–Claire Denis departs from the general plot of her inspiration, Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, in the final section of her film: no military trial or issues of the law. To the extent that Beau Travail has a plot, that is, being more a series of sequences depicting the training exercises of the members of a French Foreign Legion unit in Africa. Denis’ version of Melville’s Claggart, a tough officer named Galoup (Denis Lavant), narrates the picture from the aftermath of being drummed out of the corps. Thus it is his memories that we watch, these stray scenes of men marching and digging and exercising.
–The movie begins with scenes in a Djibouti nightclub and also ends there. And after it ends you realize the whole movie has been a dance, the early scenes showing the pleasant social and flirtatious dancing in the club, the bulk of the movie depicting the ritualized dance that is left to men without women: the marches and the fights and the careful streamlining of body and clothing. If this is Galoup’s vision of the life he mourns, then the close emphasis on the masculine body in movement can be fairly described as homoerotic; yet much of the energy behind Galoup’s behavior seems to be not so much desire as his unhappiness over being treated as a less-favored child by his aloof commander (Michel Subor). Galoup fears the loss of his status quo, his unreal paradise. (The commander is called Forestier, the name of the character Subor played in Godard’s Le Petit Soldat in 1963.)
–You don’t even see that much of the Billy Budd character, Sentain (Grégoire Colin); he is less an object of fascination than an annoying idea disrupting Galoup’s perfect world of good work. You do see him when he is alone on a desert march, although if everything is Galoup’s memory, Galoup must be daydreaming this section, perhaps to take himself off the hook.
–The compass Sentain was given to find his way back to the Legion camp, faulty to begin with, is later discovered, encrusted with salt left over from the evaporating Red Sea. Your compass will be wrecked by being here, because you don’t belong here. Denis, who grew up in colonial Africa, also made Chocolat and White Material in her childhood environs, and she has none of the white-person-goes-to-dark-continent mentality; the native people in this film occupy a specific role: outside the story proper but in secure, quiet ownership of the location.
–You can hear the sea in many scenes where you don’t see it. A reminder of Billy Budd, but also of the wildness and untameable thing that is the actual world. The military discipline that carries on in the foreground of the sea is the false world. A sharp crease in the dress trousers, the careful tucking of the bedsheets. The real world returns in Galoup’s last dance. Forestier, though a military man, sees it: he tells Galoup, “You put too much faith in appearances.” (Forestier has already found a way not to kill himself under these circumstances, by chewing the local herbal remedy and blissing out.)
–France is not at war. The soldiering so aggressively practiced will probably never be needed. These exercises played out in the prehistoric setting are happening for their own sake, executed to no purpose. But then that’s what exercises are. There’s marching, and sit-ups, and jogging in a circle while chanting, bodies moving and touching in formal ways, to keep the enormity of what surrounds them at bay. And the local people set up cheap tables and sell trinkets to the tourists, such as an antelope’s skull caked over with salt; and a man lies on a bed, its sheets newly and tightly folded, and considers the final moments of his life by conjuring up these postcards of the desert.
(More on Beau Travail next Sunday, August 21, when I talk about bodies in movies, at the Frye Art Museum; info here.)