Claire Denis adds a new visual dimension through shimmering, hypnotic images to her body of work with this adaptation of Herman Melville’s allegorical Billy Budd. Parallel fascinations with men and Africa run through her films, often intersecting to produce a unique body of work, and finally culminate in Beau Travail.
On the East African coast, a group of soldiers in the French Foreign Legion are stuck in a sunbaked desert. They are remnants of an army and punish themselves with drills and training rituals to fight boredom. Numbed by the pointless routine, Sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant) becomes obsessed with the young recruit Sentain (Grégoire Colin). With hauntingly stylised and poetically minimalist images compared to her previous works, Denis and cinematographer Agnès Godard weave together military and masculine codes of honour, colonialism’s legacy, destructive jealousy, and repressed desire in Beau Travail. As a film about men primarily authored by women, its eroticism and prominent celebration of the male physique raise interesting questions about the female gaze.
The screening on 27 November will be followed by a seminar in Cantonese with critic and university lecturer Dr Sonia Au and M+ Curator of Hong Kong Film and Media Li Cheuk-to. The seminar will focus on the career and works of Claire Denis as well as her reception in France and abroad.
About the Director
Claire Denis (b. 1946, France) began her career working on set in Dusan Makavejev's Sweet Movie (1974). Her years working alongside Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch were crucial to her growth as a filmmaker before she directed her debut Chocolat (1988). Her next films I Can’t Sleep (1994) and Nénette et Boni (1996) interweave narratives inspired by the urban culture of Paris. Denis’s elliptical narrative and visual style received widespread acclaim with Beau Travail (1999) while Trouble Every Day (2001) made a shocking presentation in which Denis, regarded as an arthouse director, turned to the horror genre. The 2000s were significant for her career, which saw the release of Friday Night (2002), 35 Shots of Rum (2008), and White Material (2009). In 2022, Both Sides of the Blade and Stars at Noon won prizes at the Berlinale and Cannes respectively. Working closely with her long-time collaborators, such as cinematographer Agnès Godard and the rock band Tindersticks, Denis has contributed a diverse body of work to contemporary cinema.
Image at top: Claire Denis. Beau Travail, 1999. Photo: Courtesy of LS Distribution