Chris’s review published on Letterboxd:
Quite captivating as a pure mood piece, but constrained by the vague narrative and character choices that leave it nearly impenetrable on an emotional level. Beau Travail seems to be in dispute with itself over what it is trying to be, so it's little surprise that my thoughts about it are similarly conflicted.
The story of a commanding officer's distorted jealousy towards one of his troop explores despotism, repression and foreignness through the lenses of colonialism, military power structures and fragile masculinity in an oblique manner which means it flourishes when it allows sounds or landscapes or gestures to denote feelings. It's an approach that deftly conveys how everything in this environment is concealing the dark nature of something else; beauty signifies oppression, resilient bodies hide frail egos, even the serenity of the cerulean skies and oceans belies the fact that their expansiveness conjures imprisonment instead of freedom (Agnes Godard's stunning cinematography makes this even more potent). It's all a performance so it's clever that Claire Denis imbues the recurrent training exercises and regimentation with a hypnotic rhythm which makes them resemble abstract ballet where the legionnaires take the place of dancers.
I'm all for placing emphasis on tone and concepts over plot, but there needs to be something at the centre to make it gel together and that's where I find the film to be lacking. The ideas surrounding the core friction are interesting, yet the characters themselves are portrayed in a way which is too detached and shallow for them or their plights to really leave an impression. So much time is spent on aspects like Galoup's indistinct and overly ponderous narration, which does little except clash with the visual storytelling by trying to over explain things, when it would have been more effective to give us further glimpses into his increasingly fractured relationship with Sentain or the Commandant (who ends up being a complete non-entity). It would have given us a stronger understanding of his mindset than the indeterminate waffling does, whilst making his eventual betrayal and subsequent loss of assertion more impactful.
It's frustrating because the final stretch is astute in how it uses music and motion to depict a desire for release, to the point where it might well recontextualise certain sections that came before it. However, that sense of distance always denies the catharsis it is reaching for.