AFED #35: Beau Travil (France, 1999); Dir. Claire Denis

I didn't realise while watching it that Claire Denis's Beau Travil was a loose adaptation of Herman Melville's Billy Budd, but wasn't terribly surprised. Beneath the oblique veneer lies a nineteenth century morality tale in a military setting vaguely reminiscent of Tolstoy.

The story is relocated to the present day and a regiment of French Foreign Legion troops stationed in Djibouti. Galoup (Denis Lavant), a committed but somewhat sullen staff sergeant, develops a festering jealousy towards Sentain, a popular and good looking new recruit. When Sentain is awarded a medal for bravery in the wake of a helicopter accident Galoup's hatred only grows and he begins trying to unsettle his rival. When an opportunity finally presents itself to discipline Sentain, Galoup takes it too far and destroys his own career.

For long stretches very little takes place; much of the narration is told through Galoup's voiceover and the dialogue is sparse; a great deal imparted through casual glances and cutaways. A love triangle of sorts develops between Galoup, Sentain and their commander Bruno Forestier, a veteran of the Algerian war, which raises questions about the underlying motivations of career soldiers. Certainly, the implication at the end is that Galoup's discharge has left him a broken man and he'll shortly take his own life.

Narrative is really only one component of Denis's film, however. Her real fascination is with the pervasive latent homoeroticism within the routines and rituals of military life; Beau Travail is a celebration of the beauty of the male form, young soldiers working and playing half-naked in the baking desert heat.

The cinematography by Agnès Godard perfectly captures both the physical grace and arid tranquility of the setting. Music also plays an important part: Billy Budd had previously served as the basis for a Benjamin Britten opera and snatches of if are used to heighten the sensuous potency.

For some viewers the approach will likely be too ponderous and there's something rather sneaky in having the most dramatic incident - the helicopter crash - take place off-camera, though budgetary constraints presumably played a part in that decision. Perhaps some straight men will be left feeling a little uncomfortable by all the gazing at the male form, which can inspire some doubts about your orientation. Get over it, it's only a movie.


  1. paulamariafay@blogspot.com8 February 2011 at 01:35

    I enjoyed this review!

  2. Thanks. Just noticed I used the word "much" three times in the space of two sentences though, a real weakness and bête noire of mine.

  3. paulamariafay@blogspot.com8 February 2011 at 01:54

    I liked the last line where you took off your detached film-reviewer hat.;-)

  4. I try to wear it fashionably lopsided.


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