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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Beau Travail loosely and gorgeously re-imagines Billy Budd

Illustration for article titled Beau Travail loosely and gorgeously re-imagines Billy Budd

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Baz Luhrmann’s flashy adaptation The Great Gatsby has us remembering other hyper-stylized takes on high-school reading-list staples.

Beau Travail (1999) 
Slavish fidelity to text is a flaw often mistaken for a virtue. With apologies to Kenneth Branagh and his faithful reconstruction of Hamlet, the worst page-to-screen transplants—or the least interesting ones, anyway—play like glorified CliffsNotes. French director Claire Denis, who’s cinematized a few novels over the years, understands this point better than most. Her masterpiece, Beau Travail, is a grand act of vulture adaptation, taking what it needs from its source material and leaving the rest to rot in the sun.


The film’s model is Billy Budd, Herman Melville’s 1924 novella about envy and betrayal among seamen. Denis drags the story onto (very) dry land; in her version, the characters are not British sailors, but members of the French Foreign Legion, stationed at a training post in sweltering Djibouti. The changes cut deeper than a setting swap: Instead of focusing on the Budd character—Grégoire Colin’s handsome and charismatic new recruit—Beau Travail unfolds from the Salieri-like perspective of the antagonist, a craven superior officer played by the great, pig-faced Denis Lavant. There’s more than just jealousy in the sergeant’s intent stares at Colin, whose literary counterpart Melville described as “the young fellow who seems so popular with the men.” The faint homoerotic subtext of the novella has been expanded into an aching portrait of repressed gay desire.

As if to remind viewers that, yes, this strange and often wordless picture is loosely based on Melville’s book, Denis peppers the soundtrack with selections from Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd opera. Mostly, however, she just hangs her artistic preoccupations on the skeletal frame of the narrative. A flashback structure, unique to the movie, anticipates the scrambled memory games of Denis’ The Intruder (2004), while the new backdrop—along with a scene in which Lavant torments a black soldier just to provoke a reaction from Colin—speaks to the filmmaker’s career-long fixation on France’s destructive presence in Africa.

Most notable, though, are Beau Travail’s mesmerizing training sequences; the methodically performed exercises take on the rhythmic qualities of dance, even as Denis presents actual dance as a liberation from the physical demands of the military. Sticklers may note that none of that has much to do with Billy Budd. So here’s to liberties taken; without them, Denis would never have conceived of the film’s bewitching coda, a final scene that even Melville would have had trouble capturing through prose.

Availability: An out-of-print Region 1 DVD and several in-print Region 2 DVDs, including a recently released Claire Denis box set from Artificial Eye.