The wartime backdrop may be 1945 Indochina rather than 1969 Vietnam, but “Apocalypse Eventually” would be an apt alternative title for “To the Ends of the World,” Guillaume Nicloux’s deliberate, elliptical and startlingly carnal vision of a rogue French soldier’s vengeful heart-of-darkness quest. Sewn through with horrifying imagery of brutality and decay — yet not specifically an anti-war film so much as a personal probe into the toxifying properties of unresolved grief — this formally impressive but pristinely unpleasant provocation extends themes explored in Nicloux’s previous two films, “Valley of Love” and “The End.” Yet it finds a more robust cinematic language for its philosophical wanderings than either of those curiosities, with cinematographer David Ungaro’s ravishing jungle vistas practically causing sweat to bead on the screen. That semi-epic scope, coupled with the star presence of Gaspard Ulliel and recent Nicloux regular Gérard Depardieu, should beef up distributor interest in a film that’ll prove an acquired, blood-in-the-mouth taste.
“To the Ends of the World” occupies a slim sliver of liminal history, in the year between the end of World War II and the beginning of the First Indochina War, that has inspired comparatively little screen treatment. Nicloux and co-writer Jérôme Beaujour take advantage of that unexplored space in their original screenplay, which is spurred by a real event — Operation Bright Moon, a Japanese coup d’état in the former French Indochina on March 9, 1945 — but weaves its own largely psychological, fact-light narrative from its repercussions. Several thousand Frenchmen were killed in the massacre: In the film’s universe, statuesque, trauma-hardened soldier Robert Tassen (Ulliel) is an unlikely lone survivor. Nursed back to health by locals in the wilderness, he seeks out the nearest regiment, determined to continue his service.
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Tassen claims persistent dedication to France as the reason for this self-punishment, though it soon emerges that his motives are rather more focused than that: Having witnessed his brother being carved up in the coup, he’s out for the head of the elusive Vo Binh, the Ho Chi Minh lieutenant who oversaw the execution.
Even before such specifics are established, Nicloux paints Tassen as a man with a cool, insistent bloodthirst: The film’s unnerving opening shot places him as the piercing center of a widescreen army-base panorama, stock-still amid the daily activity around him, his fixed, frigid gaze boring into the camera with lethal intent. Something of a go-to actor for characters marked (or unmarked, rather) by beautiful, hostile inscrutability, Ulliel carries the film’s extended passages of non-verbal threat with aplomb: Tassen may set about “turning” and assembling an army of native POWs to get him nearer to Vo Binh, but his silently seething expression and aloof body language make it quite clear he sees this as a solo battle.
Which is not to say the film itself is a one-man show: It sparks most engagingly to life in Tassen’s tetchy, love-hate head-to-heads with fellow soldier Cavagna — played with verve and a welcome dose of gallows humor by the dependable Guillaume Gouix — who regards Tassen’s military vigilante mission with a conflicted mixture of bemusement and respect. Less rewarding as a sparring partner is Depardieu, somewhat awkwardly woven into proceedings as an enigmatic writer with his own burden of wartime grief to bear, who follows Tassen’s progress for reasons that remain opaque up to (or, depending on interpretation, including) Nicloux’s typically teasing, inward-looking finale. An extended subplot detailing Tassen’s tormented affair with local prostitute Mai (Lang-Khê Tran), meanwhile, never quite becomes the counterbalancing moral arc of love to bloodlust that it promises to be — hindered as it is by the stunted development of Tran’s character, which reinscribes all too many hoary western cliches of passively docile, obsession-inciting Asian femininity.
“To the Ends of the World” is on surer footing when it sets aside matters of the heart to tell its story in visceral corporeal terms, often stomach-twistingly so: Nicloux lingers dispassionately on exactingly composed still-lives of butchered, maggot-infested corpses, or daisy-chains of severed ears and tongues. When not in lifeless defeat, the male body is a constant expressive weapon here: Even masturbating, which Tassen’s fellow soldiers do with aggressive abandon, seems an act of violence here. Ungaro shoots it all with an undiscriminating eye for beauty, on luscious, deep-toned 35mm, while American composer Shannon Wright’s sparely used score reaches peaks of feverish dissonance. The result is a nightmare textured and tactile enough to be almost alluring, to draw the viewer at least halfway into Tassen’s cracked psyche before it falls to pieces.