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3.4 out of 5 stars16
3.4 out of 5 stars
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
After recently watching Clair Denis's fine film "Chocolat", set in French Cameroon, which gave a vivid description of what it means to be a foreigner in an alien land, I decided to watch another of her films "Beau Travail". This film could almost be seen as a companion piece in the way that it follows such a similar theme. Clair Denis was raised in French Colonial Africa, so she has first hand experience of what it is to be a foreigner. She also happens to be an extremely gifted filmmaker, and is able tell more in 90 minutes than some directors are able to in a lifetime of trying. "Beau Travail" might easily be labelled by some as just more arthouse nonsense, but it rewards the patient and thoughtful viewer with great riches.

The film is based very loosely on Herman Melville's unfinished novella "Billy Budd", and actually uses music from Benjamin Bitten's opera of the same name. It also uses music by the greatly talented Neil Young, and some evocative African sounds. In this version Foreign Legionnaires replace the seamen of the original story. The wonderful, craggy faced Denis Lavant plays Sergeant Galoup, who becomes jealous when a new recruit Sentain gains the popularity of his peers and Galoup's senior Officer Bruno Forestier, played by Michel Subor, in a nod to his role of the same name in Jean-Luc Godard's "Le Petit Soldat". The young Gregoire Colin, in the Billy Budd role, plays Sentain. The legionnaires are based in the remote legion outpost of Djibouti on the horn of Africa, where the film was very impressively shot. Under the hot sun, envy begins to grow into hate in the heart of Galoup, leading to an act that will change his life and others forever.

First and foremost this is a film of tremendous visual beauty that few films are able to match. Just watching it without having understood a thing, would still be a riches enough. There are some magnificently choreographed scenes of torso flexing legionnaires, who are clearly not on a fish and chips diet, undertaking a variety of physical exercises to jaw dropping desert backdrops. It is easy to see why Denis chose the accomplished dancer Lavant for the role. Watch the films brilliant ending, and you will be able to judge how good a dancer he is for yourself. This little routine comes just after the films terrifically ambiguous ending! It is also clear that the other cast members were chosen for their agility as much as acting ability. These scenes of muscular youth reminded me much of Leni Riefenstahl's hymn to the athletic body, in her documentary film of the 1936 Summer Olympics "Olympia", especially the scenes of the divers. But perhaps most telling are the scenes showing bemused locals watching the legionnaires carry out their pointless exercise routines and tasks, whilst they continue as they always have in working to live. I was reminded of a scene in Terence Malick's "The Thin Red Line", when a nearly naked islander on the Pacific Island of Guadalcanal, passes a line of American troops fighting the Japanese in World War Two, as he continues with his hunting. One knows that when the troops are gone the land will once again go back to the likes of him. The foreigners will inevitably return to their own lands from whence they came!

