Regis Wargnier’s lush and poignant “Indochine” (at the Royal and the Colorado) is a sweepingly romantic historical saga, at once intimate and epic, spanning the last quarter-century of French rule in Southeast Asia. It tells the story of a beautiful French colonial (Catherine Deneuve), a rich and powerful rubber plantation owner, and her adopted daughter Camille (Linh Dan Pham), a native princess, whose destinies become intertwined with that of their increasingly strife-torn country.
Filmed in Vietnam and Malaysia, “Indochine” is awesomely gorgeous, both in its landscapes and in its period-perfect settings and costumes. Although steeped in French elegance and irony, it is more like a vintage Hollywood movie in its scale and scope and grand passions. Although it embraces an anti-colonial spirit of revolution, it begins in fact like a stormy Lana Turner picture----"Green Dolphin Street” comes to mind.
Deneuve, as the imperious Eliane, appears in a different costume every scene as she keeps her coolie labor force in line, showers love upon the exquisite, deceptively docile Camille, carries on affairs boldly, throws fancy parties and takes to the opium pipe in moments of distress. She lives in a self-indulgent, exotic colonial paradise right out of a Somerset Maugham story.
At heart “Indochine” is an old-fashioned woman’s picture in the sense that “Gone With the Wind” is, but like the makers of that classic film, Wargnier and his co-writers know how to honor the genre while moving beyond it to evoke the often tragic dissolution of a way of life that was privileged and luxurious for the few while cruel and unjust to the many. Indeed, Wargnier is so adroit at turning the heady personal melodrama of “Indochine” against itself, shifting focus from the reactionary Eliane to the revolutionary Camille, you may not notice it happening, so steadfastly compassionate is he to both women.
As the 1930s progress, Eliane, despite plenty of ominous portents, continues her regal existence as if nothing will ever change. Yet she finds herself falling hard for a fiery, headstrong young French naval officer, Jean-Baptiste (Vincent Perez), after many casual affairs that “never leave a trace.” However, a rebel outburst on the streets of Saigon propels the innocent Camille, caught in the cross-fire, into the arms of Jean-Baptiste, who she believes has saved her life. A couple of plot twists later, Camille and Jean-Baptiste, now lovers, are on the run, trying to make it into China as the clash between communist insurgents and the French colonial authorities escalates.
What gives “Indochine” its substance and dimension are the complexity of its two colonials, Eliane and Guy (Jean Yanne), the Saigon-based director of the Criminal Investigation Department. The Eliane we meet at the beginning of the film--a woman who treats her native workers, virtual slaves, like children--is not the same woman at its end: Turmoil, heartbreak and loss have given her perspective and made her wise. But they have not undermined her dignity, capacity to love--or her looks. Such is Deneuve’s presence that she dominates the film even when she is off-camera.
Guy is a brutal administrator, not above resorting to torture, but is also a shrewd man, honest with himself and Eliane about what a colonial’s loyalty to his mother country entails. He’s a wonderfully reflective character for the burly, resourceful Yanne to play. Vincent Perez and Linh Dan Pham are classically beautiful and naive lovers, as star-crossed as Romeo and Juliet.
Lots of people contributed to the beauty and elegance of “Indochine” (rated PG-13 for some violence, sensuality and drug-related scenes), foremost among them are cinematographer Francois Catonne, production designer Jacques Bunoir, costume designers Gabriella Pescucci and Pierre-Yves Gayraud and composer Patrick Doyle. But the film could never have worked as well as it does without those majestic, authentic settings in Vietnam and Malaysia.
Catherine Deneuve: Eliane
Vincent Perez: Jean-Baptiste
Linh Dan Pham: Camille
Jean Yanne: Guy
A Sony Pictures Classics release of a co-production of Paradis Films et la Generale d’Images, Bac Films, Orly Films and Cine Cinq. Director Regis Wargnier. Screenplay Erik Orsenna, Louis Gardel, Catherine Cohen, Wargnier. Producer Eric Heumann. Executive producers Alain Belmondo, Gerard Crosnier. Cinematographer Francois Catonne. Music Patrick Doyle. Production design Jacques Bunoir. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.
MPAA-rated PG-13 (for some violence, sensuality and drug-related scenes).