Claire Denis' ( I Can't Sleep, Chocolat, Trouble Every Day) tale of envy and covetousness was loosely adapted/inspired by Herman Melville's unfinished novella, Billy Budd. And, much like Melville's incomplete manuscript, the machinations behind the Denis tale are murky. Aside from the basic plot of Billy Budd (the persecution and frame-up of a handsome sailor named Billy by a cruel superior named Claggart), the only thing that I can recall learning about it was that scholars have always had a difficult time deciphering Melville's notes and revisions of the incomplete text, therefore making it a difficult to flesh out the story and perhaps even Mellvile's ultimate intentions. Denis is a film maker I have always enjoyed, yet, she takes a similarly hard to decipher pose in telling her tale, relying on only some voice over of Galoup's thoughts and, mainly, long sequences beholding the Legionaries physical training regimen.
Taking the Claggart and Billy roles are Officer Galoup and Gilles Sentain. In the place of some exposition dialogue to tell us how the men contrast each other, Denis instead casts two leads who are nearly physical opposites. Denis Lavant (Lovers on the Bridge), as Galoup, has a face like a refugee road map, a slight yet muscular frame, and, like Klaus Kinski, is capable of hard piercing looks. In contrast, Gregoire Colin (Dreamlife of Angels), as Sentain, is ungodly handsome, taller, perfectly proportioned, and as elegantly smooth and unwieldy as a still pool of water. Denis largely jumbled narrative is based on stripped-down suggestion and vivid landscapes to convey the mood. Galoup recalls the events for us, so wherein the truth lies is anyone's guess since we are being told the story though his eyes. This alleviates some of the tension, makes it anticlimactic, since from the outset we know that he was expelled from his beloved Legion because of his actions. Who Sentian is and why Galoup hates him is as much a mystery to Galoup as it is to the viewer. Recalling meeting the new recruit, Galoup puts it simply, "I felt something vague and menacing take hold of me."
Escewing typical narrative does create, for me, some obtuseness. While Denis does turn a memorizing eye on the rigid procedure and musculature of the Legionaries, as well as the arid landscape surrounding them, giving weight to the Galoup's jealous longing and the soldiers isolation, the lack of character definition and dialogue makes them a bit distant. But, the final scene, a spastic dance routine which I took to mean Galoup, sort of, transcending his disparity, letting loose of his rigid confines, may say more than words ever could.
The DVD: New Yorker Video
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Good sharpness and contrast, with richness in the pale sky, the flesh, and the dusty landscapes. There was some edge enhancement and slight fogging in a few scenes. Overall an acceptable transfer.
Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0, French with optional white English subtitles. Fairly simple mix, with good clarity in the dialogue. Captures the atmospheric score and the contrasting dance club music very well.
Extras: 12 Chapters--- Trailer for the film plus New Yorker info and trailer for their other releases, Fast Food, Fast Women, Taboo, The Price of Milk, and The Wind Will Carry Us
Conclusion: The abstract storytelling may be a little off-putting to many. Admittedly, I usually love such narratives, but I found it a little distancing. Still, it is a memorable film with some evocative images. The transfer is middle of the road, okay image and sound, few extras, and very pricey. Certainly a decent enough buy for fans of abstract foreign cinema and Denis particular style, but the cost may have most leaning towards a rental.