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Melville Unbound

Beau Travail, the new film by the French director Claire Denis (Chocolat, I Can’t Sleep), is a hypnotic meditation on military men in isolation. Only a director with a poet’s feel for imagery could have pulled it off; fortunately, Claire Denis, ably abetted by her cinematographer, Agnès Godard, is that director. The film ends with a dazzling dance sequence and could be seen as an extended cinematic ballet. It is about a world as stark and taciturn as our own is overstuffed and chatty. It will haunt you, even if you can’t figure out why.

The movie is very, very slow. The plot, such as it is, is taken from Herman Melville’s 1891 novella, Billy Budd, in which the eponymous hero, the “handsome sailor” who inspires love in all around him, is persecuted by John Claggart, a sinister master-at-arms in whom the same love is mixed with poisonous envy. In Denis’ version, Claggart is re-imagined as Galoup (Denis Lavant), a chief sergeant in a unit of the French Foreign Legion stationed in Djibouti, the former French territory on the east coast of Africa. “One day,” as Galoup informs us in his laconic narration, “a plane from France dropped off some guys.” One of those guys is a new recruit called Sentain (Grègoire Colin), a seemingly model soldier for whom Galoup feels an immediate dislike. In Galoup’s almost biblical view, the Legion is a family, his commanding officer a kind of god, and Sentain is an interloper, a serpent in the garden whose evil intentions only he can see. In due course, he succumbs to a hatred for Sentain so obsessive that it causes him to be dismissed from the Legion and returned to France in disgrace. Now living in Marseille, Galoup looks back on his legionnaire days with all the ardor and regret of a fallen angel recalling a lost paradise. We see him trimming branches from the tree outside his house, buying a newspaper, standing alone at a bar, and we feel his solitude in every frame. Lovingly, he fingers a silver bracelet on which his commanding officer’s name, Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor), has been engraved, and concludes, “I screwed up from a certain point of view.”

Beau Travail is really about a double exile: the exile of French legionnaires stationed in Djibouti, and the much more painful sense of exile that afflicts Galoup when he returns home. Most of the film, however, takes place in Djibouti, where the Red Sea flows into the Gulf of Aden and the sun-blasted landscape takes on an austere magnificence. The legionnaires come from all over the world, but they have one thing in common: They have joined the Legion because they have nowhere else to go. They are society’s losers, and the Legion has turned them into lean, muscular killing machines. Since there is no “enemy” to kill, their time is taken up by training exercises, some bona fide legionnaire exercises, others invented by Denis and her actors. One sequence shows the men, stripped to the waist, participating in what looks like the world’s most bizarre yoga class, but we also see men mock-fighting underwater, scaling walls, performing endless push-ups, digging up roads, scouting abandoned buildings, jumping over hurdles or slithering underneath them like snakes. Oddly, it’s the real legionnaire exercises that seem the most improbable. In one, the bare-chested soldiers repeatedly clasp each other in a violent embrace; in another, two men circle each other slowly like flamenco dancers warring over a woman.

Only there is no woman. On paper, the film may sound like an endless Bruce Weber photo shoot, but though the homoeroticism is there, and has a major role in Melville’s story, Denis chooses to underplay it. There are plenty of rippling male torsos on display, but they are not the fetishized bodies concocted in gyms. The men look lean and hungry rather than pumped up. Denis has said that she set out to make a film about “foreignness,” and the rigidly masculine culture of the French Foreign Legion is about as far removed from the experience of most female directors as is possible to imagine. On the other hand, it’s not exactly familiar territory to the average desk-bound male either. Indeed, one of the things that make Beau Travail so arresting is that very quality of alienation. Though the film is set in the present, it might as well be taking place on the moon for all it has to do with the lives of its viewers.

This sense of foreignness also dictates Denis’ overall directorial strategy, which is to observe the behavior of her protagonists without interpreting it. There is one key exception to this strategy, however, and it brings about what some might see as a serious, even crippling, dramatic flaw. Although Galoup informs us repeatedly that he hates Sentain and wants to destroy him, we observe nothing in Sentain’s behavior to suggest why this might be the case. Unlike Billy Budd, there is nothing particularly angelic or charismatic about Sentain. To the viewer, he simply looks like a model soldier, distinguishable from his fellow soldiers largely because he gets to speak a few lines. Thus the heart of the story — Galoup’s malignant hatred for Sentain — remains an existential blank, as if Melville had been rewritten by Camus.

This bothered me at first, but I’m no longer sure that it matters. The film is about Galoup, not Sentain, and as portrayed by Lavant (The Lovers on the Bridge), Galoup is a haunting but puzzling creation. He dominates Beau Travail from beginning to end, and the film will grip you only to the extent that he does. His actions are despicable, yet I found it impossible to despise him. “Unfit for life. Unfit for civil life” is how he describes himself, and it’s obvious that the ritualistic life of the Legion has enabled him to cover the void at the heart of his own. His commanding officer, with whom he plays chess and billiards, is an enigma, while his relationship to the soldiers beneath him remains purely formal.

But it’s precisely that military formality — the sense of a life being ordered rather than analyzed or explored — that makes this film so moving. Galoup doesn’t really have a life outside the Legion, yet the film, paradoxically, is never more alive than when we see him alone, living his nonlife in his Spartan room, or thinking with almost absurd solicitude about his beloved commanding officer, who doesn’t really have a life either. Though he has an African girlfriend in a nearby town (in one scene, we watch him tenderly place a gift in her hand while she sleeps), Galoup is essentially a man without friends. Combing his hair in the mirror, or dressed like a sinister lounge lizard for a night on the town, he’s solitude made flesh. One of the last shots we see of him is a close-up of a vein pulsing in his arm — that’s all his life has come down to, the beat of his blood — and then Denis gives him one final, incredible scene in which to let loose. I say “incredible” not only because it’s an amazing moment, but because it contradicts everything we’ve learned about Galoup while, somehow, it sums him up forever. Leaving the theater, you feel not only as if you’ve been in a foreign country, but as if you’d gone there inside someone else’s skin.

BEAU TRAVAIL | Co-written and directed by CLAIRE DENIS Produced by La Septe Arte and Pathé Television and Pierre Chevalier Released by New Yorker Films | At the Nuart, June 2–8