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Claire Denis is a sensational filmmaker—with all that implies. Her Beau Travail, opening this week after its well-received local premiere at the New York Film Festival, is a movie so tactile in its cinematography, inventive in its camera placement, and sensuous in its editing that the purposefully oblique and languid narrative is all but eclipsed.

"I've found an idea for a novel," a Godard character once announced. "Not to write the life of a man, but only life, life itself. What there is between people, space . . . sound and colors." His words might serve as Denis's manifesto. Her transposition of Herman Melville's novella Billy Budd to a French Foreign Legion post on the Horn of Africa is a mosaic of pulverized shards. Every cut in Beau Travail is a small, gorgeously explosive shock.

Denis's main principle is kinesthetic immersion. A former French colonial who spent part of her childhood in Djibouti, she introduces her material with a pan along a crumbling wall mural, accompanied by the legionnaire anthem; this is followed by close-ups of the soldiers dancing with their sultry African dream girls—a vision of sexual glory accentuated by the flashing Christmas lights that constitute the minimalist disco decor—and then by images of the shirtless recruits exercising in the heat of the day to excerpts from Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd oratorio.

Brothers in arms: Lavant (right) in Beau Travail
photo: New Yorker Films
Brothers in arms: Lavant (right) in Beau Travail


Beau Travail
Directed by Claire Denis
Written by Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau
A New Yorker Films release
Opens March 31

The God of Day Had Gone Down Upon Him
A film by Stan Brakhage
At Millennium
April 1

The Filth and the Fury
Directed by Julien Temple
A Fine Line Features release
At Film Forum

The filmmaker's style is naturally hieroglyphic. There is little dialogue, and although Beau Travail feels present-tense, it is actually an extended first-person flashback. Denis puts her version of the Melville tale of the "handsome sailor" martyred by an evil superior in the villain's mouth. The movie is narrated by the ex-sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant), after he has been expelled from the Legion for his mistreatment of the popular and gung-ho recruit Sentain (Grégorie Colin). Short and bandy-legged, with odd aquatic features and a face like a Tom Waits song, Lavant's Galoup is a figure of pathos. The Legion, if not the legionnaire, he loved is lost to him.

Time drifts, memories flicker. Beau Travail is the recollection of elemental pleasure. The recruits drill under the sun or scramble around the empty fort, when they are not skin diving or performing tai chi. The heat, the disco, the golden beaches, and the turquoise sea suggest a weird sort of Club Med. Apparently crucial to their basic training is the ability to iron a perfect uniform crease. Forestier (Michel Subor), the commanding officer, is fond of chewing the local narcotic, qat. "If it wasn't for fornication and blood we wouldn't be here," he tells someone.

Sentain rescues a downed helicopter pilot and Forestier takes a liking to him, further feeding Galoup's jealousy. The sergeant orchestrates a situation to destroy Sentain, bringing the recruits to a barren strip of the coast for some character-building convict work, digging a purposeless road or doing their exercises at high noon. (The locals impassively watch these peculiar antics, modernistic hug-fests that might have been choreographed by Martha Graham.) The movie turns wildly homoerotic. Egged on by Galoup, and Britten's incantatory music, these legionnaires are exalted in their minds. Finally, but without overt cause, Galoup and Sentain stage a one-on-one bare-chested face-off, circling each other on a rocky coast with Britten's oratorio soaring.

In its hypnotic ritual, Beau Travail suggests a John Ford cavalry western interpreted by Marguerite Duras—Galoup always has time to scribble his obsessions in a diary. As in Billy Budd, the sergeant suckers the enlisted man into the fatal mistake of slugging him. (Typically, the filmmaker handles this crucial incident in four quick shots.) But, unlike Melville, Denis has no particular interest in Christian allegory. She distills Melville's story to its existential essence. A final visit to the disco finds Galoup flailing out against the prison of self, dancing alone to the Europop rhythm of the night.

Like Denis's previous films, I Can't Sleep and Nénette and Boni, her latest is a mysterious mix of artful deliberation and documentary spontaneity. To watch it is to wonder about the process. Are her often elaborate shots generated by the scenes she's set up? Does she find her structure in the editing room? One thing's for sure, along with her regular cinematographer, Agnes Godard, Denis always opts for beauty. Beau Travail indeed.

Denis's fluid impressionism recalls the virtuoso short films—Castro Street and Valentin de las Sierras—made by California avant-gardist Bruce Baillie in the late '60s. The master of such lyrical montage is, of course, Stan Brakhage, who, after a number of years of painting on film and having apparently recovered from a serious illness, premieres his first long, fully photographic work since the early '90s this Saturday at Millennium.

The return to photography brings with it a return, however painterly, to narrative. The God of Day Had Gone Down Upon Him takes the form of a short sea voyage to some scarcely populated land. There are mountains visible in a flat Chinese perspective, but Brakhage never gets very far from the beach. For the better part of an hour, his camera contemplates a range of floating organisms—from seaweed and leaves to seals and (distant) kayaks—or, more often, the rolling surf. The film has a slight stutter-step progression, a reminder perhaps that memory is integral to perception.

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