FORGET LOGIC with Claire Denis, still best known for her 1988 debut feature Chocolat, which treated white colonial guilt as a kind of high-art Harlequin romance. Similarly, by adapting Melville's Billy Budd into the contemporary French Foreign Legion, she's thrown out anything that gets in the way of mood, movement, and rhythm, and produced another work that's earning lavish critical praise despite its narrative difficulties.
directed by Claire Denis
with Denis Lavant, Gr駯ire Colin, and Michel Subor
runs June 23-29 at Egyptian
Instead of a sailing ship, we have a remote military outpost in Djibouti. Instead of a Christ figure crucified by a hate-filled brute (as in the 1962 Billy Budd starring a very young Terence Stamp), we have a more sympathetic narrator who's responsible yet somehow repentant for the hero's fate.
Speaking after the fact, back home in Marseille, Galoup (Denis Lavant) recalls events in voice-over—which is about all the dialogue we get. In place of Melville's prose, Denis gives us the soldiers' austere, regimented, and thoroughly physical life. They perform group calisthenics in the hot sun, contorting their bodies in unison, casting Giacometti shadows on the burning sands. (These sessions resemble nothing so much as Leni Riefenstahl's 1936 Olympics documentary Olympia.) The swelling choral strains of Benjamin Britten's opera Billy Budd also indicate how Denis is less concerned with fathoming motives than simply depicting their intense emotional expression.
Hence, Galoup becomes irrationally resentful of a younger, taller, braver soldier, Sentain (Gr駯ire Colin). "Something vague and menacing took hold of me," Galoup recounts, seeing in Sentain a threat to the "tradition" and "family" the Legion represents. Mainly, however, he wants to remain the favorite of his commander (Michel Subor), a character Denis has revived from a favorite obscure Godard film (Le Petit Soldat, 1960), also played by Subor.
Melville, Riefenstahl, Britten, Godard—you can see how Denis glosses her sources and influences to serve her own purposes. She doesn't really care for the mechanics of the story (when Sentain finally hits Galoup it hardly seems real), and rewrites it as she sees fit. The codes and loyalties of an obsolete but proud male enclave are what interest her—the wordless interplay, glances, and gestures that become balletic and often strikingly beautiful. Outside, the sun casts eerie shadows off the men; inside, Denis photographs them in lush darkness.
Indoors or out, Galoup remains obscure to himself and us as well. As a result, Beau Travail is a willfully opaque and evocative picture, haunting and incomplete—yet powerful for its gaps and silences. The desert air seems suffused with tragedy, but Denis resists even that obvious plot avenue, using disco and a Neil Young tune to score an inconclusive tale of rivalry and regret.