Heart of Darkness. The title of Joseph Conrad’s novel about a voyage up the Congo River to the heart of Africa and the following descent into madness, racism and violence. It brings up strong emotions and the potential of darkness in the human heart. This French film, directed by Guillaume Nicloux (Valley of Love, The End), walks that same path. War brings plenty in humans. It can be either the worst of times or the best of times. You can have extreme cruelty existing alongside bravery.
During a battle of the Indochina War in 1945,at the time the Japanese are retreating they find themselves battling against the French. Robert Tassen (Gaspard Ulliel – A Very Long Engagement, Hannibal Rising) is the only survivor from his unit. Horrifically he even sees his own brother massacred. Injured he is nursed back to health by local villagers.
Blinded by rage and grief, he is now a young man hell bent on revenge. He rejoins the French forces to do just that setting out to find the killers, especially Vo Binh. He tries to assemble a group of men to set about on this hunt. Robert is also being followed by a writer named Saintonge (Gerard Depardieu – The Man in the Iron Mask, Life of Pi). His mission is disrupted once he meets Mai (Lang Khe Tran – first film), an Indonesian prostitute. Interrupted as he finds himself in a sexual relationship with her then falling in love.
I do not think this was meant to be a film about how awful war is (though it certainly does not glorify it in any way), rather it is more an examination into grief and how it can explode if not dealt with correctly. Many characters here are affected by grief and their not being able to deal with it. Plus there is the whole romance subplot. All is crammed (and at times it does seem crammed or rushed) into 103 minutes.
At times the film will harken viewers back to Apocalypse Now with all the brutal scenes and tons of violence. Then comes the continuous sense of dread and out of your mind madness which both films share. In many ways, though this is a tougher watch as there are loads of scenes of decomposing bodies and body parts as well as the cruelty that the soldiers heap upon all around them – fellow soldiers, enemy soldiers and even the Vietnamese. Definitely not for the faint of heart. There is also very little hope to be found.
Visually the film is amazing. Cinematographer David Ungaro (Mary Shelley, A Prayer Before Dawn) should be applauded. His shots make you feel like you are right there in the jungle alongside the characters. You evern begin to feel the heat of the environment because it is so realistic. Textured and so life like you might find yourself reaching out to touch foliage or sweating bodies. All this is amplified by the choice to shoot the film in 35mm making everything a little grainy and misty.