You know how there’s those movies that are considered masterpieces of cinema and you watch them and you understand why, but you understand the way you understand, like, a school assignment? I’m thinking, mm The 400 Blows, maybe. Paris, Texas.
Beau Travail was NOT like that, for me. Beau Travail’s art-mad bold ass genius just rose muscularly out of the blazing desert like so many exercising Legionnaires, sideswiping any academic posturing or “importance” to pour straight into the nerve centers of my brain. I want to make my own film ranking site with a produce-based rubric where I can rate this one CERTIFIED BANANAS, and that means I LOVED IT.
Beau Travail (‘Good Work’), Claire Denis’ legacy-making picture, dates from 1999, and is based on the Herman Melville novella Billy Budd. I almost feel I can go ahead and say its spirit is captured perfectly despite having not read this particular Melville, because boy it sure paints a tale of obsession, and if I know anything from the Melville I have read, that’s the theme, baby! This is a movie about obsession—fateful, jealous, violent, classically tragic, Melvillian obsession. And also like Melville, it is elliptical and poetic and physical, bizarrely hypnotic, and boldly homoerotic. Narratively: a sergeant in the French Foreign Legion stationed in Djibouti reflects on the young soldier who drove him to madness and downfall, as we watch these dreamy, athletic scenes of the Legionnaires conducting balletic choreographed exercises under the hot sun. It: rules.
There is, I have now learned, a 20th century opera also based on Billy Budd (with a libretto by E.M. Forster no less), and Denis has used pieces of Benjamin Britten’s compositions to score some of her most mesmerizing scenes, setting these strange drills to a soundtrack of dozens of powerful male voices rhythmically sing-chanting in no language I recognized, in an aesthetic that reminded of me of nothing so much as portions of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And I was thrilled by this, because I was watching this as a precursor to seeing Denis’ new movie High Life this week, and High Life is set in space. High Life also looks trippy as absolute balls, and after seeing how trippy she gets on the ground, I’m now certain that’s just what happens when you bring Denis up above the confines of the atmosphere to holler directly into the void.
I’m going to talk about the ending of Beau Travail now, but super obliquely. I really just want to say that one of the number one agonies I hear about from my screenplay & story-writing friends is how to end things, and over the years this has made me even more enamored of stories that choose to solve this problem by just going for broke, artistically. Just go for it. Such a high proportion of my favorite movies of the last couple years have had these kinds of final scenes, and this one…this one fits right into that group.