This film is part of both My French Film Festival and MUBI’s current streaming roster in the UK. It screened at Cannes in 2018 and I’m surprised that it hasn’t appeared on release in the UK. Perhaps distributors worry about how it would be certificated by the BBFC? It mixes sexual ‘display’, including full frontal male nudity, with the full horror of guerrilla warfare. Worse for some audiences, this is also an art film with long static takes in which little happens. It’s also fascinating with standout performances. In one sense an ‘interior’ story about one man’s struggle to come to terms with grief, the film is also about nine months of chaos in the long history of anti-colonialist struggles in what the French termed ‘Indochina’ before 1954 and what for those of us growing up in the 1960s became the Vietnam War. I had to research the precise period between March and December 1945 to understand exactly what was happening in the region and what might be absent from the narrative.
In June 1940 the swift German advance into France encouraged the Japanese to invade Tonkin – what is now Northern Vietnam – in order to cut off the last supply line for the Chinese from the port of Haiphong into Northern China and thus aid the Japanese campaign in China. The Japanese forces subsequently moved through the whole of Indochina (i.e. modern Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) in preparation for attacks upon the British, Dutch and American interests in the Pacific. They left the French colonial troops and administrators in charge as Vichy France was, in effect, now a Japanese ally. On March 9th 1945 with France liberated and De Gaulle running a provisional government in Paris, the Japanese staged a surprise attack on French forces in Indochina, an action known as ‘Operation Bright Moon‘. The Japanese were correct in thinking that the Free French, British and Americans were already planning to use Indochina as a base to launch attacks on Japan.
The film narrative begins with a massacre of French forces at a camp in Tonkin. One man, a French soldier Robert Tassen (Gaspard Ulliel), finds himself wounded but still alive beneath a pile of bodies in an open mass grave. Somehow, he escapes into the jungle and is kept alive by local people. Eventually he finds his way to French forces who have not been over-run. We learn that his experience has instilled in him a strong desire for vengeance and that he is now determined to find one of the leaders of the Viet Minh forces who was present at the massacre in which Tassen lost his brother and sister-in-law. This takes a little ‘unpacking’.
The Viet Minh was a political movement led by Ho Chi Minh which from 1941 was opposed to both the French and Japanese and began forms of guerrilla warfare supported by the Americans and by the Chinese (both Nationalists and Communists). During the specific period of the nine moths covered by the film’s narrative this produced some very strange alliances with soldiers switching sides as the political situation became more complicated. The first atomic bomb was dropped on August 6 on Hiroshima and Japan surrendered a few days later. Thousands of Japanese soldiers were still in China and Indochina. By September a British Indian Army force had arrived in Saigon and proceeded to re-arm Japanese soldiers to maintain order. Meanwhile other Japanese were being recruited to train Viet Minh fighters against the French and British. I mention all this to simply illustrate how confusing everything must have been. The other aspect of this that is worth knowing is that the French, like the British, recruited local men to join the colonial army. These were les Tirailleurs tonkinois and Tassen finds himself in a mixed fighting force. Later, he recognises that local fighters will join either side if they are starving.
Robert will eventually ‘go rogue’. It’s impossible not to think of Apocalypse Now when we see Robert leading his own small band of mostly local fighters into the mountains seeking out his own personal enemy. The senior officers in his regiment have now virtually given up on him as he won’t take orders from regulars he doesn’t trust, but he is now a skilled fighter himself and knows how to organise. On the other hand he may be seriously mentally ill.
If Apocalypse Now is one reference for audiences, others might be to films like the two versions of The Quiet American. Writer-director Guillaume Nicloux and co-writer Jérôme Beaujour create two other characters who both have an influence on Tassen. One is a mysterious writer, who might have some kind of intelligence role, played by Gérard Depardieu. This character is accepted by the French military and seems to know local culture. The other is that (over?) familiar figure, the beautiful local prostitute Maï (Lang Khê Tran) who speaks French well and who forms a deep but difficult relationship with Robert. While these two individuals are able in different ways to ‘get through’ to Robert, he has little contact with the other French soldiers – only perhaps with Cavagna (Guillaume Gouix) with whom he has a typical love-hate relationship (i.e. they insult each other but clearly have some form of respect). The narrative has no resolution as such but there is a coda of sorts set in early 1946.
In aesthetic terms, the film is always worth watching and I would love to see it on a big screen, though I might have to turn away from some scenes. It was shot on 35mm by David Ungaro and is projected in a CinemaScope ratio with the colour palette dominated by blues, greens and greys – which in turn contrast with the blood. It rains heavily at times and many scenes are enveloped in mist. Some of the long shots of the soldiers making their way along mountain and forest trails are very beautiful. (The film was shot in Vietnam.) I think the score by Shannon Wright worked well. It seemed both minimalist and filled with foreboding. The performances, especially by Gaspard Ulliel and Guillaume Gouix, are very good.
Overall there is no political trajectory to the war – as I’ve indicated by the lack of context (only the months of 1945 are signalled). Nor is there any specific critique of French colonialism, apart from what we read into the exchanges. This makes the film an intriguing addition to the various films I’ve watched from Hollywood, Australia and Hong Kong which deal with the later wars of the 1960s and 1970s in Vietnam. There are other French films set in Indochina as a colonial territory including a number of colonial melodramas and other war films that I haven’t seen. The only one I do remember is Hors la loi (France-Algeria 2010) by the French-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb. In that film one of three Algerian brothers finds himself in the French colonial army fighting the Viet Nimh at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the battle that signalled the final defeat of France in Indochina. The Algerian soldier hears cries for the ‘colonised’ troops to join the Vietnamese fighting for independence.
We could argue that the French soldiers in Tonkin were virtually forgotten by the authorities in Europe before the Japanese attack. They had had little contact with Vichy for five years and weren’t sure what would await them back in France. This suggestion is well-handled in the script and provides a humanist discourse that balances the comment about atrocities committed by the Viet Nimh. Tassen refers to the beheaded soldiers he finds in the jungle and someone observes that the French have often beheaded people too.
This film is well worth watching but it’s a shame that the focus on Robert Tassen and his experience means that we learn very little about the colonised people of Indochina. Though the characters are present, their ‘voices’ are not really heard. One of the few things a Viet Nimh prisoner says is that he’d like to be French. But perhaps the lack of understanding shown by the French characters is the real message of the film?
Here’s the French trailer (no English subs) which gives some idea of the visual qualities of the film: