Don't ask, do tell. Gays in the military, that's the story of the moment, from the kid on this summer's Real World bringing his hot-lover soldier boy to meet his New Orleans MTV roommies, to, in Cannes Competion, Nagisa Oshima's Taboo, the saga of a manly samurai clan in 1865 Japan turned savage with desire for a swishy, cock-teasing recruit. Homosexuality, neither named nor acted upon, leaps between the lines of Claire Denis' Beau Travail, an inspired retelling of Billy Budd, in which Herman Melville's join-the-navy triangle of sexual repression (Billy-Claggart-Vere) is relocated at a North African post of the French Foreign Legion. In this extraordinary film - for me, the best feature by far of this year 2000 - homoeroticism screams out in practically every studly, guy-packed frame.
The Billy Budd-like object of desire is a good-looking new recruit, Sentain (Gregoire Colin), who is eyed both with attraction and hostility by the Claggart-like Sergeant, Galoup (Denis Lavant), a grizzled veteran of the military.
To Galoup's horror, Sentain, whom he considers too thin and inappropriate for the foreign service, is well-liked by the other legionnaires. Far worse, Sentain is looked on with enormous favor by the Captain Vere-ish Legionnaire commander, Forestier (Michel Subor), who even flirts with him a bit as they converse one evening. That's much too much for Galoup, who becomes insanely jealous, feels shunted, and fumes because his brilliance as a Legionnaire goes unappreciated by this commander whom he worships.
In Iago-like evil outbursts, Galoup (a closet case, if there ever was one!) plots via voice-over to bring young Sentain down, to make the innocent boy suffer. Meanwhile, life goes on at the post: marching, exercising, going into town to check out the African women who sway about at the disco.
I once interviewed Denis, and she told me that, even as a child (she grew up in French colonialist Senegal), her chief curiosity was knowing what males were doing. Chocolat (1986), her first feature, was an autobiogaphical tale about a white girl's intense relationship with the proud African male who is a servant to her family. Since, Denis has made her obsession to penetrate male culture - far more anthropological than penis envy! - the subject of three brilliant features. What, Denis asks, are men up to when women aren't around?
Man No Run (1989) followed two young Africans in Paris as they toil in the virile underworld of cockfighting. No Fear, No Die (1990), also Paris-set, took her viewers into the head of an African-native serial killer. With Beau Travail, Denis tracks spends boiling desert days and cool, intimate nights again in the company of men. Something new for Denis: the tingling, ever-present eroticism. Most of the time her guys are stripped to the waist - muscular, sinewy, - and the ensemble whom Denis cast for her Legion are cheesecake-beautiful.
Lots of screen-time is without dialogue, as we are given wondrous scene after scene of the handsome lads doing their calisthenics, running and jumping and crawling and wrestling, in ritualized preparation for some unknown future battle where the Legion's mettle might be tested. Resemblances to Leni Riefenstahl's ouevre couldn't be clearer: to the Hitler Youth scrubbing each others' backs at the Nazi boot camp in Triumph of the Will, to the luscious, perfect bodies in leapfrog athletic motion in Olympia. Seventy years separate two women cineastes (additionally, Denis collaborates with a female cinematographer, Agnes Varda) filming young men at their most vigorous and jockstrap sexy, and at moments when many of their actions are ambiguously straight/gay.
Rather than criticize Riefenstahl's aesthetics (Susan Sontag has done that, and brilliantly), Denis deftly adapts them for her purposes: making male bodies pulsate, showing cinematically the keen sensual appeals of militarism. Why guys go for the army. Are her Leni-stepping Legionnaires to be regarded, because of the Triumph of the Will associations, as frightening neo-Nazis? I don't believe that's Denis's intention. In Beau Travail's post-colonialist world, they are a lost-patrol subculture, fortunately, as redundant and irrelevant as Green Berets. They are fascinating for Denis to observe because: here is a complicated, insular male world which is so spectacularly weird, so amazingly out of it! With their Kiplingesque bravado and intractable Charge of the Light Brigade mentality, these guys might as well be guarding the moon.
When I interviewed Harmony Korine recently, I asked him about his movie favorites. "Denis Lavant," he said immediately. Who? I'd seen Lavant act in several pictures (Lovers on the Bridge, etc.), but I'd never thought about him. My mistake: he's one of the great film presences in the world, this tiny, wired, pockmarked actor who stars as Galoup. When Beau Travail ends in a kind of netherworld disco limbo, Lavant's lithe, cat-like dancing to "Rhythm of the Night" is like suddenly coming across Jimmy Cagney tapping away in Yankee Doodle Dandy, or Gene Kelly hoofing in the water in Singin' in the Rain. Revelatory!