Beau Travail (French for “good work”) is a 1999 French film directed by Claire Denis that is loosely based on Herman Melville’s 1888 novella Billy Budd.
The story is set in Djibouti, where the protagonists are soldiers in the French Foreign Legion.
Parts of the soundtrack of the movie are from Benjamin Britten’s opera based on the novella.
The film begins with the silhouettes of soldiers being ordered to stand in the sun as an endurance test. It is a recollection of Chief Adjutant 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.
One day, Galoup’s section is joined by Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin), whose physical beauty, social skills, and fortitude make Galoup envious. Repressed homosexual feelings from Galoup are suggested. He swears to destroy Sentain.
When Sentain hands a canteen of water to another soldier who is being punished by being ordered to dig a large hole in the heat of the day, Galoup chastises Sentain and knocks the water from his hand. Sentain strikes Galoup, who retaliates by taking Sentain out into the desert and leaving him to walk back to the base alone. But Sentain does not return because Galoup has tampered with his compass, and the soldier consequently becomes lost. When Sentain fails to return, he is assumed to have deserted.
Sentain collapses in the arid salt flats. His compass is spotted by fellow legionnaires at a sale of local salt-encrusted novelties and is believed to prove Sentain is dead. However, Sentain is found by tribespeople who place him on a bus where he is looked after.
However, on the assumption that Galoup has either killed or tried to kill Sentain, Galoup is sent back to France by his commander for a court martial. It ends his career in the Foreign Legion, his only real love. We see him make his bed in the immaculate military manner, then lie on top clutching a pistol. The final scene is a lively acrobatic solo dance to “The Rhythm of the Night” at a night club in Djibouti.
- Denis Lavant – Sergent Galoup.
- Michel Subor – Commandant Bruno Forestier.
- Grégoire Colin – Gilles Sentain.
- Richard Courcet – Legionnaire.
- Nicolas Duvauchelle – Legionnaire.
In an interview, Denis 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.”
The film was highly acclaimed in the United States, topping the Village Voice’s Film Critics’ Poll in 2000, with Claire Denis also placing at #2 for best director.
- The dance scene was shot in a single take.
- Ranked number 43 non-English-speaking film in the critics’ poll conducted by the BBC in 2018.
- The filmmakers found inspiration in a story by Herman Melville named “Billy Budd, Sailor” and his poems “The Night March” and “Gold in the Mountain.”
- Michel Subor previously played Bruno Forestier 37 years earlier in Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (1963).
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Claire Denis.
- Producer(s): Patrick Grandparent, Jerome Minet,and Eric Zaouali.
- Writer(s): Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau.
- Music: Benjamin Britten and Charles Henri de Pierrefeu.
- Cinematography: Agnes Godard.
- Editor(s): Nelly Quettier.
- Production: La Sept-Arte, Pathe Television, S.M. Films, and Tanais Productions.
- Distributor(s): Pyramide Distribution.
- Release Date: 04 September 1999 (Venice Film Festival).
- Running Time: 92 minutes.
- Rating: R/15.
- Country: France.
- Language: French.