Claire Denis, who turned memories of her childhood in French West Africa into the dreamy 1988 drama Chocolat, returns to the mysteries of cultural dislocation in Beau Travail, her achingly beautiful meditation on work, honor, pleasure, and betrayal among a company of men. Set in a French Foreign Legion outpost in Africa and based on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, the mostly wordless drama tells of a tautly disciplined officer (Denis Lavant) locked in an impenetrable and intimate power struggle with a charismatic new recruit (Gregoire Colin, so dangerously appealing in The Dreamlife of Angels).
Denis builds the sinister struggle, with its homoerotic undertones. But mostly she marvels, with joy and wonder, at the beauty of men — white and black, European and African — engaged as a unit in activities as rote as gun drills, as ecstatic as romping in the ocean; her visual style is hypnotic, rapturous, and she makes barren landscapes look gorgeous, hard men look vulnerable. A