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Before watching Beau Travail, French director Claire Denis’ 1999 film, I’d seen two of Denis’ films: the 2009 (post-)colonial drama White Material and the 2018 sci-fi oddity High Life. My favourite cinema showed the latter last year as part of a series on women directors, so I went to see it – and came away nonplussed. Certainly, there were scenes that I found intriguing, and Denis’ strange science-fiction tone poem is often beautiful to look at, but I didn’t know what to do with it, and I still don’t. While I had some ideas about the overall themes of the film, it remained too fragmented and elliptic and I felt too much of a disconnect from the characters I was watching and the things they were doing. I could imagine someone else, and perhaps even me at a different time and in a different frame of mind, getting more from High Life, but I left the cinema with a vague sense of frustration – or possibly a frustrating sense of vagueness.
I may not immediately wish to revisit High Life after seeing Beau Travail, but Denis’ film, a loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, definitely makes me think that I should keep looking out for other films by her. I could imagine that the one or the other would leave me similarly nonplussed as High Life, but I can’t think of any other director like Denis.