A beautifully foreign affair

Beau Travail, 15, <i>Claire Denis</i>, | In Too Deep, 18, <i>Michael Rymer</i> | Essex Boys, 18, <i>Terry Winsor</i> | Breakfast of Champions, 15, <i>Alan Rudolph</i> | Thomas and the Magic Railroad, U, <i>Britt Allcroft</i> | 24 Hours in London (18) <i>Alexander Finbow</i>
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The Independent Culture

Bare-chested soldiers stand motionless in the desert, statues casting alien shadows across the sand; sunlight plays on water, a pen crawls across paper, the men - now on a boat at sea - stare into space. Trying to recall Beau Travail is akin to piecing together a fresh dream, clinging to the fragments before they disappear, in the hope that collective meaning will hold them together. The whole film is presented as a series of such tableaux, unforced yet hypnotically beautiful, nestling under the skin. In any week - not least one of mostly excruciating movies - this would be something special.

Bare-chested soldiers stand motionless in the desert, statues casting alien shadows across the sand; sunlight plays on water, a pen crawls across paper, the men - now on a boat at sea - stare into space. Trying to recall Beau Travail is akin to piecing together a fresh dream, clinging to the fragments before they disappear, in the hope that collective meaning will hold them together. The whole film is presented as a series of such tableaux, unforced yet hypnotically beautiful, nestling under the skin. In any week - not least one of mostly excruciating movies - this would be something special.

Directed by the gifted Frenchwoman Claire Denis (and the first of her films to be screened in this country since her debut, Chocolat, a decade ago), this is a casual rendering of Melville's meditation on good and evil, Billy Budd, which transposes the action from the 18th century to the present day, from the British Navy to a company of French Foreign Legionnaires based on the Gulf of Djibouti in East Africa. Here, the men spend their time training, or repairing roads. It's a regimented, hermetic lifestyle, presided over by a tough, pug-faced loner, sergeant-major Galoup (the astonishingly good Denis Lavant). So devoted is Galoup to his self-absorbed commander, Bruno (Michel Subor), that when a handsome new recruit attracts Bruno's possibly amorous attentions, Galoup is consumed by jealousy and "a sort of rancour", and conspires to be rid of him.

These events are sifted through the memories of the sergeant, now in Marseilles, having been drummed out of the Legion in disgrace. He is ill at ease in the city, "unfit for civil life", and his displacement points to the director's chief interests: in identity, belonging, the notion that the Legionnaires are more at home in the desert, in their own company, with their code of honour and rituals, than they have been or could be anywhere else. It's a film less about morality, than unadulterated male bonding.

Denis' style is simplicity itself, her camera usually static, voyeuristic, capturing the harmony of these buff, cropped men as they catapult over assault courses, perform exercise routines with the verve and grace of modern dance, swim together underwater, even give a dazzling display of synchronised steam ironing. On an eclectic soundtrack, strains of Benjamin Britten's own Billy Budd lend a sombre majesty to the scenes amid the Red Sea landscape.

Homo-eroticism saturates Beau Travail, but without any of the self-consciousness, say, of Derek Jarman or Pasolini, for whom admiring the male form was a vocation. With, perhaps, a less enraptured eye, Denis has created one of the most potent celebrations on film of masculinity - its beauty and potential for comradeship.

The woefully over-rated Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was indicative of a wholly different presentation of men, as gobby designer lads. It also spawned a glut of British gangster films, which - whether their felons be comic, or authentically 'ard - have all felt like cinematic GBH. Essex Boys, a nasty, bitter-tasting little number, at least bucks the trend by making no attempt to suggest that low-life are stylish.

But then, how could it? Set amid the mudflats and out-of-town shopping centres, mock Tudor mansions and Barratt homes, medallions and estuary vowels of Britain's most maligned county, Essex Boys carries a certain sociological curiosity value (so this is where they live) and piquantly suggests that the East End hoodlums of old have reconvened in a fittingly charmless land.

Sean Bean is the psycho fresh out of nick, who wants a slice of the drugs business which has set up his cronies in conspicuous grandeur; Alex Kingston (on home leave from ER) the Lady Macbeth of molls, whose aspirations soon outlive the monolithic men around her. Indeed, the film could usefully be sub-titled, "Revenge of the Essex Girls". But then, having had to endure a grim rape, numerous shot-gun murders, an acid attack, and more chintz than an episode of Changing Rooms, what's in it for us?

It's left to Tom Wilkinson, slumming it as a gentrified gangster, to provide a moment of (unintentional) mirth. "They're fiercely pretty, but hard as nails," he waxes, of the local women. "What I would not give to have my youth again - in Essex." The second gangster folly of the week, 24 Hours in London, never manages anything as delicious. In fact, its only claim to fame might be as the nadir of the genre. A crudely obvious rip-off of Lock, Stock..., this comes with low-rent cast, gory and gratuitous violence, and the kind of "hip" which involves wearing shades in the gloom.

Before one can note that gangster movies are best left to the Americans (generally true), along comes In Too Deep. Of the sub-genre marked "undercover cop goes AWOL", this features Omar Epps as the Cincinnati hothead with the catchphrase "no-one can get in as deep as me", who then finds that hanging out with a crack-dealing kingpin (a rum performance by LL Cool J) has deep-fried his brain. The plot-by-numbers is risible, the emotions fraudulent; like Essex Boys, this is inspired by a true story, but has contrived something quite preposterous.

Director Alan Rudolph's adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's Seventies satire Breakfast of Champions is a terrible disappointment. Rudolph has replaced Vonnegut's target, Vietnam, with the rabid consumer culture eating away at his country, positing Bruce Willis as the bigshot car salesman in control of Midland City, USA, but slowly losing his mind. The cast, which includes Albert Finney and a hilarious Nick Nolte as a closet transvestite, aren't to blame, but Rudolph is: despite striking just the right tone in such oddball fantasies as Trouble in Mind and Equinox, he appears here to have lost his own marbles, pushing for a frantic kookiness rather than allowing the satire, which is there in his own script, to breathe.

Thomas and the Magic Railroad combines live action (and the unlikely presence of former Easy Rider Peter Fonda) with the low-tech animation of the TV series. It's no Chicken Run.

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