Beau travail (1999) dir. Claire Denis

Beau travail is (loosely) adapted from Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, and takes its score from the 1951 opera also based on the novel. Denis takes us away from the world of 19th Century seafaring, and stages the action in a late 20th Century North African outpost of the French Legion.

The sand dunes replace the sea waves, but the sense of isolation and the pack-like male hierarchy is the same. Most readers of Melville’s Budd focus on the conflict between the character Budd’s goodness and the abuses under martial law. Denis takes a cue from other critics, including Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who pick up on the homosexual/homophobic currents of the work.

Sedgwick examines the novel, written in 1891, at its place in the development of the idea of homosexuality. It was present in Master-at-arms John Claggart, but not in a way he could consciously make part of his identity. He has what Melville calls a “natural depravity,” and an envy against Billy Budd that plays into the type (undeveloped in 1891) of the closeted homophobe. “To him [Claggart], the spirit lodged within Billy, and looking out from his welkin eyes as from windows, that ineffability it was which made the dimple in his dyed cheek, suppled his joints, and dancing in his yellow curls made him pre-eminently the Handsome Sailor.”

Denis develops this theme, casting Master Sergeant Galoup in the Claggart role. Galoup is jealous of the attention the attractive young Sentain gets from Galoup’s superior, but Galoup cannot articulate why. He contrives Sentain’s death.

Denis twists Melville’s plot, in order to throw the focus entirely on Galoup. Galoup is the one who must face a court martial. His narration of the film was his self-examination leading up to his suicide. The ending suggests that Galoup, at the end, may have finally come to terms with part of who he is.

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