Beau Travail – which translates in English to Good Work – is a masterpiece from writer/director Claire Denis. Released in 1999, the French-language film is loosely based on Herbert Melville’s novella Billy Budd which was written in 1888.
Denis sets the action in Djibouti, and the protagonists are soldiers in the French Foreign Legion.
With a dramatic soundtrack drawn largely from Benjamin Britten’s opera of Billy Budd, this is a world of intense internal emotions, where everything is amplified by the spectacular surrounding landscapes. Sargent Galoup (Denis Lavant) becomes obsessed with new soldier Gilles Sentain (Gregoire Colin) - an obsession that ultimately destroys him.
As a filmmaker, Denis is exploring the power of cinema as an art form. This is a world away from conventional films – the focus is on visual exposition, drawing you into the world of these men, immersing you within their inner emotional conflicts and repressed desires.
There’s a beautiful rhythm to this film. The daily exercises of the men – drawn from the actual exercises of the Legionnaires – give a balletic sense of choreography. It’s a hyper-masculine world that seems seductively dangerous.
It’s visually stunning and and a brilliant interpretation of a classic story.