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Beau Travail video

Beau Travail
cast: Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, Grégoire Colin, Marta Tafesse Kassa, and Richard Courcet

director: Claire Denis

90 mins (15) 1998
Artificial Eye VHS retail
Also available to buy on DVD

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Michael Brooke
An almost abstract, elliptical adaptation both of Herman Melville's novella Billy Budd and (on the soundtrack, at least) Benjamin Britten's opera of the same name and subject, updated to the present day and relocated to Djibouti, North Africa, Beau Travail is a film of such extraordinary originality that it's going to need (and for my part will certainly get) multiple viewings before all its beauty and mystery can be fully teased out - though I should confess now that as a heterosexual male I'm hopelessly ill-equipped to judge the film's most powerful elements: the eroticised, almost fetishistic portraits of male bodies ("you have no idea how much this is turning me on," whispered my girlfriend during a sequence where the Foreign Legionnaires iron their uniforms in the desert) performing elaborate rituals that are crammed with complex behavioural codes that are almost impenetrable to outsiders.
   Lieutenant Galoup (Denis Lavant) is fanatically loyal to his commanding officer Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor, who once played not only the lead in Godard's Le Petit Soldat but also a character with the same name), but when the latter shows what Galoup sees as an unhealthy interest in new recruit Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin), Galoup's jealousy literally drives him to murderous insanity.
   Lavant has been keeping a low profile since his time as Leos Carax's alter ego (most memorably in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf), and he's probably most famous on this side of the Channel for his performance in a recent Stella Artois ad - the one where he tries to pin the blame for drinking a dying man's pint on the local priest. This isn't an entirely facetious link, since Beau Travail is also a largely wordless narrative that has Lavant as the worm in the apple, playing a commanding officer whose ugliness (though this is 'ugliness' in the Charles Bronson of Once Upon A Time In The West sense, in that you can't take your eyes off him) contrasts with the physical perfection of both Sentain and the other subordinates.
   The word most frequently used to describe the film's rapturous imagery has been 'homoerotic', but while on the strength of its content you can certainly believe it's a close cousin of something by Derek Jarman or Pier Paolo Pasolini, the term needs serious qualification, if only because both the director and cinematographer are women. And what's extraordinary about this is the fact that while films that involve women's bodies coming under the heterosexual male gaze are ten a penny, films that invert this principle are so rare that you almost have to go back to Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia for an adequate point of comparison. An unforgettably strange and haunting experience, this is a film of almost primeval power that inhabits a completely different universe from that of a glossy Hollywood melodrama. It makes me hungry to see Claire Denis' other films - this is the first one to gain British distribution since Chocolat over a decade earlier.

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