DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEW of Beau Travail and the Britten opera Billy Budd


Title: Beau Travail  (“Good Work”)

Release Date:  2000

Nationality and Language: French

Running time: about 100 Minutes

MPAA Rating:  R

Distributor and Production Company: New Yorker Films

Director; Writer: Claire Denis


Cast:  Denis Lavant and Gregolre Colln

Technical: 1.6 to 1; Digital

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL site: unit cohesion in the military (gays in the military)


Here is a daring, both voluptuous and austere French film on the barrenness of unmated conventional masculinity.  The setting is one of men with no other station in life but to bond together in group warrior-like pursuits, with the exploration of a social hierarchy at the potential for eventual homoerotic meaning. Again, why will European film-makers tackle this more readily than Americans, who have such a problem with machismo and with the idea that restless young men need to find something to do?  Why didn’t  this film find a larger corporate distributor for the US?   When I saw this in Minneapolis it was reasonably well attended, probably by a substantially gay audience.


More specifically, this movie presents a setting of Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, later set to opera by British composer Benjamin Britten.  In fact, exotic choral passages from Britten’s opera appear at critical points in the film, which should be viewed in a theater properly equipped for digital soundtracks.  (The references is the stunning, almost Maherian but polytonal “Down All Hands” chorus, track 19 on CD 3 in the London 1968 recording of the opera, CD 417 428, with the London Symphony and Amrbosian Opera Chorus conducted by Britten, remastered as digital.  The shattering, very end of the opera seems to have the hammer-stroke of Mahler’s Sixth and the opera was first conceived in a symphonic form, along the lines of a four-movement symphony.)  Britten, whose homosexuality and lifelong relationship with Peter Pears drove much of his thinking, seemed to have anticipated the debate that would occur forty years after this opera was composed. And he understood that emotional attachment among men in the military is a tremendously powerful motivator.  


But instead of an 18th century British Navy ship, the setting is the French Foreign Legion, training in East Africa, in Djibouti, with stunning, almost extraterrestrial landscapes of desert, salt flats, volcanoes, and coastlines (the movie should have been filmed in wide-screen format)—intermixed with the narrator’s reminiscences of gaudier days in Marseille and Geneva. The narrator, St. Galoup (Dennis Lavant) , in fact, corresponds to Claggart in the novel and opera.  And Billy Budd is transposed by the character Gilles Sentain (Gregolre Colln), who comes across to me as the perfect gay man that in America would be challenging “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  Lean and perfectly fit, and just a little more human than some of the other soldiers, Galoup feels Sentain (who had joined the Legion after leaving Russia because of the horrible conditions in the military there—a genuine national security problem for the US)  takes his caring and budding humanity (pun intended) too seriously, when he rescues a wounded soldier after a helicopter accident. That this alone would disturb Galoup is a bit weird—the military (ours in the US or in any advanced NATO country) will bend over backwards to rescue its own (remember the Scott O’Grady story, now a book and soon to be a TV movie). No, I think something else bothers Galoup, like being rejected by someone he wants.   


The film shows the strenuous PT—the low crawls, pole vaults, swimming—all much more rigorous than anything I endured in my own Army Basic (there was no swimming in mine). One particularly striking scene has the been serially embracing one another—partners and corners—bare-chested (with the majority of the men rather barren and hairless, as if it’s what men do that matters, not what men look like) in a team-building unit cohesion exercise.  The unit is well integrated, with blacks, Asians and Caucasians bonding together. 


Which brings us to the next point, so important to military sociology and, to be honest, why letting gays serve openly has seemed like such a dicey proposition, although European militaries (and Israel’s) are now finding it not nearly as problematic as they had once fantasized.  (Which leave the U.S. far behind.)  It’s not just that soldiers live together and don’t go home at night like you and I do (Sam Nunn’s argument). It’s that for many military people, soldiering and belonging to a unit is their whole psychological existence.  The group gives them a reason to exist, until women and family come along.  And that makes the whole gays-in-the-military debate double-edged, like the chess Benko Gambit.  (There is a chess game in the movie, but I had trouble identifying the opening.)  For the military for many young adults is a career jump-start, a college education, a chance for adventure and fulfillment, as so well narrated by Joe Steffan in has account of the Naval Academy Honor Bound. Indeed Sentain comes across as capable of great things, unlike many of his buddies or of the Claggart-like character himself.  Fortunately, the ending gives more reason for hope than does the book or opera.


I’ll put this in my list of most important films in 2000, not the best of years so far. I could see SLDN using it as the basis of a benefit (or better yet, the Britten opera itself).


In September 2004 I did see the Britten opera Billy Budd at The Washington Opera, with Dwayne Croft as Billy Budd, Robin Leggate as Captain Vere, and Samuel Ramey as John Claggart. The libretto is by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier. That gives you a pretty good prediction of the layered meanings of the story, from concerns about mutiny (and the practice of impressments, which would lead to the War of 1812. (In one sense, the opera is a kind of compressed “Master and Commander”.) The second layer is almost like Paul Rosenfels, where Vere describes his domain in the Prologue:


“I have been a man of action…”


“Much good has been shown to me and much evil, and the good has never been perfect. There is always some flaw in it, some defect, some imperfection in the divine image, some fault in the angelic song, some stammer in the divine speech. So that the Devil has something to do with every human consignment to this planet earth.”


That of course, leads to the “obvious.” Yes, the plot hinges on Billy Budd’s “fatal flaw” – not something generic like Everwood’s Ephram (my inability to change), but simply his stammer will be his undoing. But of course the powers that be on the ship conspire against him, partly out of his threat to their power, his supposed threat to “unit cohesion” (sound familiar?) and perhaps good old jealousy in what is essentially homosexual soap opera. Billy Budd is the Joseph Steffan or Keith Meinhold of his day, the Rosa Parks who refuses to go to the back of the bus, who stands in the limelight. And he will be resented, he will be brought low. That is the tragedy. 


Britten, who wrote this opera in 1951 (first in four acts) was a half-decade of his time in what would become the social issues of succeeding generations. This atmosphere of the stagecraft experience is awesome (the Washington Opera used a hinged stage), as we see an all male environment, without a hint of women (just one mention of wife and kids at home), men lying in their hammocks, but as often as not against each other in forced intimacy.  He found a way to say “it” in a way that could be taught in, say, 9th Grade Honors English in public schools. He looked back to Mahler in his music. Mahler, it is said, wanted to write a requiem mass, and the War Requiem of Britten is a close guess of what Mahler might have composed. The ending of Billy Budd, with the harrowing “Down All Hands” male chorus, retreats into the linear world of the Mahler 9th, or even Das Lied von der Erde, and even the Shostakovich 4th Symphony. The audience at the opera sat stunned as the final C-major chord drum-rolled to a wispy close with Vere closing up shop.


Related reviews:  Billy Budd link


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