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Two of the most sensuous, formally innovative, even radical films to penetrate art-house theaters this year just happen to be French adaptations of Herman Melville books: Beau Travail, Claire Denis’s stunning tone-poem translation of Billy Budd, ran this past spring, and Leos Carax’s marvelous train wreck Pola X, based on Pierre, or the Ambiguities, arrives next week. With a Bartleby movie in the works starring Crispin Glover, the author is enjoying something of an off-road mini-renaissance at the movies, rounding off a recent Melville blitz on the stage and in bookstores.
To be sure, Moby-Dick‘s demon-plagued scribe (whose birth and death in New York City roughly bookended the 19th century) will never rack up story credits like ace script girl Jane Austen, or even fellow countryman and Merchant-Ivory star Henry James. Melville’s written world was chaotic and pitiless, overseen by satanic power figures and traveled by permanent castaways, for whom a bleak ending is never in question.
That is, unless Hollywood is providing the answer: The first Melville movie, a silent 1926 version of Moby-Dick, retooled his vast imponderable of existential dread and fatalism into a romance called The Sea Beast, concerning a lovestruck, insecure Ahab who pines for a parson’s daughter. John Barrymore played Ahab, and later reprised the role in a 1930 sound remake; the success of the two films, despite their dubious link to Melville’s prose, can be seen as part of the Melville revival that began in 1924 with the posthumous publication of Billy Budd.
A faithful if flawed Moby-Dick landed in theaters in 1956 courtesy of John Huston, who tackled the unfilmable behemoth in the midst of a lengthy career slump. His concise adaptation is worth a look foremost for its evocative cinematography: The color-drained print paints the novel’s psychic landscape in melancholy nautical blues and grays, while the fleet-footed camerawork builds to a climax at once suspenseful and mournfully inevitable. Gregory Peck, in an intriguing bit of miscasting, plays the vengeful captain; there’s an unmistakable (and not unwelcome) avuncular strain to his Ahab’s snarling monomania.
It’s ironic that moviedom’s first stab at the great white whale wrenched Moby-Dick‘s narrative into the shape of Hollywood romance, since Melville’s realms of endless toil and travel are harsh, definitively unromantic, and almost exclusively male. Affection is a tenuous constant, attraction an undercurrent, and where one ends and the other begins always remains ambiguous. Peter Ustinov’s literal-minded direction of Billy Budd (1962) eroticizes the relations between the stir-crazy crewmen but not, strangely, between the ethereal title character and Claggart, the insanely jealous master-at-arms. Robert Ryan’s Claggart is a two-dimensional ogre of little interest, and Ustinov (playing Captain Vere) stages a thoughtful but staid consideration of military justice. Billy Budd‘s only extraordinary aspect is the heart-stopping sight of 23-year-old Terence Stamp, in his film debut, as the doomed Handsome Sailor—the sobriquet is quite an understatement, in a film in need of more of it.
Except for a few unremarkable efforts like 1970’s Bartleby, which relocated the tale of Wall Street to contemporary London, Melville went missing at the movies for decades until Beau Travail. Claire Denis and regular screenwriting partner Jean-Pol Fargeau (who also collaborated with Carax on Pola X) strip down and alter their source in all manner of ways, and every choice they make illuminates the material. Left unfinished at Melville’s death, Billy Budd derives much of its pathos from the author’s anguished, discursive prose contortions. Relocating the story to a present-day French Foreign Legion station in Djibouti, Beau Travail, with its long wordless stretches, sublimates Melville’s verbose ambivalence through Denis’s serene gaze, which she trains on the sea-lapped, severely gorgeous East African landscape and on the sculpted bodies of the legionnaires. Melville’s characteristic aversion to a single narrative sightline is addressed and assuaged by Denis’s use of point of view: She centers on the impressionist memories of the ostensibly unsympathetic Claggart figure, Galoup (Denis Lavant), while Gregoire Colin’s Sentain, the Billy stand-in, is lovingly shot but not granted anything like his own perspective.
The credo of Denis’s film could be provided by Captain Vere: “With mankind, forms, measured forms, are everything.” The soldiers’ regimented exercise rituals give their good work a steadying rhythm if not a meaning—they’re forever preparing for a battle that’s not coming. The measured forms of military life in Beau Travail—scored to Benjamin Britten’s overtly erotic Billy Budd opera—are softened by brotherhood and love, perverted by jealousy and repression, and, at the end, blasted apart by Galoup’s ecstatic disco-floor dance. (And one with a lovely intertextual twist—Lavant’s explosive gyrations recall young Gregoire Colin’s joyful bedroom freakout in Denis’s U.S. Go Home.)
Bravely bounding down the slippery slope from ecstasy to hysteria, Leos Carax no doubt intends his Pierre adaptation, Pola X, as one misunderstood genius holding up a mirror to the other: Ten years after the financial bloodbath that was Lovers on the Bridge, Carax returns to filmmaking via Melville’s self-defeating, proto-pomo attempt at a profit-turning sentimental novel, written after the embittering commercial failure of Moby-Dick. Carax’s thrillingly ludicrous melodrama—almost kaleidoscopic in its visual range—merits not the derisive tee-hees I heard in a screening room a few weeks back but full-on belly laughs. Pola X heedlessly pushes tragedy into the domain of deranged comedy, and an eloquent defense of Carax’s work is provided by Melville himself in Pierre: “If fit opportunity offer in the hour of unusual affliction, minds of a certain temperament find a strange, hysterical relief in a wild, perverse humourousness, the more alluring for its entire unsuitableness for the occasion.”