NYFF '99: The Dangers of Intuition, the Poetry of Claire Denis
by Andrea Meyer
When Claire Denis remakes a classic, you know it will be unlike any version you've seen before. Best known for such enigmatic, provocative films as "Chocolat" and "I Can't Sleep," the feisty French director tends to eschew formal narrative structure in favor of a more sensual, intuitive approach. The result is a kind of visual poetry that tells evocative stories with a jarring yet humanist touch. "I know it's dangerous," she said at a press conference on Friday, when asked why her latest film "Beau Travail" had such a flimsy narrative, "it's frightening, but that's the way I like to tell a story."
While "Beau Travail" is inspired by "Billy Budd," Herman Melville's classic tale of good and evil, Denis' version uses the story only as a launch pad to explore the subtle nuances of male relationships and the undercurrents both dark and light that drive them. "The narrative in that project had no interest for me," she declared, and added that her directorial choices were calculated to create a film that was "more like a poem."
Denis situates her story in a French Foreign Legion outpost in the African republic of Djibouti, the modern equivalent of Melville's ship in the middle of the wartime sea. Denis creates a male world that is at once incredibly beautiful and ripe for conflict. Cut off from the world, the legionnaires become close, often carrying one another around on their shoulders, in the kind of healthy male relationships rarely portrayed. They touch each other without shame. Overseeing this activity is Galoup (Denis Lavant), the scowling, pockmarked drill sergeant and Denis' equivalent of Melville's Claggart, whose jealousy fuels his irrational suspicions about the handsome and popular new recruit, Sentain (Denis regular Gregoire Colin).
Denis says that her main interest in tackling "Billy Budd" was to explore the character of Claggart, the sadistic master of arms whose maliciousness leads to Billy Budd's death. However, rather than exploring broad questions of good and evil, Denis focuses on the jealousy that drives Galoup to cruel behavior. "I was never interested in Billy Budd," she says. "Claggart is the most interesting, because he's the one who feels his envy, in the sense that he's not the perfect one. But he's doing his duty, and he wants respect for that."
Denis lets Galoup contemplate his mistakes and work towards freedom from the anger and hate that once consumed him. In this generous interpretation, the man normally viewed as only sadistic and unjust is allowed to suggest that, "maybe freedom begins with remorse," a reflection that Melville's villain was not allowed.
The film's focus is not on words or even actions, but rather on the rituals and movements that define these men. A breathtaking series of images (the legionnaires doing graceful somersaults under water, a beach caked hard with crystallized salt, men in khaki digging in khaki colored hills, with a breathtaking slice of ocean gazing at them from behind) becomes a lazy dance; Their impact is more aesthetic than emotional, more visceral than intellectual.
Denis worked hard to create the idyllic male world that Galoup's hatred destroys. The actors worked seven to eight hours a day with a choreographer Bernardo Montet, in order to perfect the drills they perform, which are as beautiful to watch as they are emblematic of this isolated male universe. "I knew I wanted to film the exercises in the most spiritual way I could find," explains Denis. "It was like a dance to me. I had the impression that in the texts of Melville, in the Marines, every gesture had to be coordinated. If someone makes a mistake, it's a catastrophe. I felt that these young men had to be linked not just in terms of their external movement but internally."
Denis does not seem as concerned with justice as Melville (or Peter Ustinov, who directed the 1962 film version) was. The director seems more concerned with freedom and its expression -- freedom from remorse, freedom from responsibility, freedom from the chains imposed by the military, the foreign legion, or even one's internal battles. When questioned about the final images of the film -- a frenzied disco dance performed by Galoup that amounts to the craziest paean to freedom I can remember, Denis struggled with words. After a futile attempt to explain, she said, true to her intuitive style, "It's something that doesn't need explanation. It's something I felt."
[Andrea Meyer is a NY-based freelance writer who's written for the New York Post, Time Out New York, The Independent Film & Video Monthly, among other publications.]