INDOCHINE inadvertently self-delivers its own capsule review when an exasperated Vietnamese woman tells distraught Catherine Deneuve “I’ll never understand French people’s love stories.” That makes two of us, at least for this over-praised 1992 drama. One could snit further by mentioning that impatience with patented Gallic presumption, colonial variety, would extend to the millions of Asians, Africans and Pacific Islanders to whom Paris force-fed boutique ‘civilization’ for a century & a half. Se faire enculer! *
Lugubriously directed by Régis Wargnier, it managed to capture the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and a Best Actress nomination for Deneuve. Battling the fatuous script and choppy editing, she’s fine, her 48-year-old beauty intact and less frozen than usual. The films other chief attributes are also markedly visual, in elaborate production design with period costumes and props, and in the rich cinematography that Francoise Catonné employs on exotic locations.
Covering 1930 to 1954, the novelistic story has rubber plantation mistress ‘Éliane Devries’ (Deneuve) engage in an affair with an impetuous young French naval officer (Vincent Pérez) while fending off a policeman suitor (Jean Yanne), keeping her coolies from going Communist, and seeing that her adopted Vietnamese daughter (Linh Dan Pham) doesn’t make bad life choices. Everything heads south, or rather, North, once the daughter gets involved with the sailor, too, and the century-long French occupation of Indochina begins to fray. The basic plot sounds like a winner, something on the order of a tropical Gone With The Wind, but the four screenwriters muff it, and the film buckles under glaring mis-steps of casting, dialogue, editing, chronology & sympathy.
Wargnier’s direction is flat, scenes that are meant to stir leave emotions dormant, the characters are all unlikable, the unconvincing romances lack any heat: even the clinches are limp—the neck-kissing motif signifying “Passion! The dialogue is pretentious, weird behaviors come out of nowhere (what’s with that ridiculous tango?), the music score too melodramatic. A clunky chronology, which reaches from 1930, somehow misses the rather important Japanese invasion period during WW2. Pérez is about as charming as an oar, though at least he varies expressions, while the woeful Linh Dan Pham registers exactly one.
A story with potential to be gripping, a production arranged with some care, a result that makes you wish you had access to some of their opium to haze you through 159 tedious minutes. The followup to the quote above has the wisdom-dispensing Annam matriarch add “They’re all about madness, fury, suffering… they’re similar to our war stories. You know the secret. I’ve told you already.” To which Deneuve replies “Yes, I know. Indifference.” No kidding.