If you squint long enough at Claire Denis’s amazing Beau Travail–you’ll have to squint, given the African sunlight–you will make out the faint contour of a story. A young recruit–call him Gilles–shows up at a French Foreign Legion post near present-day Djibouti. Here the natural world is vast in its indifference; the people, intimate in theirs; and so the soldiers are as self-encapsulated as if they were living in mid-ocean. They have only one another; but their sergeant, Galoup, lacks even that comfort. He is a man apart, and he detests Gilles on sight.
“He seduced everyone,” Galoup mutters in his voiceover narration, exposing the rancor of a homely veteran (dog face on top of fireplug body) for the tall, slim newcomer with the almond eyes and faultless demeanor. Having nothing else to think about, given his isolation, Galoup concentrates on hating Gilles. He develops a plot against him and then, with joy, watches it succeed, as he incites the subordinate to strike him.
Does it matter that Claire Denis has borrowed this mere outline of a story from Billy Budd? Maybe; a little. (She also has mentioned two terse, enigmatic poems by Melville as having inspired Beau Travail.) But what matters more is the sense of something mute and weighty in the film’s events, which appear before you not as a narrative stream but singly or in small groups, like a set of archaic sculptures.
Like such sculptures, the scenes are most often found in fragments. You could almost wrap your hands around them–a torso here, an abandoned leg there. Yet for all their tactility, piece by piece, they prove to be phantasmagorical. The entire film takes place within the tortured mind of Galoup, who recalls these images from his exile in Marseilles.
Here’s how Galoup’s mind works. You first see a crude mural painting of black silhouettes against an orange field: soldiers crossing a rocky landscape, beneath “Africa’s burning sun” (as a men’s chorus sings on the soundtrack). Let’s call this an establishing shot, which lays before you the stiff, simplified, two-dimensional landscape of Galoup’s thoughts. That’s where the story will take place–or will it?
As if jumping into a different mental register, you next find yourself looking at an African woman, all dressed up and marking time in a strangely silent discotheque. She performs an air kiss, which seems to operate as a signal, since the frame suddenly erupts with music, flashing lights and dancing. Africa has now become a fully three-dimensional press of bodies–female, mostly–which glow with an unashamedly mercenary allure.
Another cut: An African man, wearing a New York Yankees cap, is yelling into a telephone, saying something about Djibouti. Having named the locale, he disappears almost before you can register his presence, to be replaced by the light of a scorched landscape, visible through the crossbars of a train’s window. The train rolls on for a long time. (Apparently, the distances are great in Galoup’s mind.) Then the traveling images give way to still pictures of pebbly earth and low shrubs; and then a shadow appears.
It is the shadow of a man. The camera follows it to its source: a muscular, bare-chested African who is standing with his eyes closed while stretching his arms toward the sun. Other men in the same eerie pose–similarly young, similarly well muscled–are arrayed near the first in the raking, golden light. These are Galoup’s soldiers. On the soundtrack, a chorus from Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd gives voice to the men’s longing for the sun, or (just as likely) Galoup’s longing for the men.