A simple story with just a few main characters, which Denis lovingly photographs, obscures and abstracts. Unlike many of her others, it’s almost immediately easy to grasp this one’s character relationships, which may account for its higher reputation than her later films, or probably it’s just this one’s timing, exploding her international festival/critical reputation. Not that I mean to be ungenerous to Beau Travail – it’s terrific, and must have one of the best film endings of the 90’s.
Based on Herman Melville’s story Billy Budd. Commandant Michael Subor (The Intruder) leads a French foreign legion camp in Djibouti. Denis Lavant (Lovers on the Bridge) is training a bunch of men. But Lavant feels that he’s losing authority to new guy Gregoire Colin (35 Shots of Rum), so he looks for an opportunity to strike back. That was my interpretation anyway, but looking through comments of other filmed versions of Billy Budd, it seems that his motivation is never quite clear. Either way, he sends Colin on a doomed hike through the desert. Presumed to have killed the recruit (we later see Colin gettin rescued), Lavant is dismissed from the armed forces and set to be court-martialed. And just when you’re wondering why cast the great Denis Lavant as an immobile authority figure, he breaks out into a crazy awesome fantasy-sequence dance.
Doesn’t seem to follow the novel’s plot too closely – in the book, Budd is executed for accidentally killing a superior officer, while here he saves a man and kills nobody. The book was turned into a famous opera, and Denis uses songs from that instead of her usual Tindersticks. Mostly, she turns the story into an abstract dance of bodies in the desert, with emotions felt rather than explained.
The fact that [Subor] is named after the hero of Jean-Luc Godard’s Le petit soldat and played by the same actor almost 40 years later adds a suggestive thread… Most of all, Denis, who spent part of her childhood in Djibouti, captures the poetry and atmosphere — and, more subtly, the women — of Africa like few filmmakers before her.