With Nenette et Boni (1996), writer-director Claire Denis seemed to have reached the peak of her primacy-of-the-visual style; story information was imparted at such a dribbling pace that a good third of the film had passed before it was even clear that the title duo were brother and sister. But with her follow-up feature, Beau Travail, Denis’ narrative mode is even more atonal, the only resolution to the sustained ambiguity being an enigmatic outburst at the end.
The film is a very loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd transplanted to Djibouti, a present-day French Foreign Legion outpost in East Africa. It’s narrated by a moody, closed-face legionnaire named Galoup (Denis Laurant), who is mulling over the events which have led to his being exiled from the legion. In his spartan civilian apartment, Galoup recalls happier days in the company of men, a life of rigorous ritual and necessary camaraderie, overseen by a firm father-figure of a commander named Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor — Godard fans may recognize both the character and the actor from Le Petit Soldat (1960)).
Galoup’s nemesis is the newly arrived legionnaire, Gilles Sentain (Grégorie Colin), whose innocence and natural altruism upsets the older man’s hard-ass worldview. Colin, with his unreadable Easter Island features, seems an odd choice for the Billy Budd character, but since Denis isn’t interested in anything as explicit as a good vs. evil allegory, it’s enough that he look implacable and moodily handsome.
Something crucial happens between Galoup and Sentain and Forestier, but it’s all very vague. Denis is more concerned here with texture and rhythm, with the visual poetry of muscular male bodies doing seemingly choreographed exercises in a nowhere of sand and rock, and the dream tempo of a life of bonding, fighting and interacting with the opaque locals.
With so much suggested and so little revealed, things can seem pretty deep. Having to fill in the elisions, supply motives for the characters and rearrange the events into a connecting thread, it’s hard for the overworked viewer not to feel like he’s being engaged by a demanding work of art. But the film is all surface, and as brilliant as that surface is, the viewer may also end up feeling somewhat undernourished.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.