Indochine

Director: Régis Wargnier. Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Vincent Pérez, Linh Dan Pham, Jean Yanne, Dominique Blanc. Screenplay: Régis Wargnier, Catherine Cohen, Erik Orsenna, Louis Gardel.


The fact that Indochine won the 1992 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film proves that the tendency of Oscar voters toward visual bombast and style-over-substance filmmaking in the English-language categories also applies in the international competition. In some ways, Indochine's victory resembles Braveheart's Best Picture triumph three years later; it looks like good filmmaking and has a constant air of seriousness, so in the absence of any consensus-building competitors its road to Oscar was fairly unobstructed.

While Braveheart had its own problems of improper pacing and muddled motivations, at least Mel Gibson invested his film with energy and filmed most of its scenes with vigor. Régis Wargnier's would-be French Gone With the Wind lacks even that kind of momentum; while not divested of positive qualities, the project never sees past its own self-assigned Importance to bother much with the personal story at hand.

Indochine's allegorical intentions actually play much better than the specific dramas enacted among its characters. Catherine Deneuve stars as Eliane Devries, the wealthy head of a sprawling rubber plantation in 1930s French Indochina, essentially the same territory we now denote as Vietnam. At the opposite end of the colonial social hierarchy from Eliane is Jean-Baptiste (Vincent Pérez), a firebrand of a naval officer who Eliane quickly takes as a lover and just as quickly seems to lose interest in. That is, until her adopted Vietnamese daughter Camille (Linh Dan Pham) grows infatuated with Jean-Baptiste, both worrying her mother because of the youth's impressionability and iring her almost jealously because Jean-Baptiste returns her affections.

This being a melodrama, and Eliane being as wealthy and powerful as she is, she has little trouble having Jean-Baptiste relocated away from her daughter. Much more difficult is the task of weaning Camille off of her love for the Frenchman, and the stage for a three-way battle of walls has been set. None of their lives exist in a vacuum, however, and the growing animosities between the colonizers and the colonized, as well as the rise of Communism and other socio-political phenomena, make significant impacts on the story as it unrolls.

Or rather unravels. While Eliane-as-Establishment, Jean-Baptiste-as-Rebellious-Lower-Class-Youth, and Camille-as-Uneasy Cultural Mixture seem to follow the historical pattern of France's relationship with Indochina, their interactions only make sense to the extent they are interpreted as solely symbolic figures. Allegorical dramas only work if the personal dramas have larger resonance and seem plausible in and of themselves, and this is where Indochine's narrative fabric begins to fray.

To take an early example, why would Eliane—who deplores Jean-Baptiste's politics, scorns his social background, and doesn't even know him that well—seek a romantic liaison with him? More than that, how can we possibly believe her when she says around their first parting that she could not live without him? Eliane lacks nothing that Jean-Baptiste could ever provide, nor is their sexual connection established firmly enough that mere physical indulgence can be at the root of her wildly illogical fascination with him.

Even the casting of this picture reflects a stiltedness between its specific storytelling components and its ultimate goal of historical and political import. Deneuve is a stellar presence and a capable actress, and Wargnier could hardly have done better in seeking someone to embody the entire colonial potency and cultural glory of the French nation.

As a woman prone to romantic folly, however, or fierce passions, Deneuve's effectiveness is compromised by the cool placidity of her seemingly-immortal beauty. She seems too reserved to fall in love with Pérez, too wise to do anything rash, too self-contained and contented to seem altogether concerned by the management of a plantation or the tempests of political change. Deneuve looks the part because she has survived into the end of middle age with barely a wrinkle; she doesn't quite cut it as Eliane because the character must be in permanent danger of devastation.

Pérez, for his part, is generically attractive in a way that recommends him for allegorical accessibility—handsome enough to win broad audience support—but is not striking in any particular way that we believe would catch Eliane's attention, much less her heart. Much more plausible is Camille's infatuation with him; the character idealizes him so fully and applies to him all of her own hopes and convictions, so Pérez's blank-slate quality is an asset here. Linh Dan Pham herself is an appealing performer, and convincingly withstands her character's victories and tragedies without resorting to histrionics.

Another problem with Indochine relates to cinematography, for which François Catonné earned a César (French Oscar) for his work on this film. Much of the photography in Indochine is beautiful, but it subscribes to the picture-postcard school of image-making, which means we get repeated shots of beautiful valleys, beautiful skylines, beautiful terrain. True cinematography, however, is about how a shot is designed and what meaning derives from the placement of its details, not about looking pretty. This is why, to take an extreme example, Gregg Toland's photography of Citizen Kane is a marvel, even though few of the shots are of explicitly beautiful things. Indochine represents the backward and too often rewarded case of allegedly "good" cinematography, indisputably lovely but devoid of much meaning.

Deneuve does hit some genuine emotional climaxes as the film progresses, and as a historical essay (however misguided) on another country's Vietnam experience, Indochine is hardly a waste of time. It is not, however, a good film, despite the complete seriousness with which everyone involved appears to take all of their contributions. The framing device of Indochine has Deneuve riding a train, narrating a tale about Camille and Jean-Baptiste for her adult grandson, who somehow knows none of this story; this is despite information given in the film's third hour that Camille and Jean-Baptiste became national icons, emblems on billboards, and subjects of folk songs known around the country. What gives? Because the film begins and ends with this oddly dissonant storyline, Indochine concludes on a definitive example of its own inclinations toward redundancy and confusion. C–


Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Actress: Catherine Deneuve
Best Foreign-Language Film

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Foreign-Language Film

Other Awards:
National Board of Review: Best Foreign-Language Film
César Awards (French Oscars): Best Actress (Deneuve); Best Supporting Actress (Blanc); Best Cinematography (François Catonné); Best Production Design (Jacques Bufnoir); Best Sound

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