Tuesday, December 6, 2016

1992 Winner, Indochine


Director:  Régis Wargnier

Distributed by:  Bac Films

Released:  April 1992

Country:  France

Vietnam has a really complicated history.  Similarly, Indochine, a movie set in the 1930’s in what we now call Vietnam, is a really complicated film.  Long before most Americans had even heard of the place, Indochina was a colony of France that consisted of much of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam.   It’s in this setting that we find Élaine Devries, an extremely wealthy single French woman, running her father’s plantation.  When she learns that her Vietnamese friends have died in a plane crash, she makes the decision to raise their orphaned toddler daughter as her own, renaming her Camille.
Élaine is played with the air of privileged aloofness by French actress Catherine Deneuve, and the movie centers on Élaine and Camille’s relationship as the girl grows into pretty young Asian woman in the world of her mother’s French aristocracy.   Enter a young French officer, Jean-Baptiste Le Guen, arrogant and ambitious, with an eye for Élaine.  The two have a sexual relationship that is mostly kept under wraps, with Jean-Baptiste being in love with Élaine and Élaine mostly looking to have Jean-Baptiste fill her in . . . on what the current military situation is in Indochina.  Élaine is not a bad person, really, but she is Colonial France personified—not meaning harm to the Vietnamese people that work for her, but probably not understanding that they are not just around to meet her needs.

Camille and Elaine
Years go by.  Camille is now a young woman attending a private school.  One day, while trying to escape, a Vietnamese prisoner is shot and runs into Camille, knocking her unconscious and getting blood all over her neat school uniform.  Who should come to the rescue but Jean-Baptiste, who while attending to her gets a full-on view of her emerging womanhood.  Well, one of her emerging womanhoods.  Camille, as would happen to any girl getting wiped down by a soldier while coming to, falls deep for Jean-Baptiste.  Camille’s a little young at this point, but this incident is going to set up a Mrs. Robinson-Elaine (meaning Elaine from The Graduate, not Élaine played by Deneuve) showdown down the road.

If you think I am giving too much away, think again—I am just scratching the surface of this convoluted, meandering plot.  One theme emerges throughout—French colonialism is on the decline, and will soon be only a memory on which one can make long, confusing movies starring Catherine Deneuve.  The story of Élaine, Camille, and Jean-Baptiste is only a device to show this cultural decline, one that will lead to Japanese occupation and war and Americans evacuating by helicopter off Saigon buildings.  I may be getting ahead of myself there, which is what I wanted to do while watching this.  The movie ends with an unsatisfying epilogue set in 1954, the point at which the French finally did pack up and leave Vietnam.

This movie is not without its merits.  It’s beautifully shot in the imperial city of Hue, the one-time
Jean-Baptiste and Camille
capitol city of Vietnam.  Hue was largely destroyed in the Tet Offensive in 1968, but restoration has been taking place there for many years, and the filmmakers found enough terrific- looking spots to put on film.  The film, of course, features France’s most famous actress, Catherine Deneuve.  She doesn’t look much different in this 1992 film than she did her breakout film, the musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, made almost 30 years earlier.  But unfortunately, looks do not a movie make.  This one felt like a missed opportunity at being meaningful epic on the topic.  Instead, it drifted and lost its way more than once, with no good resolutions.  Kind of like Vietnam itself.

The Title:  Indochina under French rule included Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.  Prior to that, the “Indo” in Indochina included Thailand, Burma, and parts of what are now India. 

The Culture:  This story focuses on the colonialists rather than the native people, so this is about the aristocracy more than the population it exploited.

Catherine Deneuve:  The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Agenda Danger:  Basically your run-of-the-mill class warfare stuff.  A main character or two sees 
the unfairness and oppression that is colonialism, thus justifying the Communist takeover later.  There is nothing that hits you over the head, but the message is basically that the French were exploitative.

Best Picture that year:  Unforgiven

Rating:  There’s little doubt that for the most part the French, and then the Americans, regretted getting involved in Vietnam in the first place.  The Americans in particular went in with good intentions and an optimism that the effort would be worth it.  That’s how I went into watching this film.  And about half-way through, I started thinking of a way to get out of watching the rest, but with honor.  Unfortunately, in the end, what little I got out of it wasn’t worth it.  Just like Vietnam.

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