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Benjamin Crotty’s Fort Buchanan

Benjamin Crotty, Fort Buchanan, 2015, 16 mm transferred to HD video, color, sound, 65 minutes. Roger (Andy Gillet) and Roxy (Iliana Zabeth).

SOAPY, SEXED-UP, AND ANARCHIC, Benjamin Crotty’s Fort Buchanan may be the only military-spouses comic melodrama as indebted to the Lifetime channel as it is to the oeuvre of Eric Rohmer. Despite these pronounced influences, though, Crotty’s riotous feature debut is stamped with a wholly distinct sensibility, one that’s simultaneously ludic, queer, mercurial, and concupiscent.

Like his movie, a fruitful (and fruity) amalgam of histrionic American TV and Gallic auteur cinema, Crotty is a binational hybrid: Born in Spokane, Washington, and educated in the US, the writer-director earned an advanced degree in film and video at Le Fresnoy, in northern France, and has been based in that country for the past decade or so. The redoubt of his film’s title is located in a forest in Lorraine (though no outpost of that name exists in France, there is a US Army garrison in Puerto Rico called Fort Buchanan). Spanning winter, spring, summer, and fall—a cycle that’s clearly a nod to Rohmer’s “Tales of the Four Seasons” (1990–98)—and shot on sumptuous 16 mm, Fort Buchanan contains an even more explicit salute to the Nouvelle Vague founder: The film’s central character, Roger, the nurse-trained husband of Djibouti-stationed Lt. Col. Frank Sherwood (David Baiot), with whom he has a teenage daughter, is played by Andy Gillet, the epicene star of The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007), Rohmer’s last movie.

First seen sporting stubble and a flannel shirt and expertly wielding an ax in the snow-covered camp, Gillet’s Roger is a decidedly butcher character than the pretty, ephebic, cross-dressing fifth-century shepherd he portrayed in Rohmer’s film. But both roles call for fragility and swoony romanticism: Roger pines for Frank, his spouse of eighteen years, and frets that his beloved may have lost all interest in him. Compounding Roger’s emotional duress is the increasing recalcitrance of daughter Roxy (Iliana Zabeth), an eighteen-year-old he’s essentially raising by himself: She settles disputes with her dad (well, one of them) by socking him in the face.

This punch, thrown within the first three of Fort Buchanan’s zippy sixty-five minutes, typifies the film’s humor, a mix of perfectly timed slapstick (a tumble down the stairs, toxic gas being released in the background of a verdant landscape) and hilarious sight gags (an extreme close-up of a mouth biting into a chocolate chip cookie; Roger’s garish puffer coat, something Klimt might have designed for an ice-dancing competition). But Fort Buchanan’s consistent drollery is also a product of the movie’s dialogue, which was created in a highly unconventional way. Crotty, who has singled out the Lifetime series Army Wives as a particular inspiration, sourced many of the film’s lines from American TV scripts; as the director explained in a March 2015 interview on Film Comment’s blog, after first writing the movie’s story, he downloaded transcripts of different shows and then did keyword searches for terms such as regret or death. The delivery in French of recognizably Yank soap-operatic declarations—words that are then retranslated back into subtitled English—enhances Fort Buchanan’s puckish incongruities, perhaps never more so than when the resident personal trainer, explaining to Roger why he’s so good at boxing, affectlessly says: “Because when my first husband hit me, it broke my heart. I swore I’d never let anyone hit me again. . . . I know what it’s like to lose part of yourself when someone hits you.”

If much of the language in Crotty’s film is unmoored from its origin, desire too is wanton and unrestrained. Three of Roger’s female friends—a middle-aged woman who speaks heavily American-accented French and two younger military wives whose husbands are also posted overseas—are so lust-filled by the onset of spring that they each feel up Roxy, a buxom adolescent ripe and juicy as a peach. That her two wedded same-sex admirers are portrayed by actresses who played Belle Epoque whores in Bertrand Bonello’s House of Pleasures (2011) only adds to the light, freewheeling hedonism of these scenes. (A third wife, who keeps her hands off Roxy, preferring instead to go after gay Guillaume, is played by Mati Diop, who memorably shared a sultry slow dance with Grégoire Colin in Claire Denis’s 2008 father-daughter story, 35 Shots of Rum, and who was Crotty’s classmate at Le Fresnoy.)

Crotty has explored the polymorphous perversity—and just plain perversity—of military milieus before: In the short Visionary Iraq (2008), he and his codirector, Gabriel Abrantes, play all the parts, including those of an incestuous brother and sister who enlist to fight in Operation Iraqi Freedom. But Fort Buchanan remains unparalleled—a Franco-American production that repurposes the dialogue of lowly genres to fashion a buoyant, irrepressible, and thrillingly unclassifiable exemplar of high art.

Fort Buchanan makes its US theatrical debut in the series “Friends with Benefits: An Anthology of Four New American Filmmakers,” at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York, Feb. 5–11.

Melissa Anderson is the senior film critic for the Village Voice.