I knew the Gainsbourg version of this heart-breaking story first, when it came out in 1987, as a pop hit, with Gainsbourg hammily whispering the lyrics. I later realised it was a Piaf song. I now associate the song strongly with Claire Denis’s wonderful film about the French Foreign Legion in Djibouti, Beau Travail (1999). Loosely based on Melville’s Billy Budd, and featuring fragments of Britten’s opera in the soundtrack, the film centres on the triangulation of male rivalry and desire around a beautiful young soldier.
In the video, men dance in a bar under Gainsbourg’s ambiguous gaze. This chimes uncannily with Beau Travail, in its reckoning with unacknowledged male desire for men, and with French relationships to Africa and the eroticised African body. In Beau Travail’s famous final scene, Galoup, played by Denis Lavant, disgraced for letting the legion’s honour down in his intent to destroy a soldier he envies, dances alone, maniacally, desperately, to The Rhythm of the Night.