Film is, more often than not, romantic by nature. Although there are filmmakers that fight against romanticism in cinema, sometimes with success and sometimes with failure, if left to its own devices, cinema is characterised by an idealised sense of reality, the very definition of romance. Indochine, winner of the Best Foreign Language film at the 1993 Oscars and now revived for a 2017 re-release, is a prime example of this, a film overflowing with so much saudade, nostalgia and longing that it flirts with nausea but ultimately has too many remarkable aspects to allow itself to drown in melodrama.
Taking place upon the gorgeous but tormented stage of colonial Vietnam in the 1930s, the film focuses on a trio of characters whose lives intersect and unravel in parallel to the country they inhabit. Screen legend Catherine Deneuve shines brightest as Éliane, a privileged French plantation owner whose tyranny and empathy stand in direct contrast to one another. She and her adopted Vietnamese daughter Camille enjoy their simple lives on the plantation before Jean Baptiste, a handsome but unsettled officer arrives and sends both their lives into a tragic spiral, the failings of an empire writ large on a personal scale. On the surface, there is a troubling subtext to the film. Why would we even begin to care about the romantic lives of a group of affluent and comfortable westerners whilst all around them a country is being torn apart by slavery, racism and the pain of colonialism? It has been a subject discussed with much fervour lately following the release and critical pounding of Sean Penn’s film The Last Face, which has been labelled as “refugee porn” due to its focus on western relationships against the backdrop of a broken Africa. Whether or not this is the case with Penn’s film, Indochine contains a similar pattern but manages to have enough awareness of its characters’ privilege, leading to an emphasis on political and historical heroism and freedom which takes precedence over any romantic hope the audience may have come searching for. A Vietnamese native utters the most telling line in the film; “I’ll never understand French people’s love stories. There’s nothing but folly, fury and suffering. Just like our war stories.” There will be some that undoubtedly take issue with this aspect of the film, along with its tendency to step too close to overwrought fantasy at times, but one thing that is undeniable, and also the most important aspect of this re-release, is that Indochine takes full advantage of its historical location. The landscape of Indochina, now known separately as Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, is of course achingly beautiful, and downright intimidating in equal measure with its mountains shrouded in mist and rivers that cut through the terrain like translucent snakes so very eye-catching that you feel it would be difficult to make the country look ugly. Director Wargnier is constantly cutting between the purity of the environment and the damage being inflicted upon it by humanity and this restored version of the film makes sure that the importance of colour and the smoothness of the camera movement takes centre stage. Deneuve has always been an enigmatic actress, prone to resting on her delicate beauty and icy exterior to light up the screen, but here she showcases a range that will be surprising to some who know her from her arthouse roles of the 60s and 70s. Without her top tier characterisation of the conflicted plantation owner, along with the keen eye to detail and sumptuous cinematography, the film would almost certainly fall as flat as a bad episode of a BBC period drama. Instead we get an authentic, old school romantic epic and a film that, despite being an Oscar winner, is something of a forgotten gem of 90’s European cinema. Here’s to worthwhile restorations.
Studio Canal’s gorgeous restoration of Indochine is out in cinemas and on Blu-ray now. You can purchase it here.