Beau Travail ("Good Work"),showing at the 2000 Sydney Film Festival, is loosely based on Herman Melville's classic novella Billy Budd. Billy Budd was a tragedy brought about partly by the strictures of military discipline, but was really a story of masculinity and power; a powerful psychological study of three charcters and personalities unable to coexist without damaging or destroying eachother.French director Claire Denis transfers the story from the eighteenth century British navy to a unit of the French Foreign Legion in an African outpost. The naive and charismatic Budd becomes Gilles Sentain (Gregoire Colin, from Olivier Olivier), a fresh recruit from Russia, whom the other men unconsciously look up to. Claggart, the sergeant who takes an unfathomable dislike to Budd and engineers his downfall is Galoup (Denis Lavant). And the ship's captain is now the legion's commander, Forestier (Michel Subor).
Denis spends a lot of time filming her soldiers training, and the settings - veering from harsh deserts, to ocean, to a nearby African village - are beautifully photographed by Agnes Godard. But I think it's a mistake to have her story narrated by Galoup. Claggart was fascinating to Melville because he could discern no real reason for his hatred of Budd; it was ascribed to his nature. Melville never gave us Claggart's point-of-view because it was unreadable. Denis hasn't got any great idea about Galoup's motives either and doesn't give him any, so he's a frustrating choice to carry the story.
Denis' other major error lies with Sentain. We never see him arrive, we never really witness his effect on the other men, and - for a long time - it's hard to even distinguish him from the other soldiers. Melville viewed Budd as angelic; Denis takes this a step further and makes him Christ-like. The camera frequently lingers on Forestier, but he is not integral to the action, and the climactic confrontation between Sentain and Galoup (there is none between Sentain and Forestier) comes too late and is over too quickly to be satisfying.The exotic backdrop of the Foreign legion - with its all-male bonding and strict discipline - is inspired. But this story (scripted by Denis and Jean-Paul Fargeau) is filmed without memorable performances and drained of all dramatic tension.