Claire Denis' "Beau Travail," which plays the New York Film Festival Tuesday and Wednesday, has yet to find a U.S. distributor and I can only hope that a wider American audience will soon get a chance to see this remarkable and maddening picture. A modern day version of "Billy Budd" set among the French Foreign Legion in the African outpost of Djibouti, "Beau Travail" ("Good Work") changes Herman Melville's focus to the Master-at-arms (Denis Lavant) who develops an instinctive hatred for a new recruit (Gregoire Colin). Exchanging sand for sea seems the least of Claire Denis' substitutions. She's chosen to retell Melville's tale by breaking up the Legionnaires' training and daily routine into a series of images that emphasize both the ritualistic nature of the Legion and how alien the culture feels to her -- both as a woman and as a civilian.
Denis expects us to find our way into this world along with her. For long stretches we're looking at the world broken into patterns, namely the patterns of discipline the men bring to everything from scuffling along under barbed wire to making their beds to stoically suffering brutal punishment under the blazing sun. We're conscious of the vastness of space and of the elements, the feel of heat or the ocean on skin, the pull of muscles under flesh. The effect is hypnotic, and -- sometimes -- boring. It's possible, I think, to pass the 90 minutes of the movie alternately tuned out and riveted. "Beau Travail" fails in nearly all the conventional ways. There's no telling why Lavant's character has such hatred for Colin's. So with Lavant's scarred, beaten mug scowling at Colin's hard smooth face the picture sometimes feels like it should be called "The Blocked and the Blank." But the movie has stayed with me, nagged at me, in a way that few recent ones have, and I've found myself going over and over it in my head.
Part of the reason for Denis' approach may be the lack of cooperation she received from both the French government and the Foreign Legion. At a Film Festival press conference last week Denis explained that Djibouti, which the Legion uses as a training spot, did provide some equipment but that, fearing censorship, she resisted writing a finished script. She said one of the clichis she wanted to avoid was the homoerotic one. The eroticism in "Beau Travail" comes from the way Denis and her cinematographer Agnes Godard (whose work here places her among the ranks of the greatest cinematographers now working) look at their camera subjects: Two Legionnaires circling each other underwater with knives in a training exercise might be some unidentifiable marine-human hybrid.
Above all, "Beau Travail" is a reminder of how movies can surprise you. After watching the way Denis Lavant's simian face shut out the camera in Leos Carax's "Bad Blood" and "The Lovers on the Bridge" I felt nothing could ever make me want to see him again. The 10 years between those movies and this one have filled him out a little, made his battered face seem more recognizably human. I still don't know whether he's an actor, but the movie's stunning final scene -- both a bolt from the blue and a finish that makes perfect match -- is some kind of tour de force, and Lavant owns it. We see a disco dance floor as Corona's furious "The Rhythm of the Night" pounds (and I do mean pounds) on the soundtrack. Feeling his way into the music, Lavant breaks out in movement that is as abandoned as it is cornered. It's the dance of a man who feels freedom as a tighter cage than servitude, who looks as if he's trying to escape the very fact of his existence. So when the lights come on and you're released back into the world, it's no release at all, but a guarantee that its successes and failures -- and above all its mysteries -- will continue to haunt you.