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.
Bizarre, abrupt and disjointed, these opening images introduce you to Claire Denis's narrative tactics but not to the fullness of her themes. She needs time for those to develop: time to show you the routine. You see ample, gorgeous footage of soldiers throwing themselves through an obstacle course, practicing an assault at a construction site, whooping it up in town on their night's leave, ironing their uniforms. Yes, ironing. The Legion instills elegance in its men, says the post's khat-chewing officer, Bruno, and perfect creases are a part of that elegance.
You can see at once why Sergeant Galoup adores Bruno with a canine devotion. He can tolerate Bruno's spending evenings with Ali, the guy who supplies the khat. But when Bruno starts eyeing the new boy, Gilles, it's too much. Bruno even meets Gilles one night outside the barracks, under a full moon. This is how Galoup remembers the scene (or how he imagines it, now that he's alone and unemployed in Marseilles): The officer saunters out of the blackness, cigarette in hand, and with heavy eyelids and ponderous vowels asks for a light. Gilles obliges. Then Bruno, with gruff but languorous elegance, blows smoke, as he drawls a suggestive compliment on Gilles's looks.
This is not the craziest moment in Beau Travail; but it will do as a place to pause and take stock of the main theme, which is not merely isolation but uselessness. What's the point of the exertion, the loneliness, the sheer boredom of life in the Legion? Why burn up your muscles jumping in and out of pits, and your nerves pretending to capture the empty shell of a building? Why put those perfect creases into your pants, only to get them soaked with beer and sweat in the bars, where your money's wanted and you're not? Colonialism is finished, but the Legion is still out there, and nobody, starting with Bruno, knows or cares why. "I served for two years at home," a Russian-born soldier explains at one point, recalling how he joined the Legion. "But it's impossible to fight just for an ideal." To which Bruno replies, "What ideal?"
And Claire Denis adds, "What fight?" The only struggle available to these particular soldiers is the one with themselves. Maybe that's why Galoup, the sole Legionnaire who seems born for battle, settles his hatred on Gilles, to make up a use for his talents--and once he's fully committed to the fight, the movie really goes nuts.