Based loosely upon the structure of Melville's Billy Budd, Foretopman, Denis' latest film is a slow, poetic montage of vast North African desertscapes, adorned with a somewhat generic array of taut buttocks and pulsing biceps. Supposedly it is also a story of machismo, pride, and valor and how these elements can be ruined by alienation and jealousy. Well, since that's the pitch, let's take a swing at it. The tale -- what there is of it -- is narrated by Chief Master Sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant, smoldering), a hardass legionnaire whose actions have just bought him a return ticket to France in a less-than-honorable discharge. "I felt something vague and menacing take hold of me," he cryptically explains, adding, "Maybe freedom begins with remorse." The film unfurls as samples of his soul are scraped away, his detached monotone guiding us through the troop's harsh existence.
Most of the men involved are simply meat, strewn artfully about the frame in assorted positions of straining and yearning. In addition to Galoup, there are only two other proper characters: the venerable commander, Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor, rock-solid), and the enigmatic new recruit, Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin, glazed). Forestier is the moral backbone of the group, a veteran who grinds his men hard but who has endured enough suffering to treat them with respect. Sentain is a mystery, a slim and dewy young fellow who, in Galoup's green-tainted eyes, seduces his comrades with calm demeanor, openness, and insight. In time both men get Galoup's goat -- Forestier by playing the role of an unappreciative father, oblivious to Galoup's soldierly precision, Sentain by effortlessly outperforming his superior officer, like a plucky, ne'er-do-wrong kid who doesn't know when to quit. Caught between them, Galoup, his brains baked by too many years in the sun, finds his moral barometer going haywire.
Rather than going for the obvious and well-worn Joseph Conrad tics, however, Denis plays her military drama cool and classy, avoiding the sort of dementia we have come to expect from overworked soldiers in exotic lands. This choice has positive and negative effects. On the plus side, the director and her adventurous cinematographer Agnès Godard (a veteran of six previous Denis films) offer us an exotic martial reverie, elegantly tailing their subjects across barren wasteland, beneath azure waves, and through many obstacles. The downer is that the repetitive maneuvers and body worship (enough with the glutes!) eventually become soporific; there's no sparring with the Algerians, no propulsive conflict to push us forward. After about an hour of detail-oriented visual poetry, Rambo starts to seem appealing. Naturally, so do the jokers from Stripes.
Translations seem somewhat questionable here ("Merde!" for instance, becomes "Fuck!"), but the tone of the dialogue remains staunchly poetic throughout. As Galoup struggles to remember his identity in the Legion, which is already slipping away, he asks himself, "What did I see of wild camels, of shepherds appearing from nowhere? Women in bright colors, in fields of stone, all those images." Because the visuals are so achingly romantic and the Legion's mission is purposefully left undefined (they seem programmed exclusively to break rocks and engage in blatantly homoerotic choreography), it becomes clear that the movie isn't about soldiering at all but about a man so obsessed with his work that his life is drained of subtlety and nuance. In his attempt to be a perfect soldier, running a perfect machine, Galoup has misplaced his spirit, so he chooses to dissect and attack Sentain's. "We all have a trash can deep within," he mutters. "That's my theory."
As a study of intolerance and as an ethnographic document, Beau Travail is reasonably successful. We never really get into the local culture, but we catch sound bites of soldiers insulting the practices of Ramadan and see brightly attired women bartering for sitting mats or flirting to a queasy Eurodisco beat. Most keenly we get the feel of the coarse terrain, but in terms of action, Denis is better at telling than showing, which is not exactly a strength for a director of visual stories. It was probably a kick to shoot these fit fellows skittering like giant spiders through training or smacking abdomens in some absurdist drill, but it's still nice to feel a story moving forward from time to time. Pompously laying a segment of composer Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd over her solemn hotties does not replace the need to have them do something, at least by common standards of narrative cinema.
But this isn't really narrative cinema, no more so than that Janet Jackson video with the bald, buff guy rolling around the desert in his BVDs. Instead it's a fine example of a passionate artist exploring her imaginings of a gender to which she is not automatically privy. Emerging from Beau Travail, I didn't feel as if I knew these men at all. Rather I felt as if I'd had a vague brush with a French woman's masculine passions. On that level Beau Travail makes sense, but it's also a bit like Sam Peckinpah making a movie about Victoria's Secret models.