Beau Travail

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Beau Travail

Loosely inspired by Herman Melville's novella Billy Budd and a pair of the author's poems ("The Night March" and "Gold In The Mountain"), Claire Denis' beautiful Beau Travail ("good work") is an elusive jumble of ellipses and suggestion. As such, it can't be deciphered at every moment like a conventional story, but rather pieced together in sections, like the morning after an especially vivid dream. Denis, whose previous work (including Chocolat and Nénette Et Boni) featured some semblance of a narrative, takes on a rapturous style that's closer to poetry than prose, relying more on lyrical phrases than old-fashioned melodrama. From Billy Budd, she's lifted the central conflict between a handsome young sailor and his sinister superior, then transposed it onto an outpost of French Legionnaires on the small East African nation of Djibouti. Played by Denis Lavant (The Lovers On The Bridge), the brooding taskmaster has no cause for antagonizing new recruit Grégoire Colin (The Dreamlife Of Angels) but sets out to destroy him anyway. Though all evidence points to the contrary, Lavant seems to believe that Colin's "thin and distant" presence will upset the precisely honed mechanics that keep his unit intact. Denis spends a lot of time on military drills, clearly fascinated by the masculine rituals that make up the soldiers' daily lives; one such exercise, in which the well-chiseled men throw themselves into each other's arms, would seem obviously homoerotic if it weren't such a cold routine. These haunting episodes, staged on an arid plain adjoining a crystal-blue sea, recall Leni Riefenstahl in their immense physical beauty, particularly in terms of the male form. The directors may be at cross-purposes, but the training sequences in Beau Travail and the Aryan youth camps in Riefenstahl's Triumph Of The Will have a sensual impact that's undeniably similar. Though the vague, inscrutable tension between Lavant and Colin is fascinating, Denis mostly relies on moods and impressions to keep the film afloat, an enormous risk that pays off strictly based on her mastery of sight and sound. Ending with the most surprising and provocative coda since A Taste Of Cherry, Beau Travail is a major achievement in new French cinema.

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