Though not necessarily rare, Beau travail is still rather difficult find even "illegal" uploads online and is expensive in hardcopy, making its addition to the Criterion Collection even more favorable for those who yearn to watch the operatic (and erotic), visual-heavy military drama unfold in front of their eyes. Here's what I had to say about the film during our truncated series in March on great films by women directors:
Never before have I wanted to etch the images of a film inside my eyeballs to play privately for me whenever I wanted before watching Beau travail. It's gorgeous and strange and made purely of dreams. Set in Djibouti and based off Herman Melville's Billy Budd, the story is told in an extended first-person flashback, narrated by ex-sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant) after he's kicked out of the French Legion for cruel mistreatment of the charismatic and promising new recruit Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin). While it's sort of vague why he disliked Sentain so much—ostensibly because the boss took a liking to the young man—Galoup's jealousy borders on obsessive. To me, all obsessions have a fetishistic or erotic quality to them and Sentain was likely a locus of unspoken desire for the sergeant.
Beau travail has very little dialogue save for Galoup's narration, instead favoring image over the spoken word. As viewers, story and emotion are revealed to us not as much through exposition, but in glances and snarled mouths. It's fun watching the soldiers do improbable workouts (in one scene, they violently hug each other repeatedly) in improbable places (on the craggy and volcanic ocean shore), but there's a sense of deep intimacy to it all. It's like they take the word "corps" seriously—the men move as if they are one body. Shaving, ironing, dancing together. There's a fascination with the beauty of men's bodies in relation to one another in both their softness and hardness thrown against their ocean-swept setting. Make sure to watch to the very, very end to witness one of the most heartbreaking dances I've seen. Beau travail is Denis at her best.
The poster for Beau Travail may very well be the poster for Claire Denis' cinema: two beautiful people (Grégoire Colin and Denis Lavant) gazing at each other. The question posed by this extended gaze is the key question in all Denis films: Can attraction have a happy ending? Though the characters may beg to differ, the existence of Denis' body of work answers the question with a resounding yes.
This Criterion release comes with: a new digital 4K restoration; a conversation between Denis and Moonlight director Barry Jenkins (!!!!); scene commentary by director of photography Agnès Godard; interviews with actors Denis Lavant and Grègoire Colin; a video essay by film scholar Judith Mayne; and a new English subtitle translation. Preorder the DVD here and check out the rest of Criterion's September releases here.