'To the Ends of the World' ('Les Confins du monde'): Film Review | Cannes 2018

Courtesy of Cannes
A dark and unsparing excursion through the French campaign in Indochina.

Writer-director Guillaume Nicloux ('Valley of Love') returns to Cannes with a war film set in 1940s Vietnam and starring Gaspard Ulliel, Gerard Depardieu and newcomer Lang-Khe Tran.

Offering up a bleak and rather brutal French riff on Apocalypse Now, To The Ends of the World (Les Confins du monde) follows a tormented Gallic soldier who reaches his own heart of darkness in 1940s Indochina. Co-written and directed by Guillaume Nicloux, this skillfully crafted and superbly shot war movie suffers from some familiar plot mechanics and an overwhelming sense of doom, yet remains a compelling look at a conflict seldom depicted in French cinema. A world premiere in the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight should spark interest both at home and overseas. 

Nicloux has an extremely eclectic filmography, ranging from the comic thriller The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq to the Depardieu-Huppert road movie Valley of Love to an adaptation of Denis Diderot’s novel The Nun. Switching up genres once again, he tackles the early stages of the First Indochina War in a script (written with Jerome Beaujour) that kicks off in 1945 as the Japanese are exiting Vietnam and fighters loyal to Ho Chi Minh’s communist Viet Minh movement are beginning to take on the French army.

Caught in the middle of the skirmish is Robert Tassen (Gaspard Ulliel, as sinewy and stiff-jawed as ever), a young private who survives a horrible massacre that leaves his brother and sister-in-law dead. Shell-shocked and wounded, he washes up in a hospital and eventually joins a French military unit led by Lieutenant Masson (Jonathan Couzinie) that’s stranded in the middle of the jungle and surrounded by scores of enemy troops. There, Tesson plots to take revenge on a Viet Minh commander named Vo Binh who apparently stood by as the Japanese savagely killed his family.

If the story heads in some familiar directions from there, especially when Tassen soon falls for a beautiful local prostitute, Mai (Lang-Khe Tran), who winds up breaking his heart, Nicloux builds a convincing atmosphere of persistent dread and hallucinatory madness that at times recalls the Coppola classic. But World is both a gorier movie — there are gruesome shots of mutilated bodies, severed limbs, decapitated heads and a penis that’s been ravaged by a leech — as well as a darker one, portraying a miserable lot of soldiers who constantly mistreat each other, the enemy and the neighboring Vietnamese people.

There are few redeemable characters here, even if a fellow trooper named Cavagna (Guillaume Gouix) becomes a sort-of companion to Tassen, albeit one with a major opium addiction. The others are all war-weary and forever drenched in sweat, with little time for anything but whoring at night, while Tassen is so hell-bent on capturing the elusive Vo Binh — a man we never see and who becomes a sort of metaphor for the senselessness of the whole conflict — that he gradually loses hold of his sanity.

Working with cinematographer David Ungaro (Mary Shelley) and production designer Olivier Radot (Django), Nicloux creates a haunting visual palette to accompany the action, using fog-filled widescreen images to depict a jungle that stretches out to infinity and imprisons those inside of it. There is little solace there for Tassen and the rest of the men — whether they’re French or Vietnamese, with the latter either volunteering to help the Gauls or taken prisoner and forced to fight alongside them — and the only way out of the place seems to be through a dignified death, with wounded soldiers using grenades to blow themselves up so their bodies are not desecrated by the enemy. And you thought Platoon was tough.

The film offers a few shreds of hope for its hero, whether in Tassen’s initial encounters with Mai or his talks with Saintonge (Gerard Depardieu, playing a laid-back Kurtz), an exiled novelist who looks to be one of the only remaining French colonials in the area and spends much of his time either drinking or writing (mostly both). But if these two characters will eventually play an important role in Tassen’s future, they can do little to help him in a quest that seems to be doomed from the very start. Ulliel (Saint Laurent), who has something of Alain Delon's cold and tenebrous beauty, is well-cast here as a man seeking bloody retribution at a time, and in a place, where the idea of right and wrong has been torn asunder by decades of occupation.

Beyond Pierre Schoendoerffer’s 1965 docu-style chronicle The 317th Platoon, which was shot by the great Raoul Coutard, French movies have rarely portrayed a war that lasted for nearly a decade and ended with their army’s crushing defeat to the Viet Minh at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. In the flawed but captivating To the Ends of the World, Nicloux focuses on how, even at the very beginning of the conflict, the French were already in peril, trying to maintain order in a country that was halfway across the world and where they were seen by most as colonial invaders. In one of the film’s more memorable scenes, which happens early on, a band of tired, drunken soldiers stage an impromptu singing of “La Marseillaise” in a local brothel. As proud as they try to look, and as loud as they try to sing, their words ultimately ring out like a cry for help.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Production companies: Les Films du Worso, Les Armateurs, Orange Studio, Scope Pictures, Rectangle Productions, Arena Films, Arches Films, Cinefeel 1, Same Player, Pan-Europeenne, Move Movie, Ce Qui Me Meut, Benji Films
Cast: Gaspard Ulliel, Guillaume Gouix, Lang-Khe Tran, Gerard Depardieu, Jonathan Couzinie
Director: Guillaume Nicloux
Screenwriters: Guillaume Nicloux, Jerome Beaujour
Producers: Sylvie Pialat, Benoit Quainon
Director of photography: David Ungaro
Production designer: Olivier Radot
Costumer designer: Anais Romand
Editor: Guy Lecorne
Composer: Shannon Wright
Casting director: Brigitte Moidon
Sales: Orange Studio

In French, Vietnamese
103 minutes