It’s hard to imagine Indochine as the Academy Award winner for best foreign language film in a year that boasts such classics as The Story of Qiu Ju, Raise the Red Lantern and Europa. In my humble opinion, Indochine’s triumph may show that best be explained by Oscar voters’ tendency towards nostalgia-induced theme and politically correct filmmaking that pours a glamorous gloss over life on the other side of the war.
Indochine reveals French retrospective look at its colonial legacy in Southeast Asia, but it also strives to be a melodramatic epic. Despite all the political turmoil and the miserable lives of Vietnamese under French control, the film is at its heart a love story. It opens as Eliane (Catherine Deneuve), a hard-headed rubber plantation owner adopts her Vietnamese friend’s daughter Camille (Linh Dan Pham) after they died tragically from airplane crash. The intimate mother-daughter relationship is threatened when Eliane’s long frozen heart is melted by a rebellious young handsome naval officer called Jean-Baptise (Vincent Perez). Needless to say that Camille is then saved by Jean-Baptise during the shoot-out on the streets of Saigon and falls madly in love with him – much to the dismay of her mother. Determined to put Jean-Baptise out of her family’s lives for good, Eliane has him transferred to a no-man’s island in the Tonkin Island of northern Indochina. Unbeknownst to her, Camille seeks to break tie, chases after her man and goes on to become a revolutionary after witnessing French’s brutal suppression of Vietnamese lower class. Unsurprisingly, juggling between romance and history subplots prove to be an overwhelming task for director Regis Wargnier. He was unable to decide what he wants the film to become, and it ends up being a style-over-substance piece that looks like good filmmaking but in fact lacks a constant air of seriousness.
Catherine Deneuve shows that she’s the most capable actress to embody the colonial potency and cultural glory of the French nation, but the effectiveness of her nuanced performance is somehow compromised by her seemingly immortal beauty. She doesn’t quite cut it as Eliane, who witnesses the tempest of political change unfolding in Indochina, carries the weight of the film and must be in permanent devastation. Vincent Perez and Linh Dan Pham, while provide decent performances required of their parts, are unfairly overshadowed due to poor characterisation. We never understand how Jean-Baptise transforms from a sexual cynic to romance-novel-cover boy overnight, or how Camille undergoes a dramatic metamorphosis from a fragile French-bred teenage girl to a revolutionary. Indeed, Wargnier seems to be more interested in extended metaphors and intellectual artifice than character development. None of his characters are particularly complex or consistent.
Slow pacing is another weakness of Indochina. The pace of the film as a whole is leisurely, which allows audiences to indulge in the superb scenery and beautiful exotic interior settings and costumes that capture perfectly an era now long gone. Indochina nevertheless is too long for a sweeping, trite love story or a drained epic that is pleasing to the eyes, but insufficient to explore the nooks and crannies of the colonial French society. Maybe Waigner was aiming for an apolitical statement, but it’s hard to remain neutral at a scene when Vietnamese natives were being traded in a slave auction, separated from family members, or killed in resistance. At times moving and enthralling in the tradition of David Lean’s epics during the 1960s, Indochine is unsatisfying and paints colonies with a too broad brush. Catherine Deneuve’s everlasting beauty and the lush beauty of Southeast Asia are pleasure to watch, but they also render the film emptiness and allegation of political correctness.