Beau Travail and Britten’s Billy Budd

Some random thoughts inspired by another viewing of Claire Denis’s Beau Travail:

I’m not sure how to characterize her use of Benjamin Britten’s opera, Billy Budd.  Because the film is so closely tied to Galoup’s subjectivity, my first tendency is to read the music with some irony, as if this were exactly the kind of soundtrack — one full of epic Drama and Meaning — that Galoup himself would choose to score his inner life. While not always the case, the Britten cues do appear at a few moments that are clearly subjective visions, most notably the moment after Galoup decides to destroy Sentain; the music climbs as Denis slowly tracks-in on the two men circling closer and closer to one another, a dance of sorts that serves metaphorically for their “real,” impending showdown. (Sentain’s punch is, by comparison, quite anti-climactic, I think.)

But the emotional effect of the music — on me, at least — is anything but ironic. In true Melvillian fashion, this is an epic battle of Drama and Meaning, the most epic battle, in fact, if we recall our fuzzy memories of the Christian symbolism that permeates Billy Budd. Granted, Denis strips away most of those symbols (I wonder about the etymology of Sentain), but the central conflict of the film remains mostly unchanged. It’s still Good vs. Evil, and the sturm and drang of Britten’s opera seems appropriately scaled for the images and emotions it accompanies.

I’ve written before about the music in Beau Travail and about Denis Lavant’s final dance, but until this most recent viewing, it had never occurred to me how closely the film as a whole resembles a ballet. What few words are spoken are necessary only to explain the most basic of plot points. Everything else — the emotions, the motivations, the conflicts — is expressed by bodies in motion. The training sequences here are categorically different from those in, say, Full Metal Jacket. (I’ve seen the comparison more than once in reviews.) I don’t seem to have the vocabulary to describe the exercise scenes in Beau Travail, but I suspect that I’d have to go to critics of modern dance to find it.