In the dim afternoon light on the patio of her room at the Sunset Marquis Hotel, Claire Denis is picking a spot to pose for a photo. “Look at the trees,” she says, gesturing at two leafless specimens standing against the stained stucco of the adjacent building. “They are dead!” She announces this with delight, as if the trees’ very lifelessness lends them their beauty. Satisfied with the jolie-laide spirit of it all, she arranges her small, lithe form against the door frame and drapes a hand just under her neck. She is dressed all in black; the hazy sun catches her close-cropped blond curls. The scene looks at once accidental and exquisitely contrived.

Denis’ gift for composition exemplifies her peculiar genius, the quality that has critics falling over themselves trying to explain in words what makes her filmmaking so enchanted. It is not just a way with images, exactly, but a way with space — how objects fit in it, how people move in it, how an uninterrupted expanse of it affects human emotion. But she is less convinced of her talent than the critics.

I had been warned by a publicist that Denis can be intimidating, and she is certainly reserved when she sits down, reluctant at first to elaborate on her answers. A few minutes into the conversation, however, I begin to suspect that what reads in Denis’ demeanor as contrariness is her rigorous, perfectionistic dissatisfaction with her own accomplishment. She’s not aloof, just humble.

Over espresso in the hotel café, the 49-year-old French director claims that she plowed into her first film, Chocolat (1988), with utter conviction. But her latest effort, Beau Travail, has her worried. “With Chocolat I had no doubt,” she says, “because it was fresh, because I had fought for so many years to do that movie.” She had worked as an assistant director with Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders, and she was eager to set out on her own. “When I did it, I did it out of innocence, you know? Innocence. But Beau Travail, I did it consciously. I wanted the movie to be exactly as it is. But now I have so much doubt. I had an idea that I wanted to translate Herman Melville’s quality of poetry. I wanted to put in the film the inner pain and frustration that is so clearly expressed by his poetry and novels. I thought that was the right way, you know?” She shakes her head as if to suggest she’s failed.

Beau Travail, a film of extraordinary beauty, takes place on the varied terrain of Djibouti in western Africa, where French Legionnaires are put through their paces to become warriors, even though there is no war to fight. Physically beautiful and functionally obsolete, they perform lyrical calisthenics in silent unison, spar with manufactured aggression, play a rhythmic catch and release with each other’s bodies in the punishing glare of a desert sun. “In the Legion, they learn to kill with their bare hands,” Denis explains. “They turn their bodies into weapons. We studied the actual exercises, but then we interpreted them as a dance that would look like training to make a man’s body into a weapon.” Working with choreographer Bernardo Montet, Denis uses the dance to create breathtaking elegance from the otherwise mundane, arranging against the desert salt flats and mountains not just the men’s bodies, but their shadows, which stretch across the parched ground like Matisse silhouettes. “I had a lot of fun making those scenes,” Denis says. “It is like a Busby Berkeley musical.”

Or, rather, a Herman Melville novella choreographed by Busby Berkeley, set alternately to the sounds of Benjamin Britten and an ’80s discotheque. Denis drew the rough outlines of Beau Travail from Melville’s Billy Budd, a triangle of loyalty and envy involving a captain, his commander and a sailor on the high seas. Originally, however, it was not Billy Budd but a short story, “Benito Cereno,” that ignited her passion for the 19th-century American author. “It struck me like thunder, that one,” she says. “It’s about a relationship between this American guy who watches another relationship, between a black slave and a Spanish captain. The black guy is condemned to death by the captain, hanged, like Billy Budd. And the Spanish guy never recovers his mind. Constant guilt, you know?

“‘Benito Cereno’ was the movie I wanted to make,” says Denis. “But it would have required a period ship, and it takes place in a deserted cove somewhere in Peru or Chile. And there is fog in the story — the two boats are covered, hiding in fog. But I thought, how much money would it take to have two sailing boats, and constant fog? Steven Spielberg can do that. But not Claire Denis.” When the French production company La Sept Arte commissioned a film from her for Pathé Television last year, she found Billy Budd more adaptable, both to her budget and to a different period. “I knew the experience I wanted it to be,” she says. “For a cash-poor director, it wasn’t costly. All it took was a good eye.”

Although male culture has long been a focus of Denis’ filmmaking, the director claims she did not set out to make a film about men with Beau Travail. “Adapting Melville leads me to speak about men, because Melville’s world is a man’s world,” she says. Moreover, she couldn’t afford to import actresses, and the local women she hired to dance provocatively in a nightclub incurred the hostility of the French army. “There was a threat put out,” says Denis, “that if we go to shoot in the nightclubs, those girls — who are prostitutes, really — would have trouble. The French soldiers hated the fact that I was going to shoot in the nightclubs, because that is their own private scene, for men, between men. It is where they go at night to find women to fuck.”

Given that Melville has been reinterpreted by critics as a homoerotic writer, the absence of women in the film seems appropriate — Denis has done justice to Melville’s sexual undercurrents. From the moment the master sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant) detects in his commander (Michel Subor) an excessive admiration for a young recruit, Denis’ camera builds a sense of frustrated sensuality, lingering luxuriously on the beauty of the male body — a beauty that, in this context, has neither a future nor a purpose. By any commercial standard, the film is leisurely paced, but the explosive, kinetic release at its conclusion is made all the more powerful for the time it takes to get there.

Does it take courage, I wonder, to make movies this way? “When you say this word, courage,” Denis objects, “it leads me to think that maybe there is something brave about making movies according to intuition. But there isn’t. The film has its own inner rhythm, and it fixes itself during shooting. Sometimes, while I’m editing, I feel, well, it’s too slow. But it’s too late — the movie is solid already. It’s a very strange feeling. And maybe my movies, without trying to capture that quality of time, would be jokes. Maybe they would be nothing. I don’t know.”

Denis won’t say much about her next film, a project with Vincent Gallo, except to say that it is going more easily than the last. “After Beau Travail I thought, even though I liked shooting the movie, it’s a very precious film for me, I would like not to have so many doubts. It’s like, I would like to be on the highway. It’s always frightening for me to be on the dirt road, because you don’t know if it’s the right road, or it’s completely wrong and maybe it’s a dead end. I’m always afraid to be at a dead end. So I’m longing now,” she says, “to be on the highway. Cruising.”

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