Reconsidering The Landscape of the Homoerotic Body in Claire Denis’s Beau Travail
I begin, as my title suggests, with a quote from Agnès Godard, the cinematographer of Beau Travail (1999): “The most inexhaustible landscapes for me remain faces and bodies” (Vincentelli 2000: 166). The inexhaustible possibilities for cinematically inhabiting the homoeroticized male body are remarkable in Beau Travail, a tale told largely in aestheticized shots of male bodies. As Claire Denis states, the abstract nature of the film relies on performativity. “The abstraction was in the meeting of the landscape and the rules, and all those bodies doing the same thing” (Taubin 2000: 126).
Jim Hoberman argued that “in its hypnotic ritual, Beau Travail suggests a John Ford cavalry western interpreted by Marguerite Duras” (2000: 121), and the comparison seems extremely apt. It is a film that relies on memory editing techniques, memories of bodies sutured together by the voice-over of the central protagonist, Galoup. Denis also relies on performances rendered through the subjective re-membered gaze of a narrator whose mental landscape is rife with homoeroticized images of faces and bodies.
Beau Travail is loosely based on Herman Melville’s allegorical novella, Billy Budd, set in 1797 in the British Navy. The original is an account of an innocent sailor, Billy Budd, who is destroyed by a petty officer, John Claggart. Director Claire Denis also draws upon the Benjamin Britten opera of the same name. Both sources are key in their homoeroticism, which is tied, in these cases, to danger, isolation, and injustice.
But in Beau Travail, Claire Denis sets the story in the French Foreign Legion. The Billy Budd character, Sentain, is played by Grégoire Colin. Colin is muscular, lithe and attractive, and he captures the attention of the commanding officer, Bruno Forestier, played by Michel Subor. Interestingly, Michel Subor appeared in Jean-Luc Godard’s classic film Le Petit soldat  as a character also named Bruno Forestier. He also appears in Denis’s film, Bastards, 2013. Denis is wise to use Subor, as he is a fantastic actor who underplays his roles in a Bressonian manner. He is also as interesting to look at as a landscape painting; something inexplicable about him draws your gaze to his facial features and body. He is weathered and he has seen too much in life.
Denis Lavant plays the Claggart-like villain, the central narrator (Galoup), who appears to be in love with Bruno Forestier, and jealous of newcomer Sentain. Galoup’s jealousy destroys him, and it is this self-ruination that we watch in a rather complicated flash-back subjective POV narrative, punctuated by Galoup’s voice-over as he reads from his diary and retraces his voyage of self-destruction, and removal from the Legion. “Maybe freedom begins with remorse,” he writes. Indeed the joyously ambiguous ending suggests that Galoup may ultimately escape a prison of closeted homosexuality and the limited and ritualized life of the exiled Legionnaire as he dances to the strains of the classic gay anthem, Corona’s “The Rhythm of the Night.”
Beau Travail has very little dialogue. It has more in common with dance or opera than narrative film. It is punctuated by highly stylized, repetitive performances of masculinity through ritual behavior in the confines of the all-male Foreign Legion. The manner in which Denis introduces the men of the Legion suggests that they are indeed wordless homoeroticized vehicles of repetitive, often tortuous, masculine routines that are observed from a distance, almost as if they are excruciating dance numbers. In one of the first of many physically demanding “drills” we watch from above as the men shimmy across the desert floor like lizards beneath barbed wire. We see many bare male upper bodies, often through the objectifying gaze of Galoup’s wolfish flashbacks and fantasies.
Indeed, because the tale is told through Galoup’s subjective imagination, an imagination that is clearly informed by homophobia and denial of his own sexuality, we are forced into the subjectivity of a closeted homosexual who is an embodiment of excess and desire. Our narrator is completely lacking in objectivity. He is so consumed with jealousy and self-loathing that he can only share with us his tortured and sensual memories. As the camera pans along men’s chests and beautiful faces, we share Galoup’s subjectivity as we share his confusion. We share in the objectification of male bodies as much as we share in the aestheticization of their performances of masculinity and homosocial desire.
