Perhaps better than any other current French filmmaker, Claire Denis has been able to reconcile the lyricism of French cinema with the impulse to capture the often harsh face of contemporary France. Watching her "I Can't Sleep" or "Ninette et Boni" was like seeing an updated version of the portraits of street life and working-class life from French films of the '30s, only minus the romantic fatalism.
Denis' movies reveal communities that exist like little villages within the pockets of bigger cities, except that in these villages not everyone speaks the same language. You could argue that one of the reasons Denis has been so good on the experience of immigrants, particularly black and Arab immigrants, is that, having spent her childhood in Africa as the daughter of a civil servant (she was born in Paris), she herself grew up as an outsider. Denis understands that outsiders make waves just by their presence. Part of the unspoken atmosphere of her films has been France's high unemployment rate and the resulting anti-immigrant policies of Jean-Marie Le Pen and the far right.
Her remarkable new film, "Beau Travail" ("Good Work"), is about the waves made by a newcomer in a society of outsiders who have created their own world. This loose adaptation of Herman Melville's "Billy Budd" is set among the French Foreign Legion in the East African outpost of Djibouti, a place as removed and self-contained as the ship in Melville's story, the Bellipotent.
Denis has never shied away from tackling characters of a different race or sex. But the closed-off world of the legionnaires is a constant reminder that, as both civilians and women, she and her cinematographer, Agnhs Godard, are outsiders. So they've chosen to regard the legionnaires from a mesmerized distance. Denis is reluctant to impose interpretations of motives or psychology, and the result can seem opaque, even insistently undramatic. But the formalism of the film's surface disguises what's actually an exploratory approach.
Denis and Godard have placed their faith in the ability of observation to reveal. For long stretches, "Beau Travail" is nearly silent as the camera just watches the men going through their daily routines. That silence seems at first a perverse way of adapting the thicket of words that is "Billy Budd." Novelists and literary critics often complain that movies of great books reduce them to plot, leaving out the layers of meanings. But the best literary adaptations often find those meanings by adhering to the plot, or by capturing the essence of characters in the look of the actors who portray them.
When we see Finlay Currie as escaped convict Magwich, bolting the meal the young Pip has smuggled to him, in David Lean's film of "Great Expectations," it's likely that Charles Dickens' description of the scene ("more like a man who was putting it away somewhere in a violent manner, than a man who was eating it") reverberates in our heads. Staff sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant) in "Beau Travail" does not take the place of Claggart, the master-at-arms in Melville's story, nor does new recruit Sentain (Gregoire Colin) replace the image of angelic young sailor Billy Budd. (The Captain Vere figure, played by Michel Subor, does, however, suggest much of that character's weird ambiguity of power.) But Denis' film links up with Melville in unexpected ways.
Incredibly, Denis has attempted to film the story not by sticking to the narrative but by attempting, via images, to be as ruminative as possible. As I read "Billy Budd" (and in honesty I have to say that I find Melville perhaps the most difficult writer I've ever encountered), it's less a story than an argument about the mysterious nature of goodness. Beneath the surface simplicity of the confrontation between the good represented by Billy and the evil represented by his infatuated tormentor, Claggart, Melville struggles to encapsulate something that resists explanation. I kept getting tangled in Melville's tortured and deliberate syntax, his venturing down bypaths that hold "an enticement not readily to be withstood." He works toward summations and then, as if fearing that he has reduced what he meant to say by leaving out some crucial shading, hesitates, and sets off down another bypath. He is so scrupulous about not reducing his story, and so preoccupied with anything that might, that at times it's as if he leaves his story behind altogether.
There are obvious pitfalls for a filmmaker who tries to be true to a writer's thought processes rather than his narrative. What we accept on the page as symbolic or fabular can seem vague when given the concreteness movies confer on everything. In "Beau Travail" Galoup tells us that the men have fallen under Sentain's spell, though we don't see it happening. Denis means us to accept it just as Melville does, and the film can be as maddening to watch as "Billy Budd" is to read. The deliberate, hypnotic pace, Denis' attempt to capture both the disciplined rhythms of the Foreign Legion's routine and the slightly drugged pace of life under the African sun, is at times merely monotonous.
In thinking about it afterward, "Beau Travail" seems more successful conceptually than dramatically. Sentain sets off a poisonous resentment within Galoup, but there's no sense that Galoup is in love with him as Claggart is in love with Billy. It's not dramatically satisfying that Denis and Godard remain so insistently on the surface of these men and their lives. It deprives us of the understanding we want to have of movie characters. But it suits the essence of the Foreign Legion, a place where men escaping some personal or legal entanglement can, literally, leave their life behind and take on a new identity. (Apparently, Legionnaires are given the option of selecting a new identity every five years.)
