Virtual Cinema | The Compelling Drama “Beau Travail” October 17, 2020
One of contemporary cinema’s most accomplished filmmakers, Claire Denis has an audacious filmography spanning Chocolat (1988) to High Life (2018). Her critically acclaimed Beau Travail (1999)—now digitally restored—ranks #2 on IndieWire’s list of 111 “All-Time Greatest Films Directed by Women.”
Shimmering, Hypnotic Images
Beau Travail is one of several Denis films influenced by her childhood growing up in Africa, the daughter of a French diplomat. Denis and cinematographer Agnès Godard fold military and masculine codes of honor, colonialism’s legacy, destructive jealousy, and repressed desire into shimmering, hypnotic images.
Escaping the Past
The film’s title can mean both “good work” and “beautiful work.” Beau Travail is a ravishingly sensual take on Herman Melville’s 1891 novella Billy Budd, Sailor. Amid the azure waters and sunbaked desert landscapes of Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, a French Foreign Legion sergeant (Denis Lavant) sows the seeds of his own ruin in his obsession with a striking young recruit (Grégoire Colin). The premise plays on the notion of being a stranger, as Legionnaires typically come from diverse backgrounds, connected by a desire to escape the past and start over. With minimal dialogue, the men are shown spending their days performing rigorous tasks and drills, in contrast to residents of the community who regard the regiment warily.
Stunning, Stylized Movements
At night the soldiers find release, dancing with village women to exuberant pop music. The actors rehearsed with a choreographer for several scenes that feature stunning, stylized movements set to music from Benjamin Britten’s stirring opera adaptation of Billy Budd. The film’s coda, in Paris, is exhilarating and completely unexpected. (No spoilers!)
Claire Denis spent several months in Houston in the early 1980s, when she worked as first assistant director to Wim Wenders on his feature Paris, Texas.
Underwriting for the Film Department is provided by Tenaris and the Vaughn Foundation. Generous funding is provided by Nina and Michael Zilkha; The Consulate General of the Republic of Korea; Franci Neely; Carrin Patman and Jim Derrick; Lynn S. Wyatt; ILEX Foundation; L’Alliance Française de Houston; and The Foundation for Independent Media Arts.
Virtual Cinema | French Film Festival | March 3–28 February 16, 2021