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Blu-Ray : Highly Recommended
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Release Date: September 15th, 2020 Movie Release Year: 1999

Beau Travail - Criterion Collection

Overview -

Claire Denis’ enigmatic and deeply poetic Beau Travail makes its HD debut thanks to The Criterion Collection. Replete with tension and raw beauty this loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd centers around an isolated outpost of the French Foreign Legion as a sergeant becomes painfully obsessed with a new recruit. The Criterion Collection brings the film to life with a stunning 4k transfer and a slew of new bonus features well worth exploring. Highly Recommended

With her ravishingly sensual take on Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor, Claire Denis firmly established herself as one of the great visual tone poets of our time. Amid the azure waters and sunbaked desert landscapes of Djibouti, a French Foreign Legion sergeant (Denis Lavant) sows the seeds of his own ruin as his obsession with a striking young recruit (Grégoire Colin) plays out to the thunderous, operatic strains of Benjamin Britten. Denis and cinematographer Agnès Godard fold military and masculine codes of honor, colonialism's legacy, destructive jealousy, and repressed desire into shimmering, hypnotic images that ultimately explode in one of the most startling and unforgettable endings in all of modern cinema.

Highly Recommended
Rating Breakdown
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
New English subtitle translation
Video Resolution/Codec:
1080p AVC/MPEG-4
Aspect Ratio(s):
Audio Formats:
French: LPCM 2.0
Special Features:
• PLUS: An essay by critic Girish Shambu
Release Date:
September 15th, 2020

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take


“We all have a trash can deep within.”

Beau Travail reminds me of the meme “How it started / How it's going'' in which a subject is portrayed well at first but by the present time something has gone awry causing a deep rift in your expectations. For our protagonist Galoup his meme starts with a confident and deeply fulfilled Legionnaire serving with honor. Cut to the present. He is stuck in a sad apartment journaling nonsense while sporting sandals with socks wondering where it all went wrong. Galoup’s journey was one born of obsession, jealousy, and sheer determination to rid his life of a vision that reminded him of a life unlived and unrealized. Those familiar with Beau Travail will no doubt remember Galoup’s powerful emotional release at the end of the film signifying his acceptance and rebirth of this new unfettered existence. After a career within the rigid structures of the Legion, his new self is revealed thanks to the rhythm of the night.   

Ex-Foreign Legion officer Galoup (Denis Lavant) retraces his memories as a devout Legionnaire whose rigid identity was undone when a new recruit named Sentain (Gregoire Colin) arrives. Told through narration, Galoup’s words rarely make sense of anything but add to the growing tension that he carries through every moment. This disruption shakes his existence to the core and causes a rift between him and superior officer Forestier (Michel Subor) who takes a liking to the promising young man. Anger and jealousy spring forth with a destructive desire to break the confident soldier who can’t leave Galoup’s gaze. Naturally, Sentain pushes through the agonizing training drills easily winning the attention of the other men. However, when the recruit offers relief to a punished soldier Galoup sees the opportunity to show his dominance with a satisfying slap to the face. Sentain answers in kind forcing a deadly punishment upon himself. 

Beau Travail is set in Djibouti East Africa which provides an eerily desolate yet beautifully dynamic landscape to portray Denis’ operatic meditation on identity. This juxtaposition mirrors the lives of the French soldiers living in a land in which they do not belong. Denis’ strikes a dissonance in the images used here but layers them to create beautiful displays that harmonize grandly. Chiseled bodies in an alien landscape perform the choreography of Galoup’s relentless training exercises are set against the swells of Benjamin Britten’s operatic flourishes. 

An indelible image from Beau Travail is of the soldiers ironing their uniforms. In the light of day wearing only their underclothes, the Legionnaires painstakingly iron each article completely. This moment illustrates an undermining of the masculinity of the soldiers after we’ve seen them diligently train and engage their bodies in vigorous calisthenics. The amount of time spent showing the laundry duties of the men is quite unsettling, to be honest. “Perfect creases are part of this elegance” Fostier declares quietly as the soldiers refine their ironing techniques in the hot Djibouti sun. That night the effort for that elegance is on display at local nightclubs where the men dance with women and scour the town for a good time. 

