What happens when you cross Full Metal Jacket and Fight Club, and sprinkle in bits of David DeCoteau’s repressed homoerotic fetishism? Claire Denis’ Beau Travail is a gorgeous poem of fetishistic homoerotic male ritual as filtered through the French Legion occupying the African country of Djibouti. It’s also a very loose adaptation of Billy Budd, itself a masterpiece of repressed homosexuality as written by the repressed bisexual Herman Melville. No, seriously, Herman Melville developed a crush on Nathaniel Hawthorne so intense that Melville dedicated Moby Dick to him; that is, he dedicated a book about a sailor chasing that which he can not have while other sailors dip their arms into vats of sperm.
I’m sidetracked. Sargent Galoup (Denis Lavant, Holy Motors) is a middle man in his battalion. On one end, he crushes on and fetishizes his Khat-addicted Commandant Bruno who has a sticky past that may or may not have to do with some male on male relations. On the other end, Galoup is in charge of a troupe of sinewy muscular young men whose outfits, or lack there of, seem hand tailored to show off every single curve, much to Galoup’s visual delight. And then comes the young Russian soldier straight out of a Bel Ami catalog to destroy everything Galoup has going for him.
Claire Denis’ camera takes on Galoup’s eye, that is the viewpoint of the repressed homosexual man, constantly ogling the young male flesh as the men run through their daily routines: military exercises, laundry, cooking dinner, showering, swimming in Speedos with knives. Little is taboo, and everybody is game for the voyeuristic perversions of the female director and homosexual male audience. Well, except for the African community that lay outside the Legions walls. Just as a monolithic Christian culture has repressed homosexuality, so to do the French seem to repress the African culture just with their mere presence.
Each dusty image of Beau Travail is framed to slyly emphasize Galoup and our invadingly voyeuristic intents. These bodies are objects that Galoup will not allow himself to have. He wants to lust after them freely, but he is dedicated to his job and to his closet. The frustration builds to a finale that is as unexpected as it is. There are fewer pleasures greater than when a movie lands so perfectly with such a deft touch. This was Claire Denis’ breakthrough in the American art house scene, and it a perfect gateway into her cinema. Even if I hate every one of her other movies (and I kind of loathe her followup, Trouble Every Day), we’ll always have Djbouti.