing up of his frame which he desires, and the possibility of transcending it. Godard returns to the claustrophobic close up as we see Lavant make his bed in the military style, the sheets as taught and tight as his self-contained performance. The camera then floats across details of Galoup’s body as he rests a pistol against his chest: the chain around his neck, a tattoo which reads “sert la bonne cause et meurt” above his nipple (“Serve the good cause and die”), before arriving at a protruding, pumping vein in his bicep. Its the beating of blood through this vein that allows the cut to Lavant in a wide shot. The camera is set far back, his entire body in view, as Galoup — dressed in the gladrags we saw him preparing in an earlier scene in Djibouti, and stood against the mirrored wall of the night club which reoccured in his reminiscences — dances freely and without self-consciousness, allowing himself to at least imagine a life where an expanded scope means life, not death.