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NewCityNet Grace Notes

By Ray Pride

MAY 29, 2000:  Man's fate as elliptical dance musical: Claire Denis' plaintive "Beau Travail" proves that movies don't need words.

"Beau Travail" (the title translates as "Good Work," which Denis supposedly despises) is based, sketchily, on the goings-on in Herman Melville's "Billy Budd." Under the blinding desert sun of remote Djibouti, Sergeant Galoup (the brooding, mug-faced, relentlessly acrobatic Denis Lavant, from "Lovers on the Bridge") runs his isolated community of French Foreign Legionaries with crisp command. A new recruit, Sentain (cat-eyed Gregoire Colin) upsets Galoup's equipoise. He envies the attentions Sentain receives from his commander, Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor, bearing the same name as in Godard's 1963 "Le Petit Soldat"). Whatever conflict you might imagine, whether violent or homoerotic, is doused instead in mood and inchoate myth.

We are given motion, gestures, an enactment of anachronistic masculine ritual. The men work, strain, sweat; we are immersed in the routines of these sinewy Sisyphuses as they are weighted with inexorable fate. The procession of tactile imagery is mesmerizing. Filmgoers who know Denis' work at all know her child's-eye African adventure, 1988's "Chocolat." But with her 1993 "I Can't Sleep," Denis made Paris her own, examining a neighborhood through collisions, disjuncture, overlaps. The narrative was elusive, a solution just beyond grasp, elusive, forever mystifying. But it was never infuriating, merely redolent of how cities work, how neighborhoods function as small towns with their own secret signs and languages. With 1996's "Nenette et Boni," Denis went a step farther, dispensing with most plot. Denis was content to examine the ripple of a young man's bare shoulders (Colin Gregoire, cast again in "Beau Travail") as he fantasizes about an employer's wife, to move without hesitation into his sex dreams as if they were real. She is happy to watch rippling water, light through a window.

Denis' work is lyrical, enthralling. A colleague called "Beau Travail" beautiful but difficult. I shrugged. To me, it's like watching clouds pass, both compelling and effortless. Denis' eye, abetted by the brilliant Agnes Godard ("The Dreamlife of Angels" as well as most of Denis' work), is relentless and exacting. Their touch is as delicate and engaged as the fingertips of the blind bringing together the features of a face. Is this drama? Perhaps not. But it is cinema.

And in her near-silent limning of these shreds of story, Denis is also attentive to sound. The best filmmakers hear the world as well as see it. There is much drawn from Benjamin Britten's "Billy Budd," his opera of the Melville novel, but Denis understands the power of francophone disco. The film opens with a dance scene at a disco, flashing lights and mirrored reflections darting off the dark faces of several African girls -- kissing at the camera in rhythm to the song's lyrics, their gleeful smooches matching a sudden burst of silence. It's like the heart-flutter of Galoup watching the faces, smoldering, admiring their abandon, keeping at a distance. There is also a striking tracking shot accompanying the men through the desert to Neil Young and Crazy Horse's "Safeway Cart" and most bracingly, Corona's "Rhythm of the Night." (Who would have thought that such tragic feelings could be wrought from a disco dance?)

Not every movie could, or should, be like this, stubborn, obstinate, melancholy, laconic, cryptic. Some resist her work, the haze of portent. I cannot. Some words should be urgently whispered, saved for raptures, spoken only at the risk of casting doubts on one's judgment or sanity. "Beau Travail" is exquisite, mysterious and -- at the instant its astonishingly cathartic, heartbreaking climactic scene cuts to black -- perfection. A man's life in all its torment and reserve, its blasted potential and its grand thirst for physical release and spiritual transcendence: it is there in the most unlikely guise which I cannot give away. It is the rhythm of a heartbeat. I whisper: Masterpiece. Magical. Beautiful work.

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