French filmmaker Claire Denis is the striking exception to the rule that women rarely make movies that fix their gaze upon the tantalising otherness of men. Her mesmerising Beau Travail transposes Melville’s Billy Budd to a French Foreign Legion troop stationed in a harsh and beautiful port town of Djibouti.
Abetted by the dazzling cinematography of Agnes Godard, Denis finds harmony, exhilaration and mystery in the rituals and the esprit de corps of army life. Her vision is rendered all the sharper by identification with a character who feels excluded from the physical perfection that surrounds him. — Bill Gosden
“Stark and stylised, it’s a semi-verite, semi-ballet fantasia, as well as an adaptation of two versions of Billy Budd – Herman Melville’s original story and Benjamin Britten’s opera, used on the soundtrack. In Marseilles, recently court-martialled soldier Galoup (Denis Lavant) remembers his days as sergeant in a legion outpost in Djibouti. Denis adopts the Billy Budd story wholesale – the ugly sergeant is threatened by a beautiful young recruit who appears to usurp his credit with the commanding officer, and so the sergeant plots the younger man’s downfall. The film choreographs – literally – the homo-erotic tensions of legion life. The corps exercises first resemble a mass of moving statues under the desert sun, then a bizarre ritual dance, as the men hurl themselves at each other to the thud of grunts and slapping chests, at once murderous and amorous. The film makes its effect felt with a minimum of dialogue because the movements, starkly photographed in desert settings by Agnes Godard, say it all.” — Jonathan Romney, The Guardian