Galoup (Denis Lavant) was a sergeant in the French Foreign Legion and very content there, mostly orchestrating the training sessions of his men and conducting the occasional mission, but then a new recruit arrived, Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin), who set the cat among the pigeons when he began to catch the attention of Commander Forestier (Michel Subor). The problem with that for Galoup was that he always thought of he and the Commander having a special, if professional relationship, with no room for any young upstart to barge in and upset the apple cart of their mutual but unacted upon affection. One thing has led to another, and now the sergeant has lost his job in Africa and is pondering his next move in Marseilles...
Writer and director Claire Denis really made the most impact with this gleamingly photographed tale of the love that dare not speak its name, not in any Army circumstances at any rate, though it was possible to watch Beau Travail and be unmoved by the homoerotic tensions that arise from all those bronzed, half naked and muscular male bodies in motion, especially if you were used to seeing military tales that tended to downplay the subtexts of what happens when a bunch of lads get together without any women to distract them. That said, it was something of a cliché that nobody really addressed, assembling a bunch of testosterone-fuelled characters and assuming that with no female influence they would begin to be attracted to one another.
You don't get many military films not featuring much in the way of armed combat that simply tell us these guys are great mates and leave it at that, so Denis was making assumptions in her loose adaptation of Herman Melville's tale Billy Budd, a work that had been brought to the screen more faithfully back in the nineteen-sixties by Peter Ustinov. This literary aspect wasn't vital to the appreciation of the movie since the director was crafting the three-way tension to her own ends, and for long stretches of the film it looks to be more of an excuse for her to amuse herself in the company of a bunch of virile, underdressed blokes. Fair play to her for that, nobody accused Russ Meyer of being a hypocrite when his predelictions were out there for all to see, and Denis brought a loving gaze to the male form.
In Lavant she had one of the most eccentrically dedicated actors of his generation, and his role here is one which his fans point to as essential to the understanding of his oeuvre away from his work with Leos Carax. It was not so much his buttoned down, reluctant to admit his motives sergeant of ninety-nine percent of his scenes which garnered the most attention, it was what happened right at the end, just as the credits were about to start, that brought everything we had seen together in an explosion of physicality. For sequence after sequence we have witnessed the order of the Legion's tasks, as the recruits train and train, taking part in repetitive rituals that have a very tightly controlled method of bringing out what the military wants from them, so much so that it becomes hypnotic.
Over and over we see these exercises in between the selected scenes which will edge forward the drama, and we begin to find the rhythm of the lifestyle just as the soldiers do, to the extent that we are lulled into their mindset, one under the thumb of taskmasters more interested in keeping them compliant as a unit, so when Sentain stands up for a fellow soldier he feels has been hard done by Galoup comes down on him like a ton of bricks. Or a tonne of bricks, if you prefer metric. This develops, with a resolution surprisingly lacking in excitement for you have been placed in this mesmerised state that barely registers something major is taking place, into the reason Galoup is back in France and licking his wounds, though reopening them as he self-flagellates might be more accurate judging by his voiceover which establishes the bulk of the observations. He perceives but one way out of his dilemma, the Legion being all he knows, and though it's ambiguous what the final shots mean that sense of joy of throwing off the shackles of convention and crushing regret makes for a terrific ending to a droning experience.