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By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 05, 1993


Regis Wargnier
Catherine Deneuve;
Vincent Perez;
Linh Dan Pham;
Jean Yanne
scenes involving sexuality and drug use
Foreign Film

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A lethargic opium dream of colonial Vietnam, "Indochine" looks back on French imperialism with a dramatically deadening spiritual fatigue. But, unlike similarly sprawling British mea culpas, this movie makes no apologies for those who usurp a country's culture. The world-weary protagonists of this historical melodrama don't see themselves as oppressing the Indochinese, but as nurturing them on the cream of European civilization.

This presumptuous if not altogether indefensible notion is spelled out in the tight relationship between Eliane (Catherine Deneuve), a rubber-plantation owner, and Camille (Linh Dan Pham), her adopted Indochinese daughter. An Annam princess educated in French schools, Camille breaks the tie when she and her beloved mother become rivals for the love of a fickle young naval officer, Jean-Baptiste (Vincent Perez).

Thinking she is doing what's best for her daughter, Eliane arranges to have Jean-Baptiste reassigned to the remote and scenic Tonkin Islands. But Eliane has underestimated Camille, who flees the comfort and privilege of Saigon to find the man she loves. During her hazardous journey, Camille discovers a new passion for her homeland and her people. And when finally reunited with Jean-Baptiste, she is well on her way to becoming a revolutionary.

Her transformation from Mademoiselle Butterfly to Communist leader becomes complete when she is torn from her lover and their infant son and thrown into prison for crimes against the state. The trouble is we never see the fragile teenager undergo this surprising metamorphosis. Director Regis Wargnier seems far more interested in what the white folks are doing back on the plantation. As with other potentially enlivening events, we hear about it from the coolly aristocratic Eliane. A form of cinematic colonialism, "Indochine" commits dramatic suicide by Eurocentrism.

Clearly Wargnier, who also co-wrote the script, has a fondness for extended metaphors, preferring intellectual artifice over character development. None of his characters is particularly complex or consistent, but Jean-Baptiste is virtually put out to stud as a sexual cynic turned romance-novel-cover boy overnight. Perhaps it was the MSG that tenderized this beefcake. Deneuve's Eliane is more interesting, but she is, after all, playing France.

Wargnier, who learned his craft at the elbow of Claude Chabrol, does expose the geographic splendors of Southeast Asia as well as the common sense of its people, whose sly observations lend "Indochine" both energy and levity. Madame Tam (Thi Hoe Tranh Huu Trieu), a businesswoman whose son is engaged to Camille, speaks for all of us when she hears of the girl's interest in her mother's paramour. "I'll never understand French people's love stories, they're nothing but folly and suffering." Our beret's off to Madame Tam.

"Indochine" is rated PG-13 for scenes involving sexuality and drug use.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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