Beau Travail (1999): Claire Denis’ Sensuous Masterpiece, Loose Version of Melville’s Billy Budd

With Beau Travail, the brilliant French director Claire Denis has loosely adapted Herman Melville’s 1888 novella Billy Budd into one of the most erotic tales in modern cinema.

Beau Travail
Beau Travail poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster

Grade: A (***** out of *****)

Using the properties and language of film as a unique medium, it’s an art work that can only exist and cast its undeniable spell on viewers as “pure cinema” (to quote Hitchcock’s famous phrase).

The title translates into “Good Work” in French.

The story is set in Djibouti, where the protagonists are soldiers in the French Foreign Legion.

The film begins with the silhouettes of soldiers, ruthlessly and senselessly ordered to stand in the sun as an endurance test.

It is a recollection of Adjudant-Chef Galoup (Denis Lavant), from his home in Marseille, where he is writing his memoirs. He remembers the heat of Djibouti, where he led his section of men under the command of Commandant Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor). We see numerous training scenes, including assault courses and the securing of buildings. Much of the reminiscence has a balletic quality; many of these reminiscences are set against a back-drop of the traditional, local Djibouti life. Galoup has a beautiful young local girlfriend and they often go out dancing.

Galoup says of Forestier: I admired him without knowing why. He retains a wristband with the word Bruno. Galoup envies many things in Forestier, including his clear affection from the men. However, they happily socialise together, playing chess and snooker.

Galoup’s section is joined by Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin), whose physical beauty, social skills, and fortitude make Galoup obsessively envious, suggesting repressed homosexual feelings.

He swears to destroy Sentain. The occasion arises when Sentain hands a canteen of water to another soldier who is punished by being ordered to dig a large hole in the heat of the day.  Galoup then chastises Sentain and knocks the water from his hand. Sentain strikes Galoup, who retaliates by taking Sentain into the desert and leaving him to walk back to the base alone.

However Sentain does not return because Galoup has tampered with his compass, and as a result he gets lost. When Sentain fails to return, he is assumed to have deserted.

After collapsing in the arid salt flats, his compass is spotted by fellow legionnaires at a sale of local salt-encrusted novelties; it serves as proof that Sentain is dead. However, Sentain is found by tribespeople who take care of him.

Assuming that Galoup has killed or tried to kill Sentain, Galoup is sent back to France by his commander for court martial. It ends his career in the Foreign Legion, whih=ch was his only true He continues his military habits in make his bed immaculately, and at one point, clutching a pistol.

The final, exhilarating scene depicts a lively solo dance to “The Rhythm of the Night” at a disco in Djibouti.

Denis has said, “One of the cast had actually been in the Legion, so we took all their real exercises and did them together every day, to concentrate the actors as a group. We never said we were going to choreograph the film. But afterwards, when we started shooting, using Britten’s music, those exercises became like a dance.”

Sections of the movie’s soundtrack are taken from Benjamin Britten’s opera based on the novella.

The glorious cinematography is so inventive in its camera placement and movement, and the editing so sensual that they not only serve the narrative nut actually go beyond its particular time and place, suggesting universal themes of relentless machismo, power games for dominance, and prevalence of forbidden lust and desires that could not be expressed verbally or physically.

Inspired by classic American literature, which previously has been made into the 1962 American movie. Billy Budd, Denis has made a modern tragedy, driven by desires that are both manifest and latent.

Denis Lavant – Adjudant-Chef Galoup
Michel Subor – Commandant Bruno Forestier
Grégoire Colin – Légionnaire Gilles Sentain
Richard Courcet – Légionnaire
Nicolas Duvauchelle – Légionnaire


Directed by Claire Denis
Produced by Patrick Grandperret
Screenplay by Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, based on Billy Budd by Herman Melville
Music by Benjamin Britten, Charles Henri de Pierrefeu
Cinematography Agnès Godard
Edited by Nelly Quettier
Distributed by Pyramide Distribution

Release date: 1999

Running time: 90 minutes

Films directed by Claire Denis

Chocolat (1988)

No Fear, No Die (1990)

Jacques Rivette, le veilleur (1990)

Keep It for Yourself (1991)

I Can’t Sleep (1994)

Nénette and Boni (1996)

Beau Travail (1999)

Trouble Every Day (2001)

Vendredi soir (2002)

The Intruder (2004)

35 Shots of Rum (2008)

White Material (2009)

Bastards (2013)

Let the Sunshine In (2017)

High Life (2018)