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Guillaume Nicloux is the director of that rather extraordinary comedy The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, in which the famous author created what amounted to a bizarre 94-minute cameo as himself, and also the bittersweet autumnal drama Valley of Love, with Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu. Now he has brought to the Director’s Fortnight section in Cannes an extremely confident and undeniably well-made Vietnam war movie, with something of Oliver Stone’s Platoon, except with the French in the role of the doomed occupying force, which in the 1940s preceded that of the Americans. The movie uses the term “Indochine” or “Indochina” in the opening titles, a colonial-era phrase, now rather frowned on, and predating the modern south-east Asia.
I was forced to admit that Nicloux puts together a brutally violent but persuasive movie, steeped in its period and setting; although the violence can be suspiciously macho, and it incidentally flirts with the very tricky orientalist sub-Miss-Saigon fantasy of the mysterious Vietnamese prostitute whose submissive purpose is to showcase the dynamic star quality of the male lead, tormenting himself with erotic obsession, tragic romanticism and self-hate. There is also a pretty preposterous small role for Depardieu as the all-wise, all-knowing expatriate writer who serves as the young antihero’s dormant conscience.
Gaspard Ulliel is probably still best known for playing the young Hannibal Lecter in Hannibal Rising in 2007. The brutal dismemberment and the violence of this film perhaps made him the right casting in Nicloux’s mind – severed heads and hacked body parts are forever being plonked in front of us – and the first shot shows Ulliel giving it the full Lecter as he stares maniacally into the camera. He plays Robert Tassen, a young French army officer in Vietnam in 1945 who has witnessed his brother being tortured and killed by the invading Japanese forces with the complicity of the Viet Minh. He is shot and dumped in an open grave with all the other corpses, presumed dead, until he regains consciousness and somehow manags to stagger out of the horrendous pit while the supervising soldier goes off for a smoke. After fainting in the jungle and being nursed back to health by villagers, Tassen somehow walks back into town and volunteers for active duty.
His new mission is to form a revenge commando unit with homegrown comrades and various Vietnamese soldiers who are (notionally) loyal to the French. Their purpose will be to outwit the insurgent guerrillas with their own cunning – and finally kill the Viêt Minh leader. Tassen forms a rough-hewn love-hate friendship with Cavagna (Guillaume Gouix) and also has a kind of respect for the civilian writer and sage Saintonge, played mostly in the seated position by a slightly ridiculous and very corpulent Depardieu. But he falls in love with the demure prostitute Maï (Lang Khê Tran) who in her inscrutable gorgeousness drives Tassen to distraction.
As I said, this is a very clichéd and shopworn fantasy, but Lang Khê Tran does invest it with some power and dissident force. Ulliel is charismatic and confident, and the film is good at showing the real hatred that the colonial forces had for the civilian population, who were all considered guilty by association in respect of any rebellious attack, a mentality inherited by the Americans. The oppressive anxieties of the jungle are well represented, and also the sheer, ever-present heat that would help to drive out any European invader. It is an almost oppressively physical film. The sleeping soldiers are kept awake by the groans of someone masturbating in the next bed; the men are often shown naked, and one soldier is shown dying in agony, because some insect has bitten him on the penis – clearly, a jungle fate worse than death. Nicloux finesses an enigmatic ending that may be inspired, a little, by the Kurtzian mystery of Coppola’s Vietnam. It really does feel like the end of the world, in its way.
Source: The Guardian
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