PARIS–Set during rising communist protests in the 1930s, “Indochine” is a riveting romantic saga. Once non-French auds make small adjustments for historical context, Regis Wargnier’s pic will have long legs in art houses and solid B.O. in mainstream theaters, thanks to Catherine Deneuve’s classy performance, a sizzling story line and eye-catching locales in Vietnam.
Pic sticks close to its three main characters: a Frenchwoman who runs one of the country’s biggest rubber plantations, her adopted Indochinese daughter and the dashing French navy officer who loves each woman in quick succession.
Pic opens strong and never lets up. Deneuve’s Eliane is cool if courteous when she meets handsome naval newcomer (Vincent Perez), but she falls for him despite herself.
Since teenage daughter Camille knows nothing of mom’s passionate affair, she falls instantly in love when the same officer saves her from a terrorist. Mother chooses daughter’s happiness, and frustrated beau asks for a faraway post in the north.
But stubborn Camille takes off after him on foot, discovering along the way her country’s miseries. She’s rounded up for peasant labor, kills a French slave auctioneer and flees with her stunned officer.
After the couple hides together for months, she watches him get arrested with their baby, whom Eliane then raises like her own son.
Halfway into pic, its intriguing frame becomes clear: in Geneva, at the close of the Indochinese war, Eliane is telling her grown ward his parents’ history, since he’s about to meet his mother, a Communist Vietnamese representative, for the first time.
Deneuve delivers a stunning portrait of a complex woman. She’s a stern taskmaster who whips runaway workers, but with family and peers she’s sensitive, cultivated, gracious, affectionate. In short, Deneuve’s impeccable performance brings to life the best and the worst of French colonialism.
Perez, first an uncommitted lover and then a feisty Frenchman on the run, handles his fast-changing role with great sensitivity. Newcomer Linh Dan Pham shines as sheltered daughter and hardened revolutionary.
Among the secondary roles are several jewels such as Jean Yanne, the corpulent security chief– crafty, dangerous yet visibly amorous in Eliane’s presence. His lover (Dominique Blanc) is a wonderfully ill-humored tease and sings a catchy cabaret number.
With terse script in hand, helmer Wargnier smoothly advances his long story line, avoiding pulp romance and an overload of historic detail. He has a keen eye for mixing fields of vision, and a sure hand with visual spectacles such as the opening river funeral, an upper-class wedding and a boat race.
Kudos are deserved all round for technical production, though especially for the French and Indochinese costumes and Francois Catonne’s lensing of misty mountain lakes.