This is a film of striking imagery that long lingers in the mind. Watching the athletic legionnaires in the almost alien like landscape I was reminded of the science fiction story "Stranger in a strange Land". In fact Sentain resembles the Christ like main character of that novel in many ways. I have a good friend who served in the Foreign Legion, and who happened to be stationed in Djibouti. He is now back in England, which is of course his home, the reality of the legion being far different to the crushed dreams. Denis astutely observes that after all the wars and occupation, in time we will simply revert back to the role of a tourist if we are lucky. A film of great beauty that should be watched.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 12 April 2011
I didn't know what to make of this film. I couldn't get to grips with it in the beginning as I'm used to a clear constructive narrative - being lead by the hand I suppose. This film doesn't do that. It uses all the French film techniques we are so used to and uses them well. There is in fact hardly any dialogue - just a voiceover of the main protagonist. I was about 80% through the film before the pieces started to fall into place. Then it made sense.
The scenery is spectacular and the score perfect for the location. It is a wonderful exploration of a man's heart - his unvoiced feelings of jealousy for a man he loves and admires (his Legion superior) but perhaps does not know how to deal with or understand. He feels he is being usurped by a `newby' - and he may be right. It is not a comfortable film but it is very absorbing. Well worth watching.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on 3 March 2004
Beau Travail is a modern-day update of Billy Budd, although the plot is much changed and the characters more ambiguous. Directed by French director Claire Denis (best known for 1988's "Chocolat"), Beau Travail stars Denis Lavant as a Foreign Legion officer in Africa. Lavant is the perfect officer, but he finds himself largely ignored by his commandant (Michel Subor), whom he greatly admires. His jealousy is piqued when he sees his commandant drawn to a new recruit, Sentain (played by Grégoire Colin).
The movie has some simple and beautiful scenery of barren Africa; accordingly it won several awards for its cinematography, including a Cesar (the equivalent of the French Oscar). The tone of the film is mesmerizingly aloof, with little dialogue and character development (most are nameless and credited simply as "legionnaire"). However, the movie is glacier paced, relying on repeated imagery and stark narration. There are also far too many scenes in which the camera lingers on the legionnaires training or ironing their clothes. Despite the languid pace, the movie is rarely boring, as it manages to maintain a sense of intrigue. In addition, the ending is amusingly peculiar and bewildering.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 8 May 2005
Wonderful film - based on Melville's Billy Budd as a story. Set in the desert with the French Foreign Legion - the story is real Billy Budd - commanding officer and junior and denial. Beautiful scenery, and great characterisation. Great music as well - both Britten excerpts and also great dance music in the nightclubs. It's my wife's favourite film.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 11 January 2013
Wonderful film - based on Melville's Billy Budd as a story. Set in the desert with the French Foreign Legion - the story is real Billy Budd - commanding officer and junior and denial. Beautiful scenery, and great characterisation. Great music as well - both Britten excerpts and also great dance music in the nightclubs. It's my wife's favourite film.
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9 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 11 November 2003
Introspective and subtle, Claire Denis' BEAU TRAVAIL offers a modern retelling of Herman Melville's BILLY BUDD, transposing the tale of an officer who self-destructs through his jealousy of a new recruit to an outpost of the French Foreign Legion. And although the film is elegant in both its simplicity and purity, I myself found it a shade too simple and pure to be completely effective.
Still, BEAU TRAVAIL has two things going for it: director Denis' cinematic eye and superior performances throughout. One truly senses the location in all its elemental nature, and the cinematography is remarkable for its restrained elegance. The cast follows suit, with direct and underplayed performances that fold seamlessly into both Denis' atmosphere and the story itself, and the result is often quite stylish.
But for all its elegance and style, I found BEAU TRAVAIL too introspective and subtle for its own good; to me it lacks any significant substance, with both story and characters slipping through my attention as easily as sand slips through my hand. While this is doubtlessly part of director Denis' intent, and while I have admired many a film with a notably elusive touch, my ultimate reaction to BEAU TRAVAIL is that it is a rather superficial exercise in style over substance, and I cannot say that it leads me to interest in the director's other work.
The DVD transfer is reasonable, if not entirely first rate, and there are few bonuses of any kind. In passing, I also note that BEAU TRAVAIL is often marketed as a film with homoerotic context and imagery, but I personally did not find it so. Final word: worth a look, but not greatly memorable for all that.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 8 January 2014
This 1999 film co-written and directed by Claire Denis is an original, slow moving, but mostly engrossing, account of masculine rivalry and jealousy occurring within the ranks of the French Foreign Legion. Although, for me, Denis is not entirely successful in her, at times, typically oblique storytelling approach, the film had an increasingly near-mesmerising effect on me, primarily because of its stunning (and innovative) look and feel. Cinematographer Agnes Godard does a great job mixing the more intimate moments of beautiful male physicality with some stunning desert landscapes, whilst the film's sparse use of music is also impressive (typical of Denis), with excerpts from Britten's opera Billy Budd (and from whose Melville novel of the same name Denis drew the inspiration for her narrative), plus the more modern sounds of Neil Young and 90s disco (The Rhythm Of The Night by Corona).

At the centre of Denis' film is the triumvirate of Denis Lavant's dour sergeant-major, Galoup, and his ('worshipped') Legion superior, Michel Subor's commandant Bruno Forestier, into whose midst comes new recruit Grégoire Colin's young Gilles Sentain, whose physical and mental prowess gradually rouses in Galoup feelings of jealousy. That, in a nutshell, is Beau Travail's entire storyline - a narrative with which Denis skilfully builds the tension (though, for me, without exploring adequately the reasons for Galoup's grudge against the 'interloper'). Dialogue here is at its most minimalist - I doubt there were more than 10 pages in the entire script. This doesn't help with the narrative, of course, but the acting is consistently impressive - what lines there are, are (often poetically) incisive ('Backstabbing isn't in the Legion's honour code', warns Forestier) and the film's visual appeal is never less than intriguing.

Denis and Godard depict the soldiers training routines with a mix of masculine endurance and homoeroticism, whether the Legionnaires be simply standing, hands raised in the North African desert winds, scuttling under barb-wire, precariously tight-rope walking or doing repeated press-ups. There are many other beautifully shot sequences, including that of Galoup and crew sparring underwater with knives and that of the troop digging terrain against a stunning sea and cliff backdrop, plus many brilliantly fusing music and visuals, including that of soldiers marching to Neil Young's song Safeway Cart and (unusually) the 'nightclubbing' military dancing to an infectious beat at a local disco. At the film's conclusion, as well as including (yet) another stunning sequence of Sentain's banishment to the desert (following Galoup's provocation), Denis also brings the film's (always present) undercurrent of colonialism to the fore as Galoup stares at a bust of de Gaulle in a Paris bar, before concluding with his amazing dance sequence (as brilliant as it is surprising).
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14 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on 28 September 2000
...Beautifully directed and very well acted. Clare Denis does it again, but this time, better! If you enjoy good scenery in a movie then you have to see this one just for that alone.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 11 January 2013
This film is breathtaking, poetic, and beautiful. The cinematography is just so superb, as is the acting. There are English subtitles, but the first time I watched this film I left them off and let the film tell its own story, and it does have a powerful message about the destructiveness of jealousy. The final scenes are some of the most stunning I've ever seen.
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on 13 November 2014
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