Beau Travail (1999)
Directed by Claire Denis
As is her elliptical wont, Denis doesn’t directly announce Beau Travail’s Herman Melville-based inspiration in the opening credits. Sharp-eared viewers, however, will immediately recognize that snatch of operatic music during a montage of French Foreign Legion officers doing calisthenics in the Djibouti desert to be from Benjamin Britten’s opera adaptation of Melville’s Billy Budd; the film itself gradually reveals its kinship to Melville’s novella in its tale of an ex-Foreign Legion officer, Galoup (Denis Lavant)—the Claggart figure—becoming consumed with jealousy toward a popular young new recruit, Gilles Sentain (Gregoire Colin)—the film’s Billy Budd—to destructive ends.
The use of Britten on the soundtrack cuts deeper than just its ties to Melville, though. Britten was a homosexual at a time when homosexuality was a crime in the UK, and his opera implies a homoerotic strain to Claggart’s attempts to destroy Budd. Denis, that great modern master of the sensual, runs with that homoeroticism, exulting in the voluptuous physicality of her often-half-naked male subjects, whether standing still or in rigorous motion. More than being just a study of machismo, Beau Travail is also an examination of faces and landscapes, with Lavant’s weathered visage—as craggy as the rocky desert landscapes his troupe is often forced to traverse—contrasting with Colin’s boyish, near-effeminate face, the purity of which is reflected towards the end in the salt flats in which he nearly dies. In a film dominated by mechanized movements and routine, it’s only fitting that the film ends with a fantastical vision of liberation through acrobatic, anarchic gyrations set to Euro dance pop in a neon-lit disco. Kenji Fujishima (January 6, 9pm; January 7, 5pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Illuminating Moonlight,” programmed by Barry Jenkins)