Combustible Celluloid
Own it:
With: Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, Gregoire Colin, Richard Courcet
Written by: Jean-Pol Fargeau, Claire Denis, based on a work by Herman Melville
Directed by: Claire Denis
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 90
Date: 09/03/1999

Beau Travail (1999)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Billy Budd Returns

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Though most of the world got to see Beau Travail last year, it has just reared its head here in the Bay Area. And it was worth waiting for. This adaptation of Herman Melville's Billy Budd by filmmaker Claire Denis is nothing short of a masterpiece.

Most of us are familiar with the story of Billy Budd, the likable sailor who joins a ship and becomes persecuted by Captain Claggart for no concrete reason. Like the very best literary adaptations (Amy Heckerling's 1995 Clueless), Denis has taken only the theme and the basic nugget of Billy Budd and made her own movie out of it.

The story now takes place in the ranks of the French Foreign Legion stationed in East Africa. Billy Budd is now called Sentain and played by Gregoire Colin (from Erick Zonca's 1999 The Dreamlife of Angels). But Denis doesn't focus on his side of the story. She's more interested in the motivations of Claggart, now called Sergeant Galoup and played by Denis Lavant (also in the excellent The Lovers on the Bridge from last year). We don't even see Sentain arrive in the camp, which is a central scene in the book. We only hear his arrival from the kitchen where Galoup is making coffee.

More importantly, Denis does not let her story become the main focus of the movie. The story itself is essentially two characters building tension between each other. So instead of working directly on this, which would have resulted in a lot of scenes with the two men glaring at each other, Denis works indirectly, which is infinitely more effective. She shows us the daily routines of the Legionnaires; working, cleaning, training, cooking, eating, and exercising. By all rights, these scenes should be boring, but Denis gets right to the spiritual and emotional core with her brilliant staging and long shots (cinematography by Agnes Godard). There's a different mindset going on here with these folks so far from home. Their work keeps them from thinking. Denis successfully captures this feeling. So when we see the men all lined up ironing their shirts, there are many things going on. It's poetry.

Denis doesn't shy away from showing Africa either. In one great scene, the men are running a training exercise in which they are "storming" an empty, gutted building. A few African women watch them and giggle in amusement. There are several powerful "nightlife" sequences as well, where we see French soldiers mingling with African youth, dancing in night clubs. (The movie is filled with great music, from African pop to Neil Young.) It's during these scenes that we really sense Galoup's loneliness and boredom. His hatred for Sentain is born when he sees him being hoisted and carried on the shoulders of the other men.

When Galoup and Sentain finally do clash, it's sudden and natural. There isn't a phony tension or buildup to it. The movie also takes a cue from the book, where Billy Budd hits Claggart and kills him. Beau Travail shows Galoup driving Sentain out into the middle of the dry salt flats and making him hike back to camp. To ensure his failure, Galoup gives Sentain a faulty compass. As Sentain marches, he becomes encrusted with salt and his compass spins wildly all over the world.

The final moments (which I won't give away) are unforgettable. The last image has Galoup dancing wildly, alone at a club -- perhaps trying to understand, or to forget.

I should also mention the presence of Michel Subor, best known for his roles in Francois Truffaut's Jules and Jim (1961), Jean-Luc Godard's Le Petit Soldat (1963), and Alfred Hitchcock's Topaz (1969). Denis, in tribute to him, cast him as the elder Legionnaire Bruno Forestier, whom Galoup goes to for advice. (In the book, this character is called Dansker and Billy Budd goes to him.)

Denis, who is best known for her films Chocolat (1988), I Can't Sleep (1993), and Nénette and Boni (1996) has emerged as a major filmmaker with this, her most ambitious piece yet. It's a great film, sure to be on my list for the best of 2000.

In 2020, the Criterion Collection offered one of their most essential releases of the year with a stunning new Blu-ray. It includes a magnificent new digital restoration, supervised by Godard and approved by director Denis, with an uncompressed stereo soundtrack. Bonuses include a conversation between Denis and director Barry Jenkins, a selected-scene commentary with Godard, new interviews with actors Lavant and Colin, and a video essay by film scholar Judith Mayne. Critic Girish Shambu provides a liner notes essay. Highly recommended.

Movies Unlimtied