‘Indochine’, directed by Régis Wargnier in 1992, is a lavish historical epic telling the story of the anticolonial unrest in the country that eventually became North and South Vietnam during the 1930s to 1950s. Catherine Deneuve plays Éliane Devries, a wealthy single woman who has inherited a rubber plantation. She mixes with the upper middle class communities of Saigon and in the countryside near it. After the death of her friends, two members of the ruling family of Indochina, she adopts their daughter Camille, played as a child by Ba Hoang and then as a young adult by Linh Dan Pham and raises her as a westerner. Camille is witness to Devries’ affair with a French Navy lieutenant Jean-Baptiste Le Guen, played by Vincent Pérez. After she is injured in a gunfight, Camille is rescued by Le Guen which leads to the pair falling in love, but the officer is banished to a remote colony. Instead of following him, Camille becomes engaged to a communist revolutionary called Tanh, but leaves just before the wedding to look for Le Guen. The departure of Camille leads her to become involved in the struggle for revolution, and draws both her French lover and her mother into engaging with the fragile political state of the country and the battle for independence.
The film is neatly divided into two halves: the first half recalling a cycle of movies and television series from the 1980s that romanticised the British Empire and colonial rule, the second half flipping this on its head by showing the other side of colonialism. The two sections of the film act in tension, almost as though the film itself is debating the thorny subject of imperialism and trying to strip off the layers of Western glamour and decadence that conceal the dust and violence of the lives of the oppressed and silenced Vietnamese.
The first half of the film is a lush, lavish exercise in whimsical nostalgia. The cinematography throughout the film is rich and location focused, the camera, in these early scenes, concentrates on Deneuve as she controls her plantation, mixes with affluent locals and forms a relationship with Le Guen. This focus is troubling, however. As the camera remains fixed on Devries and her business and amorous affairs it glides over the Vietnamese working for her. In an early scene, for example, a rowing competition takes place between her planation employees and the navy. The drama of this moment is her bet with Le Guen, transforming the men in the boat into components of a machine, rowing entirely to help her win her bet and to bring her together with her lover. There’s something about the way these scenes are filmed and about how the locals are framed that recalls the Indian set dramas of the 1980s such as ‘Heat and Dust’ or ‘A Passage to India’, presenting a place that is simultaneously familiar and domestic but also alien and foreign. This tension is present throughout ‘Indochine’, especially to begin with, as French colonialists struggle to maintain ‘civilization’ in the face of the humidity and a potentially hostile indigenous population.
The key to the film, and the way that Wargnier extricates himself from this potential trap of being overly nostalgic, is the character of Camille. The adopted daughter is, throughout the film, shown to be conflicted between the West and the East: between her natural parents and Devries; between her Vietnamese fiancée and her French lover; between the comfort and immoral decadence of the colonial rule and the poor and abused population it is built on. The second half of the movie focuses on her and her journey of discovery as she explores the country she has been distanced from by her upbringing. This is where the film really takes off and becomes something more than a superficial costume drama; where it transforms itself from a cosy costume drama about the French enjoying the sun into something closer to ‘Apocalypse Now’, a narrative that not only presents the effects of colonisation, but also critically engages and explores the effects. The second half of the film, therefore, makes sense of the first half, and suddenly everything makes sense from the lush cinematography to the obsessional focus on Deneuve. The film constructs the world of pre-revolutionary Vietnam in a way that makes the audience complicit in the colonisation. By drawing on the genre of the ‘British Raj’ genre of the 1980s and on Deneuve’s glamourous star persona, it creates an environment that the audience is comfortable with and one that, as the second half of the film progresses, is slowly and disconcertingly dismantled.
‘Indochine’ is a long movie and, at times, it feels ponderous, but its weight and tone is entirely suited to the subject matter. The shift in focus between the colonists and the colonised does give the film a balance and makes it more than simply an exercise in spectacle and nostalgia, but it’s a close run thing. The look of the film, and the power (and subsequent accolades) that Deneuve’s performance brings almost overwhelms the movie and threatens to eclipse what seems to be the real focus on the rebellion. The achievement of the film is in the scale of its narrative, both in terms of time and location. If you enjoy Merchant Ivory films, to hanker after ‘Brideshead Revisited’, this may manage to satisfy you, but also make you think again.