Those wanting a sweeping romantic saga a la Regis Wargnier’s “Indochine” should look elsewhere besides “The Sea Wall,” adapted from French literary lion Marguerite Duras’ semi-autobiographical novel about her impoverished adolescence, dysfunctional family and affair with a Chinese man. As scripted by Michael Fessler and Cambodia-born, Paris-based documaker Rithy Panh, here directing his second fiction feature, pic depicts the corrupt, insular world of 1931 French colonialists in what is now Cambodia from the p.o.v. of semi-outsiders, a widow and her two restless children. A strong turn by Isabelle Huppert as the matriarch should propel the pic into niche arthouse play.
Having naively bought what she thought was fertile farmland, Madame Dufresne (Huppert) finds that floods annually destroy her rice crop. In debt and threatened with expropriation by crooked bureaucrats, she tries to build a dam against the sea with the help of the villagers.
Following Duras, the script and direction strip emotion and audience sympathy away from the mother’s plight. As despicable as the other French characters, she’s eager for teen daughter Suzanne (Astrid Berges-Frisbey, playing Duras’ alter ego) to get as much money as possible from rich Chinese admirer Mr. Jo (Randal Douc), shows favoritism to brutish son Joseph (Gaspard Ulliel), and tries to incite the local peasants to violence against the colonial administration.
Although the natives stay mostly in the background, as servants in the house and workers in the field, there’s still a hint of the rebellion yet to come.
Panh’s direction feels too literal in parts; like the novel, it’s stronger on ambience than narrative logic. Helmer provides a taste of Duras’ actual literary style toward the end, when Huppert reads Madame Dufresne’s letter to the Land Bureau in voiceover.
In her first feature, Berges-Frisbey does a nice job of portraying a budding young woman conscious of her sexual power. As the brother she’s attracted to, Ulliel is mostly sweat-glistening muscle and moody outbursts.
On-location lensing in Prey Nup, Cambodia, along with realistic period production design and costumes, effectively evoke the era while also showing the literal and figurative rot caused by the tropical clime. Tech package’s only misstep is the mediocre and overused orchestral score.
An earlier adaption of “The Sea Wall,” titled “This Angry Age,” was released in 1958. Helmed by Rene Clement as an English-language international co-production, it starred Jo Van Fleet, Silvana Mangano and Anthony Perkins.