This is Denis' equivalent of what Melville meant by the "circumstances which in the dearth of exact knowledge as to ... true antecedents opened to the invidious a vague field for unfavorable surmise." At one point, Galoup attempts to stop a legionnaire from aiding a fellow African who is being punished by telling him, "You're not African anymore. You're a legionnaire now." And it's perhaps an inside joke that Subor's commander has been given the same name, Bruno Forestier, as the character Subor played in Jean-Luc Godard's 1960 "Le Petit Soldat." This is a place where men can be anyone they choose, and there's no telling how many tough guys would choose an identity from the movies that have fed their fantasies.
I can offer those intellectual justifications knowing that they are different from the emotional impulses that draw me to movies. And I can lay out everything that Denis and her co-screenwriter, Jean-Pol Fargeau, have jettisoned from Melville. And still it doesn't diminish the hold this movie has had on me since I saw it in the New York Film Festival last fall. The images, the heat-blasted rhythms and particularly Lavant's performance as Galoup worked their way into my head and have yet to leave. I can tote up the movie's deficiencies, describe all the work it makes you do just to make sense of its way of seeing and still not feel out of its grip.
Part of that work may have to do with getting past the movie fantasies that have formed the image most of us have of the French Foreign Legion. "Beau Travail" doesn't offer the romance epitomized by the stunningly beautiful young Gary Cooper in "Morocco." These are men who yield to the rigid discipline and unvarying routine of the Legion because there is nowhere else for them to go, because they are frightened of what they might wreak if they had to live in the world. Denis cuts between that routine and Galoup's life after he has been drummed out of the Legion. As a civilian in Marseille, he says he has "plenty of time to kill," and we watch Galoup as he tries to impose discipline on a life in which he feels no purpose. There's an instilled, mechanistic precision in the way he carefully stubs out a cigarette or takes in his wash or makes his bed. Even ironing his sharpest clothes for a night on the town has the trappings of ritual. But it's ritual divorced from the camaraderie that gave it meaning.
If "Beau Travail" were made from the viewpoint of the characters
rather than from Denis' outsider's stance, the movie might be awash in the homoeroticism that pervades Melville's story. But it's Denis and Godard who are looking at the strapping young men stripped to the waist in the desert sun. Godard (whose past work includes several of Denis' films as well as Agnes Varda's "Jacquot" and Erick Zonca's "The Dreamlife of Angels" and who must be counted as one of the greatest cinematographers now working) focuses on the straining flesh of the men, the patterns of movement as they scramble under barbed wire during training or tend to their uniforms to maintain the Legion's standard of official elegance. In one scene, they stand under the beating sun with their arms raised to the sky, and we understand that we're watching a variation on the priesthood. The landscapes of Djibouti, encompassing both sand and sea, are both austere and ravishing (and rendered with startling clarity), a test of the ability of these military penitents to find discipline in a void.
Stranded back in civilization, the void is breathing down Galoup's neck. I couldn't stand Lavant in Leos Carax's "Bad Blood" and "The Lovers on the Bridge." As a romantic lead in those films he was a disaster. His simian mug shut out the camera, as did his "watch me, I'm falling apart" overacting. Now, nearly 10 years later, Levant has grown into his battered face. The pitted flesh and narrowed eyes and caved-in cheekbones have something of the roughness that attracts us to the male leads of Westerns and noirs. He looks like someone who has survived the beating life has handed out to him and so he takes on a certain authority that we respect.
Galoup is capable of tenderness, as when he gently places a bottle of perfume in the hand of his sleeping African girlfriend. But he's also untrustworthy. Melville described Claggart as possessing a "peculiar ferreting genius" and Galoup always looks capable of some deviousness, holding in his murderous impulses. "Beau Travail" has much more to do with the alluring and repellent Galoup than with Colin's Sentain (as in his other performances, Colin is the tabula rasa of contemporary French movies), and he's not the deepest character to put at the center of a movie. Next to Claggart he may not seem much of a character at all.
But Levant's presence holds a stony fascination, as much for what he appears on the verge of unleashing as for what he holds in. And when Levant does let loose in a final scene that comes out of the blue, summing up the movie and blasting it to pieces at the same time, he's astonishing. Starting out by embodying the discipline and bearing of the Legion, he proceeds to shred it to pieces before our eyes, blurring the line between freedom and bondage, between release and torment. It left me stunned, not believing what I'd just seen.
Denis' movies have left me both mystified and fascinated. Even after the ones I've loved, like "I Can't Sleep," I'm damned if I can say what they mean. "Beau Travail" is the most extreme example of her talent, baffling and exhilarating. I don't know when I've seen a movie that is in so many ways foreign to what draws me to movies and still felt under a spell. Let's just say that in "Beau Travail," and especially in Levant's performance, the director finds a way to perch the rigid fetishism of order right on the edge of chaos and, in the final moments, to dance suspended over the abyss. Denis leaves out huge swatches of narrative and motivation, but she has the rhythm of a life down cold.