Taking the bare-bones of plot from Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd,” French filmmaker Claire Denis has made a haunting, virtually wordless film about youth and jealousy. “Beau Travail” is a startlingly visual film that works its way under your skin, even though very little actually happens on screen.
There are really only three characters here, surrounded by the fit young men of the Foreign Legion stationed in the coastal wastelands of Djibouti. Galoup (Lavant) is obsessed with pleasing his superior officer Forestier (Subor) until the arrival of the handsome, heroic, respected young recruit Sentain (Colin). Threatened, paranoid, jealous and no doubt lustful, Galoup plots Sentain’s downfall as the soldiers repair roads and run through military training exercises along the stark African coastline.
The film basically consists of endless shots of the shirtless men doing what looks like thai chi in the desert. But there’s actually a lot going on under the surface–and other sequences that give little glimpses of life. At times it feels almost painfully minimalist with its lack of clear characters or storyline, but as it grows on us we’re slowly, subtly drawn into the central conflict. The performances are equally minimalist, and better for it. And Denis makes marvellous use of color and texture in Agnes Godard’s poetic cinematography, along with a wonderfully evocative song score. Yes, it’s a bit like watching a painting for 90 minutes, but the imagery and themes linger meaningfully long after you’ve left the cinema.