Beau Travail is Claire Denis' masterwork. An adaptation of Herman Melville's Billy Budd relocated to a French legionnaire camp in Northern Africa, it is a tale of jealousy and braggadocio elevated to the level of Greek tragedy. Galoup (Denis Lavant), perhaps the ideal legionnaire (stoic, solemn, and dedicated), looks after his soldiers like a "watch dog", as he puts it, doing so for his superior, Commander Bruno Forestier (the legendary Michel Subor), whom he idolizes and whose respect and attention he longs for.
A foreigner, a Russian legionnaire, Gilles Sentain (Denis regular Gregoire Colin), arrives and upsets the delicate balance between Galoup and Forestier, one that isolates them from all the other, low ranking legionnaires, portrayed by Denis as nameless and without identity; part of a pulsating, muscular whole.
Later, Sentain performs a heroic act, rescuing survivors of a helicopter that crashes nearby in the water, and receives Forestier's attention and compliments. Galoup, already suspicious of the Russian legionnaire, becomes consumed with jealousy, and intent on destroying the young soldier. As the opening scene posits — Sentain and Galoup circle each other predatorily, as if they were vying for the same lioness — the two soldiers become locked in a battle of physical gestures and unspoken rivalry.
Denis envisions an environment where the line is blurred between machismo and homoerotic tension. She spends much time watching the men exercise together, an act that suggests as much of the former as the latter. Hers is a cinema of suggestion; erotic tension abounds, but no fulfillment.
When Galoup gazes at Forestier, is it with desire or intense admiration? Is Sentain aware of the reason for Galoup's contempt, or does he simply think that his superior is pushing him, taken a dislike to him for some other reason?