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Claire Denis' most famous and celebrated work — a transposition of Herman Melville's Billy Budd to a modern-day French Foreign Legion outpost in Djibouti — is a milestone of contemporary cinema.
Based on Herman Melville's novella Billy Budd, Denis' most famous and celebrated work is a milestone of contemporary cinema, synthesizing elements from a number of different art forms (literature, music, dance) and reconfiguring them to create a wholly unique form of cinematic storytelling. Set against the sun-drenched desert and blindingly blue coastal landscapes of Djibouti, Beau travail focuses on a French Foreign Legion outpost that is run under the strict discipline of the stiff Sgt. Galoup (Denis Lavant). In a series of hypnotically photographed sequences scored and choreographed to excerpts from Benjamin Britten's opera of Billy Budd, Galoup leads the half-naked legionnaires through their daily exercises and war games, training for battles that will never be fought while waiting for their regular evening excursions to nightclubs to dance and pick up local women. This seemingly perfectly balanced world is upset by the arrival of new recruit Sentain (Grégoire Colin), whose beauty and heroism charm the troop's commanding officer Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor) and awaken a burning jealousy within Galoup. Concluding with one of Denis' most indelible images — Galoup, his ferocious, forever pent-up energy finally unleashed, dancing himself into oblivion — Beau travail is "A masterpiece ... [a] poetic rumination that pointedly doesn't discriminate between major and minor events, intertwining both into a kind of endless magical tapestry" (Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader); "Hypnotic ... suggests a John Ford cavalry western interpreted by Marguerite Duras" (J. Hoberman, The Village Voice).