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Under the Skin: The Films of Claire Denis

Friday, April 1, 2011
7:00 p.m. Beau travail
Claire Denis (France, 1999)

(Good Work). A story of French Legionnaires isolated in a blisteringly beautiful African setting (Djibouti and surrounds), Beau travail evokes Camus’s The Stranger as much as it does Melville’s Billy Budd, on which it is abstractly based. This is the Legion of the 1990s, superfluous to anything but its almost spiritual rituals of loyalty and rigor. The rigor is played out in dancelike exercises and in simple activities like the pressing of a uniform into elegant creases. But loyalty, as in Melville, is a complex of suppressed eroticism and violence, as Sgt. Galoup (Denis Lavant) indulges a paranoid, irrational hatred for a beautiful young recruit, Sentain (Grégoire Colin), who he imagines will kill the commanding officer, Forester (Michel Subor). In this film Denis effectively hypnotizes us, transforming what is, after all, a detachment of unemployed boys who have fled France for a colonial netherworld—a dream long since awakened from—into a dance of beauty, passion, and sadness. Nice work, if you can get it.

—Judy Bloch

• Written by Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, inspired by the novella Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville. Photographed by Agnès Godard. With Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, Grégoire Colin, Richard Courcet. (90 mins, In French with English subtitles, Color, 35mm, permission Europe Images International)