As the story goes Denis’ was approached by producers of the film to develop around the theme of “foreignness”. She was instantly drawn to the Legionnaires. Relying on a minimal narrative structure Denis’ leans on the powerful performances of the actors to embody the disconnect these soldiers and their outpost represent. Denis Lavant’s performance as Galoup is career-defining. From the caged hostility, he exhibits at the outpost to the film’s final nightclub scene the actor is utterly mesmerizing to watch. The supporting cast is phenomenal, to say the least. Their performances are subtle, nuanced, and bounding with explosive energy. 

It's unfortunate that the film hasn’t received a proper North American release until now. Film students and physical media collectors have found solace in bootleg copies and ridiculous price gouging on Region Free copies. My first viewing was on a beat-up VHS tape found lodged in the Gay/Lesbian section of an Australian videostore. While the film contains enough subtext and surface material to categorize it this way I’ve found that Beau Travail is more than just a homoerotic masterpiece, but rather an exploration of the deeper themes of self-identity within the rigid framework of deeply cemented values and expectations. 

Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray

Beau Travail arrives on Blu-ray thanks to The Criterion Collection. The BD-50 Region A disc is housed in a typical Criterion-style transparent case with a fold-out leaflet with an essay from Girish Shambu. The Disc loads to the Main Menu screen with scenes from the film playing behind Criterion’s slider-style menu. 

Video Review


Beau Travail arrives on HD with a new 4k restoration that is absolutely gorgeous. In the original 1.67:1, this AVC encoded 1080p image beams with light. Blue ocean waves sing as loud as the music accompanying the images. Grain levels are solid allowing the texture of the image to breathe just enough without seeming too thick or busy. Primaries are bold and brash from the clothing on the townspeople to the blue-green waters surrounding the training compound. Plenty of fine detail evident on faces and costuming. Facial features contain lines and details along with individual stitching on the uniforms. Some limited noise in the image during the nightclub scenes is evident but doesn’t detract from the experience. Underwater scenes present heavy noise and grain due to the technical limitations at the time. These moments also provide the height of cinematic realism: dirt on the lens. 

Those with previous home video releases should ditch them for this Region A Blu-ray from Criterion. The level of clarity and depth in the image is astounding. Textures within the arid desert sand, patterns on the women’s fabric rugs, and the sheer balance of light and shadow elevate the visual tone of the film beyond its previous home video releases. 

Audio Review


We’re given only a single audio track here with a French LPCM 2.0 that builds within the texture nicely allowing dialogue and music to coexist nicely. The music from Britten’s opera swells across the sound field enveloping the viewer drawing you into the heights of tension and obsession between Sentain and Galoup. Dialogue is clear without hiss or pop evident. This is a very lean audio mix that works well when it is required to support the story.  

Special Features


Beau Travail has lingered for so long without a proper release that it's great to see Criterion create some fascinating featurettes even with the complications of our current reality. A commentary track would be stellar but I’m not gonna nitpick this one. My advice is to start with the Barry Jenkins interview then follow it up with the Judith Myne visual essay before rewatching the film for good measure.  

  • Claire Denis and Barry Jenkins (HD 29:51) This featurette begins with this disclaimer: “May 29, 2020 During the global lockdown due to COVID-19, and soon after protests erupt in Minneapolis in response to the police murder of George Floyd, director’s Claire Denis and Barry Jenkins connect long-distance to discuss Beau travail.”
    The two directors discuss the film over video call touching on various themes and tones within the film. Their chat is casual but wildly informative about Denis’ process and the production of Beau Travail. Barry Jenkins fresh from watching the George Floyd footage mirrors the events reflected in the film adding a fascinating layer to the conversation. 
  • Denis Lavant Interview (HD 28:39) Denis details in increasing detail his experiences making the film and the lengths to which he embodied his character and imbued the production with his own commitment to the process. In French with English subtitles.
  • Gregoire Colin Interview (HD 16:36) The actor speaks at length about working with Claire Denis and his experiences making Beau Travail. In French with English subtitles. 
  • Agnes Godard (HD 21:33) Scene specific commentary with cinematographer Agnes Godard. 
  • Beau Travail and the Dance Floor (HD 27:49) Video essay from film scholar Judith Mayne. 
  • Insert Booklet Tucked into the case is a leaflet with an essay from critic Girish Shambu. 

Final Thoughts

There are few times that Criterion genuinely surprises me with a title on their release calendar. I was thrilled to see Claire Denis’ Beau Travail receive some attention and fill a cinematic blindspot for collectors. I can’t be more excited for new audiences to experience it. The Criterion Collection has provided an impressive 4k restoration for the film and a legion of special features sure to please fans of the film. Highly Recommended.