Noted French filmmaker Claire Denis has turned to Herman Melville
for inspiration for Beau Travail, a lovely looking but emotionally hollow
film loosely inspired by Billy Budd. In the question and answer period
following a press screening of Beau Travail at the New York Film Festival
in September 1999, Denis explained that she did not find Melville’s central
character of Billy interesting, but rather, she was intrigued by the Master
of Arms, John Claggart. While imperfect, Claggart’s sense of duty and
trustworthiness struck the filmmaker. Using this character as a jumping
off point, she and co-scenarist Jean-Paul Fargeau transposed the story
from the British Navy of the 18th Century to the modern-day French
Foreign Legion. Filming on location in the east African republic of Djibouti,
Denis ran into problems with the French army over its concerns about how
the Legionnaires would be presented.
Because of fears of censorship, she and Fargeau concocted an outline
that managed to get past the various governmental offices, but which in
the long run proved detrimental to the final film. Other critics have
rhapsodized over Denis’ minimalist approach which includes using dialogue
sparsely and concentrating on the mundane aspects of the character’s lives --
whether it is daily calisthenics or laundry or the rare foray to the local disco
for some R&R. Unquestionably, the director possesses an eye for detail and
composition and perhaps by opting to approach the material in this manner
she is calculatedly attempting to make one feel exactly what a Legionnaire
would experience. At first, the parade of half-dressed men engaging in basic
training under the hot desert sun might strike the appropriate homoerotic
chords, but by not providing too many variations, Denis robs the thematic
underscore of her images, reducing them to a cliché.
The Claggart figure in Denis’ version is Galoup (Dennis Lavant, best
recalled for Leos Carax’s operatic The Lovers on the Bridge). While not
a conventionally handsome leading man, the compact, wiry Lavant cuts
a swaggering figure and enjoys his position as sergeant as well as an
unspoken bond with his commanding officer (Michel Subor, playing a
variation on his character from Godard’s Le Petit soldat. Galoup finds his
cozy existence upended with the arrival of Sentain (Grégoire Colin,
whom Denis used to better effect in Nennette et Boni), a handsome
and well-like recruit. Galoup takes an instant dislike to Sentain which
escalates as the youth proves a hero (he rescues a pilot from a
crashed helicopter) and attracts the attention of the commander.
Partly out of jealousy, partly out of his own attraction, Galoup sets
out to “break” Sentain and in the process destroys himself as well.
Denis made it clear that one of the reasons the script contained so
little dialogue was the fear of interference from the French government,
the Foreign Legion and even the Djiboutian officials. While she clearly
wanted to explore the homosexual aspects to the story, she was forced
by circumstances to do so in an obfuscated manner, describing scenes
in the script as plainly but as sketchily as possible. Admitting that the
“script was always a problem”, the filmmaker claims that she knew what
she wanted to accomplish and worked without a script. And therein lies
the major problem with the film. Although Agnes Godard’s beautifully
composed cinematography aids somewhat, the fact that there is
essentially no script proved problematic. By denuding the story,
Denis has also neutered it. Most of the supporting players are
interchangeable -- most aren’t even given names -- and only Galoup,
Sentain and the commander emerge as more than one-dimensional
figures (mostly due to the acting of Lavant, Colin and Subor, respectively).
Dramatically inert and despite the attractive men on display,
Beau Travail proved a chore to watch.
MPAA Rating: NONE
Running time: 90 mins.
|© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.