Grégoire Colin (left) in Beau Travail.
Courtesy Janus Films

To watch Claire Denis’ Beau Travail for the first time is to be handed a key, without knowing exactly what it opens or how to use it. The story is based, loosely, on Herman Melville’s unfinished and posthumously published novel Billy Budd. Galoup, an officer in the French Foreign Legion, stationed in Djibouti—he’s played by the astonishing actor Denis Lavant, like a man with a willful snake coiled inside him—takes an instant dislike to one of the new men under his command, Sentain (Grégoire Colin), who’s tall, beautiful, well liked and acts with spontaneous bravery when it’s called for. Galoup longs to be respected and loved by his men, as he loves his own commander, Forestier (Michel Subor), but Sentain is his stumbling block, drawing out all his worst impulses. Denis and her frequent cinematographer Agnès Godard film these men—who are often but not always shirtless—as part of the landscape, at one with the sand and sea and sun, though they also bring that setting to life. They’re always walking, running, stretching—their exercise routines become a dance, an ode to the spirit of their own youthful beauty, and their offhanded masculinity. There are times when you may not be sure what Denis is showing us, or why. But by the end—one of the greatest endings in all of film, with Lavant as its pinwheel center—you know you’ve seen something unlike anything else, and you’ve had the key all along.

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