Brawny, sun-drenched males scattered upon the African coast: It is an image fit to rival any one of David Beckham’s sultry Armani ads. But, such homoerotic and beautifully shot images take on a whole new poetic meaning in Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail,” which the Whitney Humanities Center will screen this Sunday.
The film, based on Herman Melville’s novella “Billy Budd,” presents a dreamlike picture of the French Foreign Legion camped on the Horn of Africa. Ex-sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant), who was expelled from the Legion years before due to violent confrontations with a recruit, Sentain (Gregorie Colin), narrates the story. Much of the film is told through flashbacks, as Galoup meditates on the ritual-filled life he led and the significance of his current state of being.
Words are scarce in Denis’ film, but sensually evocative shots are not. Compared to typical American depictions of army life in cinema, complete with raging officers and exhausted recruits, “Beau Travail” depicts Galoup’s memories of the pleasures he experienced while serving. These recruits dance lithely during drills and frolic in the sea. Even typical army songs are replaced by soothing chants. Such male-dominated scenes are intertwined with others, set in a disco, depicting the frenetically paced movements of beautiful African women.
Though the whole dynamic of life within the legion feels acutely strange, the film has such a hypnotic effect that it is easy to give yourself over to its carnal pleasures. Ultimately, Denis creates a film where one must succumb to the raw sensuality of human emotion and relish in its complexities.