After a lengthy, wordless, gorgeously shot, balletic introduction to the men performing Tai-chi, to underscore this shared subjectivity between Galoup and audience, the camera stops finally to gaze at Galoup. He is the only one of all the men squeezed into the frame who is clearly gazing at the other men in sexual adoration. He begins reading from his diary. He is now in Marseilles; he’s been thrown out of the Legion. He’s been deemed “unfit for life.” The use of voice-over and the intimacy with which Galoup reads his diary also pushes the audience further into a joined subjectivity with Galoup. (Blessedly, Denis lets the audience do the work here to figure out the narrative. It is one of the distinct pleasures of her best work and Beau Travail is, arguably, her finest work to date.)
“Unfit for civil life,” he repeats, like a character out of Hiroshima, mon amour. In another highly aestheticized and homoerotic shot, he remembers a naked man swimming underwater. Through memory editing, his memory of the naked swimmer is interrupted by the face of his obsession, his superior Commandant, Bruno Forestier. But he immediately associates him with Gilles Sentain and the performance of a rather dangerous homoerotic love triangle begins to be emerge. The jealousy begins, “I felt something vague and menacing take hold of me,” he says, as he thinks about Sentain. In his memories, Galoup sees the men perform a balletic series of maneuvers. The camera tracks along with the men as they are seen performing various drills. It is visually stunning. This sequence is rife with the homoeroticism of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will or Olympia.
Almost sotto voce, in the style of Le Petit soldat, Galoup sings the Legionnaire’s theme song, “Loving one’s superior, obeying him, that’s the essence of our tradition.” Ironically, we know that Galoup disobeys the will of the law and his beloved Forestier when he arranges for the murder of Sentain. Galoup is carefully constructed as an exile. He can never really belong to the Legion because he is humanized by his erotic attachments. Humanization runs counter to the mechanization of the performing male bodies of the war machine. Empathy and humanity are not allowable in the confines of the strict unspoken code of masculinity here. It is very interesting that Galoup is not demonized in the manner in which Claggart is in the novel. He is instead seen as a pathetic grotesque outsider with whom we develop a sort of empathy. For example, in a scene in which the soldiers perform a simulated siege of an abandoned building, Galoup is emotionally and physically removed from the others by camera movement and shot composition. He is often a man alone or a man apart from the other men.
It is primarily through performativity and gaze exchanges that we begin to tumble to the fact that Galoup is infatuated with Bruno Forestier. Galoup is utterly closeted and unable to face the fact that he is deeply in love with his superior. As he obsessively cleans and irons we hear him reminisce about Forestier in his voice-over. “Bruno. Bruno Forestier. I feel so alone when I think of my superior. I respected him a lot. I liked him.” “I liked him,” seems like an unusual phrase of dangerous repressed same sex desire gone unfulfilled. It is clear in his gestures and behavior that Galoup lives to please Forestier. We see a photograph of the young Forestier. Galoup tells us, “A rumor dogged him after the Algerian War. He never confided in me.” That is all Denis needs to give us, nothing more.
Gradually, we come to understand that Forestier has likely been the subject of rumors of homosexuality. Indeed, in Galoup’s flashbacks Forestier behaves very much in keeping with an aesthete who loves to gaze at his own men. Forestier’s closeted homosexuality and narcissism is briefly glimpsed, but nonetheless apparent. He, like Galoup, spends much time carefully combing his hair and carefully grooming himself in a mirror before he greets his men. Coupled with his longing, languorous erotic looks at the men themselves, it becomes clear that Forestier is quite comfortable aestheticizing his beautiful men.
Galoup says of Forestier, “I admired him without knowing why.” Perhaps this can be read as a growing recognition and acceptance of their shared homosexuality. Yet this thought is broken by anger and the memory of an unreciprocated love. “He knew I was a perfect Legionnaire. And he didn’t give a damn.” Again Galoup repeats the name “Bruno, Bruno Forestier.” Galoup is a man without a country, a man without a clearly defined sexuality and a man without family.
Family is the promise of the Foreign Legion, but Galoup is not welcomed or loved by his superior or even his own men. He follows them in the city on their night off, as if desiring to share in their camaraderie. He has given himself to the legion but he cannot contain his desires. He longs for the homosocial bonds shared by his men. He is mad with jealousy. He’s also jealous of his superior, but he still doesn’t know why. His memories demonstrate exactly why. His memories inhabit a landscape of homoerotic bodies enjoyed by the clearly sexualized gaze of Forestier.
