Fri 4 Oct 2013
‘Indochine’ was released to the big screens in France by the time of my first visit in Paris in 1992, the city was then full of posters about it, I remember them even on the Champs Elysees. Going to the movies was not my priority at my first time in that splendid city, and thus more than 20 years passed until I got to see this film, probably one of the most ambitious projects in the history of the French cinema, a tentative in the historic epic and romantic saga genre set in the final decades of the French colonial rule in Indochina. As other similar projects like ‘Gone with the Wind’, ‘Australia’, ‘Cold Mountain’, or ‘A Passage to India’, it mixes a long and tortuous romantic story with a rendition of the history from the perspective of the ‘white man’. It works to a large extent. Falling empires and republics in turmoil have many similar things and a charm of their own on screen.
Romance and history meet in an intrigue which is a little bit too long, and too much decorated with coincidences, but then credibility to the detail is not necessarily the principal quality we look for when reading sagas or watching saga films. The main character played by Catherine Deneuve is a rich, beautiful and independent plantation owner who raises a Vietnamese adopted daughter and tries to keep the luxurious way of colonialist life while the world around her is cracking and falling apart. Her passion for an officer younger in age turns into a family drama when this one falls in love with the adoptive daughter and in political intrigue when the two take ways apart and join the anti-French forces. Cultures and ideologies mix and conflict in the film – colonialism fights nationalism and communism, cosmopolitan French style of life clashes with the traditions and religions of this area of Asia. There are many details in the film, but I also had a feeling of lack of focus, like in a very large picture full of characters and objects, but also a little blurred. Or maybe these were only background elements for director Regis Wargnier, I cannot know. The director BTW all but disappeared after a few ambitious but not very successful movies in the 90s.
There are two fabulous qualities in this film which balance all the minuses. One is Catherine Deneuve. I am in love with her until she will be 150. There are only two other actresses at the same level, radiating light, intelligence, beauty in any role they play – Ingrid Bergman and Cate Blanchet. Deneuve crosses in this film many years in the story but she stays beautiful and dignified, socially strong but emotionally vulnerable. A great role. The second exceptional quality is the cinematography, and I must mention the name of the artist in charge – Francois Catonne. The landscapes filmed in location are exquisite, so are the scenes that bring back to life the cities of Indochina of the 30s. I am not sure if after watching ‘Indochine’ I have really a more accurate image about how that part of the world was in the 30s of the previous century, but I surely do have a beautiful one.