Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5. France, 1999. La Sept-Arte, S.M. Films, Tanaïs Productions. Screenplay by Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, based on the story Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville. Cinematography by Agnes Godard. Produced by Patrick Grandperret. Music by Charles Henri de Pierrefeu, Eran Zur. Production Design by Arnaud de Moleron. Costume Design by Judy Shrewsbury. Film Editing by Nelly Quettier. Toronto International Film Festival 1999.
Claire Denis makes one of her most astonishingly powerful films with this subtle examination of male physicality and colonialism in Africa. French soldiers in the Foreign Legion train in Djibouti without purpose or cause, keeping themselves in top physical shape between bouts of mundane tasks such as laundry and ironing, bereft of a war to fight and smack dab in the middle of a country that is indifferent to their presence. Denis’ plotting is loose and drawn out, which will be frustrating to some, but the lack of obvious cause and effect does not mean that it does not exist;. There are high stakes here, their reasoning taken quite liberally from Melville’s Billy Budd (opera enthusiasts will get the reference before anyone else), but it is not the focus of the experience. Let the intoxicating images and magnificent sound design wash over you, admire the way that Denis radically eroticizes the male body without being exploitative, and enjoy the excellent post-colonial critique that is never didactic or overdone. It is deservedly one of the most acclaimed films of its time and will probably never age.