Indochine May 31, 2017
Norma Desmond’s claims that the movies got small, not her cinematic relevance, come to mind during Indochine (1992), a romantic epic so large in its every ambition that we often yearn for the small features of which Desmond so negatively speaks. Fashioned with the same fabrics as Gone with the Wind (1939) or Out of Africa (1985), it is a sweeping, ravishingly shot trove of passionate affairs, wartime atrocities, tropical sceneries, melodramatic exchanges. There’s no denying that it is a well-made, thoughtfully produced period piece.
But as it often goes with epics not made during the Hollywood Golden Age, inarguably the era in which excess was much more swallowable, Indochine is such a behemoth of its genre that it distinctly lacks the intimacy necessary to get away with selling such material. This is a movie that can only work if we care enough about its characters to bask in their company for nearly three hours. It’s a problem, then, that our eyes begin to glaze over somewhere during the middle act — these individuals, it seems, are much more fun to gaze at than become enraptured with.
Set in colonial Indochina during the 1930s, the film stars Catherine Deneuve (who received her sole Oscar nomination for her performance) as Éliane Devries, a wealthy Frenchwoman who runs a rubber plantation with her widowed father in the region. The adoptive mother of Camille (Linh Đan Phạm), the orphaned Vietnamese daughter of her best friends, Devries spends her days either in her lavish homes atop the plantation or outside of Saigon. She’s a local legend, something of a princess shimmering with glamour, dignity, and otherworldliness.
She’s unaccustomed to not being in control, to not being the smartest person in the room. But the film finds her at a crossroads, her steady hand threatened by the tumultuous political climate — in which colonialist Indochina is regularly a target — and an unexpected affair with Jean-Baptiste Le Guen (Vincent Pérez), a debonair Navy lieutenant who catches her eye.
Spanning decades, Indochine watches as Devries’ world progressively becomes shattered — her relationships both with her daughter and her lover are complicated not only by civil unrest but also by a love triangle that forms between herself, the girl, and Le Guen.
Heat is supposed to be generated, I guess, but I was never quite convinced by Indochine’s romantic entanglements the way I’m certain I was supposed to be. Such could have to do with the screenplay (penned by no less than four writers) and its way of preferring theatricality over intricate character development. Or it might have to do with the way Deneuve, Perez, and Phạm never quite mesh together, despite nonetheless giving efficacious performances.
Indochine does a lot of things well, especially the way its innovative photography simultaneously transports us into another time and place and enlivens the spectacle to look much more ethereal than any movie in Cecil B. DeMille’s oeuvre. The film is technically superior.
But it’s undoubtable that this a movie that’s supposed to conjoin romance and tragedy histrionically and find the beautiful bittersweetness within that connection. We can see it unfolding — we know which sections of the feature are meant to tug the heartstrings, to overwhelm us with their artistry and their magnitude. But we don’t react as strongly as Wargnier clearly intended. The muchness is too unmistakable to promise our affection. C+