Indochine: Oscar Winner Starring Catherine Deneuve

Saigon, Mon Amour–I don’t think the new French movie, Indochine, deserves the Best Foreign Picture Award it received from the National Board of Review last month. Not in a year that has given us Toto Le Heros, Raise the Red Lantern, Delicatessen, and even Tous Les Matins Du Monde. A slick and sprawling tale, centering on a strong woman (Catherine Deneuve) who owns a rubber plantation in Saigon in the l930s, Indochine is at heart an old-fashioned, Hollywood-style soap opera.

Yet there is something fascinating about the movie, going beyond Catherine Deneuve’s stunning looks and regal poise. Like The Lover, another compromised French movie, Indochine is a testament to France’s ongoing guilty and complex relationship with Vietnam. Both movies underline the ambivalent attitude of the French toward their old-time colony, long before it was “inherited” by the Americans.

There are other interesting similarities between The Lover and Indochine. In both pictures, the subtext and latent messages are far more important than the overt plot and melodramatic events. Both movies are conveniently set in the distant past, allowing their filmmakers to take a more detached historical perspectives to their problematic material. Finally, both movies center on a strong and beautiful female protagonist: a French teenager coming-of age in The Lover, and a mature French woman in Indochine.

The Lover, a film that was unfairly treated by some critics and misunderstood too, is worth seeing before it disappears from the big screen. By no means a great movie, it suffers from all the vices of international productions (different acting styles, various accents, etc.). But the film also deals with issues that are seldom portrayed on screen with honesty: first love, sexual politics, and the power of sexuality.

The Lover received excessive publicity for its steamy sex, which, for once, is crucial to the narrative and progression of its two characters. And the fact that French celebrity writer Marguerite Duras, whose novel served as source material, has repudiated the film and maligned its director, Jean-Jacques Annaud, has also contributed to its dubious reputation.

With this in mind, I still found a good deal to respect about The Lover. The affair between a young French girl (incompetently played by British model Jean Marsh) and an older rich Asian (Tony Leung) is not about sex, but about power and pride–the subtle relationship of identity and politics. Annaud effectively shows how the initially erotic affair increasingly turns less and less passionate. You get a sense of a girl deluding herself that her sexual engagement is done for money (to help her poor family), and also a feel of a first romance turned sour.

While watching this film, I inevitably thought of Marguerite Duras’ script for Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon Amour, which also deals with an interracial affair, this time between a French actress and a Japanese architect. The Lover’s intriguing context urges us to consider the two protagonists as metaphors for the intricate relationship of France and Indochina.

If The Lover has a somehow narrower, though focused, center, Indochine aims at being a spectacular epic, an ambition that is fulfilled by director of cinematography Francois Catonne’s breathtaking landscapes. But revolving around a romantic triangle that involves the French woman, her adopted Vietnamese daughter and the French naval officer they both fall in love with, the narrative gets increasingly melodramatic and progressively implausible–at least as far as logic and historical detail are concerned.

Director Regis Wargnier has specifically made the film as a star vehicle for Catherine Deneuve, who at 49 is France’s busiest actress, with no less than 70 movies to her credit. It is a testament to Deneuve’s star power that she somehow manages to hold the disjointed, rather long movie (two and a half hours) together with her charismatic screen presence and startling beauty.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Actress: Catherine Deneuve

Best Foreign Language Film

 

Oscar Awards: 1

Best Foreign Language Film