A trenchant example of these vague, subjective memories presents itself to the audience in the form of a stunning simulated underwater knife-fight that is saturated with the display of the beautiful musculature of naked male bodies. A flashback cuts to a shot of Forestier lounging on his side and smoking, clearly entranced by the visual display of homoeroticism. And in Galoup’s memory, he is suddenly made aware of his intense jealousy for Sentain. “Sentain seduced everyone. He attracted stares. People were attracted to his calmness, his openness. Deep down I felt a sort of rancor, a rage brimming.”
This rage is connected to Galoup’s feelings of sexual inadequacy and insecurity about his own rough appearance. Stuart Klawans describes him as “a homely veteran (dog face on top of fireplug body)” (2000: 34). In contrast, Sentain (Gregoire Colin) is very beautiful, even more so after an enforced head shaving; he is a beautiful young man with rather lush, large eyes and large mouth. After Sentain captures the eye of Forestier, Galoup decides to murder him. His flashbacks here are punctuated by objectified male bodies in various postures, formations and drills. We see Galoup and Sentain face off in a circular fashion like animals sniffing one another’s scent. These scenes represent Denis at her best as a director; Bressonian, stripped down, yet suffused with power and engagement with the narrative and the players.
Here, the Benjamin Britten score crashes in an otherwise quiet setting underscored by the natural sound of the waves lapping at the shore. This sequence is clearly a fantasy sequence, rather than memory, and the narrative returns to find Galoup forcing Sentain to punch him. It is another of Denis’s stunning scenes that realistically render masculine codes of behavior as they are enacted through ritualized violence. Later, Sentain is punished by being sent out into the salt desert with a broken compass. When that compass is later found, Forestier informs Galoup that he will be court-martialed. “Your Legion days are over.” Amazingly, Sentain survives.
Back in France, Galoup, even in civilian clothing, is unable to stop overcompensating for his insecurities with compulsive behavior we observe very critically, at a distance. He spends what seems like an endless amount of time obsessively cornering his sheets in military fashion. Wordlessly, he pulls out a gun and places it on his muscled torso. He remembers his men fondly as we see a tattoo on his skin that reads “Serve the good cause and die.” As he fondles the gun we flashcut to a final fantasy sequence where we see him dancing to “The Rhythm of the Night.” We are left with a typically ambiguous Denis ending where “maybe freedom begins with remorse.” It is only after leaving the Legion that Galoup allows himself to engage in a fantasy that seems to be an embrace of his homosexuality.
This final scene, read within the context of performativity theory, allows for a recontextualization of Galoup’s sexual identity. For, as Judith Butler writes, “the reconceptualization of identity as an effect, that is, as produced or generated, opens up possibilities of ‘agency’” (1999: 187). Galoup may indeed be renegotiating his body in a scene of agency, agency that allows Galoup to escape the confines of a constructed body that has been imprisoned in the homoerotic yet homophobic French Foreign Legion. This is a considerably different ending and message than any found in Melville’s Billy Budd. The gap between our understanding of Galoup’s memories and his own seeming inability to understand those same flashbacks leaves a space for the many repetitive and stylized performances of male bodies in battle with and in context with masculinity, desire, and homosociality.
That gap is the abstract space of the possibility of agency and the impermanence of existence. Despite readings to the contrary, Denis leaves us with the distinct possibility of an upbeat ending in the famous final scene of dancing to a gay anthem in a space and time configuration where homosexuality can be embraced. It is a stunning turnabout, and it has given rise to endless debate about the meaning of that deliciously ambiguous last fantasy or dream of a scene. Just where does this fantasy take place? In our imagination? In Galoup’s imagination? In the imagination of Claire Denis? In the end, it does not matter; this enigmatic conclusion exists as a powerful rendering of homosexual liberation and freedom.
I wish to thank Michael Brand for his incisive and brilliant remarks in our discussions of Beau Travail.
Gwendolyn Audrey Foster writes frequently for Film International.
Butler, Judith (1999), Gender Trouble, New York: Routledge.
Hoberman, Jim (2000), “Work in Progress,” The Village Voice, April 4, p. 121.
Klawans, Stuart (2000), “Legionnaire’s Disease,” The Nation, April 17, pp. 34-36.
Mazur, Matt (2010), “Control: An In-Depth Look at Claire Denis’ Beau Travail”, International Cinephile Society, 4 November. Accessed November 10, 2010.
Taubin, Amy (2000), “Claire Denis’s Band of Outsiders,” The Village Voice, April 4, pp. 126.
Vincentelli, Elisabeth (2000), “Agnès Godard’s Candid Camera,” The Village Voice, April 11, p. 166.