Adapted from Herman Melville's Billy Budd but rewritten (by Denis and Jean-Paul Fargeau) and relocated to fit in with Denis' trademark concerns, Beau Travail unfolds in a French Foreign Legion post in North Africa. The tale is narrated by Billy Budd's Claggart character, here re-cast as the squad's sergeant, Galoup (Denis Lavant). Galoup watches as his men exercise, frolic in the surf, jest with one another at the dinner table. His distance from the Legionnaires is partly explained by his age ("I'm rusty, eaten away by acid," he tells us, and immediately we see shot after shot of soldiers scurrying under razor wire with the impatient zeal of young men), but also by his ugliness. Pockmarked and squinting, his nose broadening against sunken cheeks, Galoup stands apart from the gleaming men--all shaved bald, many decorously bruised--under his command.
Galoup manages to maintain his pride against that sea of beauty by strictly adhering to discipline, which counts above all else in the Legion. The arrival of a new recruit, the tender, rail-thin Sentain (Grégoire Colin), seems to threaten this order for Galoup, not least because of the attention the new soldier has attracted from the Commander (Michel Subor). When Sentain bravely rescues the crew of a downed helicopter, making himself even more beloved by all, Galoup goes to greater lengths to defeat his self-selected nemesis, even re-posting the men to a remote site far from the Commander on the pretext that a distant road needs repair.
Like its protagonist, Beau Travail isolates the object of its focus to the exclusion of all else. Beyond the three central players, the Legionnaires and eternally observant natives remain primarily nameless and characterless, as irrelevant to us as they are to the increasingly obsessed Galoup. The plot is telegraphed in short voiceovers or brutally disorienting edits. What is left are some of the loveliest studies of men and landscapes ever filmed.
Whether observing them working, fighting, or at play, Denis and her cinematographer Agnès Godard gaze at the men with a passionate scrutiny. The men dance in unison at a disco, blowing kisses at their dates when the song tells them to, or drift underwater in a hushed moment of rapture (knives tightly clenched in their fists, the lazy menace makes them all the more lovely). Their daily calisthenics are a stylized series of embraces, throw-downs, and slow, languorous gestures, set to the buzzing, percussive choruses of British composer Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd. Their right legs tucked beneath them, their others jack-knifed to the side, the men gracefully lean back in the hot desert sand. Such ritualized behavior, so erotic in its military rigor, recalls Fassbinder's Querelle; but the excesses of that supremely artificial movie are avoided here by firmly placing these wordless studies of masculine beauty in a world as real and hard as the black rocks that jut from the earth. The wind-rippling clothes hung to dry or the natural light that bathes over the Legionnaires become characters in their own right.
Not that Beau Travail ever flirts with the pantheistic; but from the way the handheld camera bobbles gently along in a boat as it watches the men along the shore, you know right at the beginning that this will be an uncommonly excellent film. And from the way it ends--an ecstatic solo dance that captures all the freedom that had been bridled heretofore, cunningly intercut with titles that fill the cast's names in like bricks in a wall--you realize you've been watching a great one.
Critic David Thompson speculated that Melville might never translate to the screen, being "too elemental for photography." Claire Denis follows in a long line of French artists enamored of Herman Melville; we may not know the root of her attraction, but she has honored it with a masterpiece as elemental as its source.