Beau travail
Top Ten List: #3 of 2000 (U.S. releases)

Director: Claire Denis. Cast: Denis Lavant, Grégoire Colin, Michel Subor, Richard Courcet, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Adiatou Massudi. Screenplay: Claire Denis and Jean-Paul Fargeau (loosely based on the short novel Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville).

Full review to follow soon—but, in this case, there's more to say. You may previously have visited this site and discovered a lengthy, uncomprehending, and unsatisfied response to Beau travail, mostly along the lines of, "This sure ain't Billy Budd, though I'm not sure what it actually is." The chorus of international rhapsodies that greeted Beau travail's release in 1999, as well as, more mutedly, its American commercial release the following year, utterly confounded me at the time.

Three years and three viewings later, I think Beau travail is indeed marvelous; my own first-pass review, still archived here, seems totally out of faith with Denis' project. Yes, viewers looking for a direct transposition of Melville to the screen will be frustrated by Beau travail, as will those with an uncontrolled appetite for narrative. Having learned nothing from my initial indifference to Apocalypse Now (I didn't like it, because it seemed so un-Conrad), I think I brought the kind of rigidified expectations to Beau travail that are totally inimical to most filmgoing, but especially to Denis' cinema of impressions, sensualities, and provocative ellipses.

An ungenerous interpretation of my changes-of-mind on Beau travail and Apocalypse Now might infer that my oppositional stance simply relented in the face of more established critics' overwhelming enthusiasm. I don't think that's the case, though the truth is not more flattering. I think my inability to watch and assess these films on their own terms owed much to the fact that I first learned, or thought I learned, cinematic analysis as a subset of literary criticism, with little methodological distinction. My complete reversals of opinion about these films, then, hopefully suggest that an ensuing education in film artistry, plus several more years of watching and learning from other movies, have made me open and receptive to cinematic styles and enterprises that I couldn't previously accept. It is also the luxury of a web-based film critic to be able to make such retroactive confessions and to respond with new appraisals.

And so, my new and hopefully improved review of Beau travail will be posted here in due course. Stay tuned! A

(in January 2000: C–)

National Society of Film Critics: Best Cinematography (Agnès Godard)
César Awards (French Oscars): Best Cinematography

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