Loosely based on Herman Melville’s short story Billy Budd, Claire Denis’ Beau Travail is a film about a group of soldiers in the French Legion currently stationed in Djibouti. Like Billy Budd, the central plot of Beau Travail is about two men, and the homoerotic implications underlying their struggle. To further explain, Sergent Galoup (Denis Lavant)—an older man and second in command of the troops—one day becomes obsessed with a young soldier in the legion called Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin). Galoup’s obsession quickly turns into ire, and he tries his best to make Sentain’s life miserable, such as when Galoup wrongfully punishes a friend of Sentain’s, also in the legion, for seemingly no reason other than to spite Sentain.
I see Galoup’s ire as stemming from his sexual frustration and confusion as a seemingly heterosexual man who has fallen in love with someone else of the same sex. Galoup’s sexual frustration and confusion can be seen in how Denis splits the world of Beau Travail into two binaries—male and female—and how throughout the film, Galoup transitions from the male realm into the female, thus marking his acceptance of his homosexuality.
Denis splits the world into a gendered binary through the use of connotative gestures that either mean “male’ or “female.” This can be seen in the first two scenes of the film which I read as playing off one another in order to show that binary.
Beau Travail opens up with a slow pan over a painting, but what I’m more interested in is the supplementary use of the French Legion’s hymn which plays over the scene. The French Legion hymn can be seen as that connotative gesture of masculinity; the troop is all male and Denis places an explicit focus on the bodies of the troops during their exercise scenes, thus reinforcing the idea that the world of the French Legion is a masculine one. The French Legion hymn plays throughout the film and it can consequently be seen as the entering of the masculine realm.
In contrast to the French Legion hymn serving as a gesture of masculinity, I see the gesture of femininity being Denis’ use of a dance club, and the women who party inside. Like the French Legion hymn, the club appears throughout the film signaling its own realm of femininity or in this case, homosexuality. In the world of Beau Travail, it seems that femininity and male homosexuality are inextricably linked. To be a man who is homosexual is to also be feminine. Consequently, there is no room for the third option of bisexuality. As I will argue, within Beau Travail sexuality is split between two binaries with Galoup moving from one end of the spectrum to the next.
The French Legion hymn that opens the film cuts to the club, thus marking the movement of gendered realms. What’s to note here is the positions the bodies of the soldiers and female club goers. While the soldiers dance about intimately with the women around them, Sentain is seen walking alone and distraught through the club floor. I think what Denis is doing here by positioning Sentain alone–which stands as a contrast to the soldiers dancing with women–is that Sentain’s physical position in relation to his fellow solders shows Sentain’s distance from the masculine world of the French Legion. In short, Sentain doesn’t see himself as one of the soldiers of the French Legion but perhaps as one of the women in the club yet to express those feelings so explicitly, such as by dancing with a fellow male, would be taboo. Just as the women in the club seduce the soldiers through dance, Galoup also comments on Sentain’s similar ability: “Sentain seduced everyone. He attracted stares. People were drawn to his calmness, his openness (31:47).”
One of those people being Galoup, and so we can begin to note Galoup’s slow acceptance of his homosexuality through the changing of his gestures. Galoup’s changing of gestures can be seen as happening in three parts within the film’s temporal chronology. The first is Galoup’s time within the French Legion where he can be seen as heterosexual. Beau Travail, however, is actually told in flashbacks from Galoup’s future (present?) perspective, and here, we can note Galoup’s changing stance—more on this later. The last change happens within the film’s climax where I argue that Galoup has embraced his homosexuality.
Galoup’s first gesture that displays his masculinity isn’t part of the French Legion but rather, in the club within that second opening scene. The first time Galoup is seen, it’s his approaching and thereafter intimate dancing with a woman. Unlike Sentain who is estranged from his fellow soldiers in the club, Galoup can be seen as being one of the boys, otherwise, heterosexual.
As the film continues, we can see Galoup gradually change, most notably in one scene where he himself can be seen as being estranged from his fellow soldiers. Walking through the streets, the legion soldiers carry one another and walk in masculine solitude. Galoup on the other hand, stands from afar, watching, and what’s striking is the outfit which Galoup is wearing; he is not wearing his soldier’s uniform, but rather a formal outfit complete with dance shoes—clothing that recalls the club and thereby signifies homosexuality, which is also compounded by Galoup’s physical distance (similar to Sentain in the opening club scene) from the French Legion.
In the present, Galoup is no longer in the French Legion and these scenes are marked by his internal monologues; monologues which give insight into his change such as one line where he says: “I’m sorry I was that man. That narrow-minded Legionnaire (44:15).” I think here, “narrow-minded” refers to the closed, masculine world of the French Legion, and so I’d like to conclude by analyzing the film’s last scene where Galoup has embraced his change.
Once again, we’re back in the club, but in this scene, I don’t see the club space as necessarily physical. Rather, it’s the internal world of Galoup who in the previous scene was seen lying in bed, deep in thought. This would serve to explain why Galoup is all alone. Once again, Galoup is seen wearing his dance outfit, and as the music escalates, Galoup begins a dance of wild fury, twirling his body and shooting his limbs in every which way direction. The dance can be seen as its own gesture of homosexuality, and so Galoup has come to peace with his own sexual nature.
Beau Travail can be seen as being split into three parts, with each part showcasing Galoup’s transition from hetero to homosexual. That transition is seen through Denis’ inclusion of connotative gestures and Galoup’s differing use of those gestures in order to externalize his own sexual nature. So while the film starts with Galoup dancing intimately with a woman, it ends with him dancing alone, and what makes both scenes so different from one another is the events of the film—Galoup’s attacks on Sentain and his inner monologues revealing his regret and thereby acceptance of his homosexuality—and Galoup’s clothing which symbolizes the change in sexual preference. Ultimately, the dance becomes symbolic of Galoup’s casting away of his previous heterosexual guilt and his embracement of his homosexuality.