Beau Travail (2000)

Claire Denis’s Beau Travail is a remarkable film. A loose adaptation of Billy Budd, it transposes Melville’s sea voyage to a French foreign legion outpost in East Africa, where the Claggart character (Sergeant Galoup, played brilliantly by Denis Lavant) plots the inevitable destruction of Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin), who stands in for Billy. Melville’s novella provides only a rough narrative framework, though. Denis seems less concerned with that epic, allegorical showdown between good and evil — although in one remarkable image, her camera looks down on the men as they circle one another, spiraling closer and closer until they are face to face in a tight close-up — and less concerned, also, with the Christian iconography that punctuates Melville’s prose.

Instead, Beau Travail foregrounds the concerns of much contemporary Melville scholarship and would probably make a wonderful teaching tool because of it. So, whereas post-colonial critics have, in turn, criticized/praised Melville for his appropriation of racist stereotypes (or his subversion of those stereotypes, depending on which side of the debate each critic stands), Denis situates Melville’s moral dilemma in an explicitly post-colonial situation, complicating further the relationships between European and African, Christian and Muslim, and calling into question the political value and motivations underlying those relationships. In several memorable scenes, the legionnaires exhaust themselves in senseless and utterly futile chores — digging holes, moving stones, repairing unused roads — all the while Africans look on, curious and silent but unmistakably present.

Likewise, the homoeroticism of Melville’s texts is displayed in beautiful shot after beautiful shot of the legionnaires in training. At one point, they perform a training exercise in which each man throws his body at a partner, ending in an embrace that is both menacing and welcomed. Appropriating the tropes of stereotypical “basic training” sequences (see Full Metal Jacket), Denis brings to the fore those odd narratives that write gender onto our fighting men. She makes particularly good use of Galoup, whose voice and memories narrate the film. Galoup is not an embodiment of pure evil and jealousy like Claggart. Instead, he seems to be motivated by repressed desire — desire for authority and acceptance, but also, the film suggests, homosexual desire. Lavant is just a marvel throughout Beau Travail. As I recall, we hear him speak only in a stylized voice-over (there might be a few exceptions of diegetic speech), but he communicates with perfect clarity through his body language. The film’s final sequence might be impossible to explain, but it felt to me like another of those moments of grace that I’m constantly seeking.

Beau Travail is also just a beautiful film to look at — stunning images cut together using a poetic logic that is part Eisenstein montage, part neo-realism, part Tarkovsky mysticism. The directors who most often came to mind were Kiarostami, Dumont, and Malick, though I never would have guessed beforehand that those three would ever be found sitting around the same table. A couple useful links: