Director: Claire Denis
Arguably Denis' greatest film to date, Beau Travail is by any standard a magisterial piece of work: meditative, richly sensual—an ode to the beauty of male bodies and to the inscrutability of their passions. In adaptating Melville's classic Billy Budd, Denis and co-scenarist Fargeau transpose this narrative of innocence and obsession from the British Navy of the 1870s, to modern-day Africa, and a ragged group of French Legionnaires, as isolated in the desert as any sailors aboard ship. Here, the landscape is a void these men must fill—with exercise, with the routines of discipline, with acts of almost random kindness and cruelty; and Denis and her cinematographer, Agnes Godard, observe the austerity of their days with a kind of rapt attention. Told in the form of an extended flashback, it's narrated by the ex-sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant), after he has been expelled from the Legion for his mistreatment of the popular new recruit Sentain (Nenette et Boni's Gregoire Colin)—and Lavant's performance here is exceptional, culminating in one of the most extraordinary final shots of recent years, an explosive revelation (or, alternatively, a belated acknowledgement) of character; while the film's measured, hypnotic pace achieves an equivalent to the heat-blasted rhythms of life under the African sun. A masterpiece.