Rehashes of the Vietnam War have become a genre onto themselves in American film — the province of prestige pictures, shoot-em-ups and even the odd romance. But France has been comparatively quieter in terms of depicting its own troubled history in Southeast Asia on the big screen.
With “To the Ends of the World,” which is showing in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar to the Cannes Film Festival, French director Guillaume Nicloux offers that slight a brutal corrective, dredging up his country’s colonialist past while offering its national cinema the widescreen, 35mm ‘nam pic it so richly deserves.
Gaspard Ulliel (of Xavier Dolan’s “It’s Only the End of the World”) plays Robert, a French soldier in what was then called Indochina and the sole survivor of a massacre that claimed the lives of 700 of his fellow countrymen, including his brother and pregnant sister-in-law. Given an improbable second chance at life, Robert chooses to immediately reenlist in order to track down and take vengeance on the elusive — and perhaps mythic — Viet Minh leader who ordered the attack.
On a purely visceral level, the film fits well into its long line of forbears. From the menacing green jungles to the brothels wafting with opium smoke to the tropical mists and beads of sweat that dampen every face, this is a familiar cinematic landscape. But it would be a mistake to hear La Marseillaise instead of the Star Spangled Banner and think you’re just getting “Platoon” à la Française.
For one thing, there’s the question of period. Set in 1945, the action unfurls while the embers of World War II still burn, and Nicloux uses that historical confluence to great effect. He subtly interrogates the Gallic hypocrisy of fighting to maintain colonial holdings while celebrating their own very recent liberation from German rule.
Indeed, the project’s very Frenchness (for lack of a better word) is what makes it so damned interesting. While “To the Ends of the World” may look and feel like your standard war pic, it speaks like a European art film, focusing on the ennui, indecision and violent stillness felt by Robert and his not-so-merry band of cohorts.
Stuck in that recognizable military morass, Robert turns his focus inward, obsessing over his unrequited love for prostitute Maï (Lang-Khê Tran), butting heads in games of machismo with fellow soldier Cavagna (Guillaume Gouix) and contemplating the provocations of expat author Saintong (Gérard Depardieu, of course), who responds to the brutality around him with the weariness a man many times singed by the fires of nationalism.
Confronted by some latest act of savagery committed on the Western settlers, Saintong simply replies, “Beheading is a French tradition.”
The film is rather like “Platoon,” however, in its morbid fascination with war’s effect on the human body. Robert’s own weariness is woven into his sunken cheeks and his broken spirit amplified by an unchanging wardrobe that grows baggier as the story goes on.
Curiously, Nicloux shies away from depicting any real on-screen violence, instead focusing on the mangled remains that rot on the ground and fester in the mind long after the perpetrators have fled.
In a way, this is a much more devious strategy. We’ve all seen firefights before, but once you stagger out of this one, with its necklace of human tongues and leech infections in the worst place a man could ever fear, you’ll have seen things you can only wish to forget. Talk about taking the war home with you.