FILM / Colonial chic saps the strength

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The Independent Culture
IT IS not in every film that the hero accuses his lover of treating him as badly as she treats trees, but Regis Wargnier's preposterous Indochine (12) is no ordinary slab of cinema. 'You treat people as if they were trees,' says handsome Jean-Baptiste accusingly, 'you buy them and you drain them.' The reason that she drains them is that they are rubber trees, of which she owns a plantation.

Eliane (Catherine Deneuve) mentions at one point that she loves the smell of rubber. We even see her do a little genteel tapping herself, at an elegiac moment near the end of the film. I swear, the irregular rasp of the cutting tool sounds like sobbing, and the sap-drips trickle down the curved groove like elasticated tears.

Never mind that Deneuve acts as though the only sap that would command her attention would be the juice of the Chanel No 5 tree. At moments of stress she retreats behind headscarves and dark glasses like some opiated Garbo. This performance has been nominated for an Oscar (as has the film, in the foreign category), but Deneuve's inert chic is unlikely to win her any new admirers. The considerable films of her career turn out to have been made with directors who either stripped her of her poise (Polanski, in Repulsion) or found it amusing (Bunuel with Belle de Jour). No chance of any such disrespect now. In 1985 Deneuve was chosen to represent Marianne, the symbol of the Republic as displayed in every French town hall, and even now, when during filming Indochine, she allows the young actress who plays her adoptive daughter (Linh Dan Pham) to address her as tu, the event is reported as a miracle of patrician delicacy. Deneuve's dresser, after all, was the only other person to be granted the privileged pronoun.

If anyone deserves an award it is Jean Yanne as the chief of police, a distinguished graduate of the Philippe Noiret School of Sad-eyed Gruffness.

The original idea for Indochine seems to have been to revamp Madame Butterfly, but the script has ended up novelettish rather than operatic. Only a few minutes from its beginning, with a scene of an auction sale, the film enters territory both loopy and definitively French. Jean-Baptiste, a young naval officer (Vincent Perez), bids for a painting, but Eliane soon outbids him. He seizes the painting and brandishes it under her lovely nose, defying her to say why she likes it. He likes it, you see, because it is a painting of a place that he loved as a child, and that he even tried to paint. His efforts were doomed because he lacked the courage to improve on nature for the sake of an artistic composition. 'At age 10,' he confesses, 'one doesn't know the world must be changed.'

When, in the next scene, this same radical aesthete in uniform is shown setting fire to the junk of some suspected opium traffickers, you could think for just a little while that a theme of plunder is being sounded, of trade either fetishised in the auction room or forbidden in the bay by an arbitrary colonial authority. But you would be wrong. Indochine presents the ruling classes as being above money. Eliane's father seems to be sleeping with a servant girl, and she heself has enlarged her rubber holdings by adopting the orphan heiress Camille, but the film seems comfortable with the way their privilege shades into exploitation. Eliane explains that though she looks like a European she is actually an Asiatic, that though her outside is apple her inside is mango. Deneuve is eating a mango at that point, as it happens, and an admirably dainty nibbler of tropical fruit she is too. But as for any getting to grips with colonialism, you should consider looking elsewhere.

Melodramas with a historical setting traditionally use political events as a counterpoint to private emotions, but Indochine can boast a special shamelessness, whereby history stands for only a fraction of a second before being annexed. Have you heard, Tanh has been expelled from France] No, why? Well, some Indo-Chinese troops massacred their French officers and were executed, and then there were riots, and then there were solidarity protests in France, and Tanh went on one of those and got expelled. But what will this mean for his career and his marriage prospects?

The fact that Catherine Deneuve has represented the French republic in a quite objective sense makes her part in the film seem positively pernicious. Paternalistic colonialism is spuriously feminised, so as to make France into either a tender foster mother or at worst a distraught lover. Deneuve is also granted the fake-neutral authority of a voice-over, when the action of the film wanders off beyond her character's point of view. From this privileged vantage point she describes slavery as 'shameful human traffic', which is a bit rich coming from someone who flogs runaway coolies without so much as rumpling her wardrobe of casual classics in ivory and beige and tan. At least those who are weighed, examined and sold at the auction block don't have to put up with their owner saying, 'You made me beat you. Do you think mothers like beating their children?' They are at least spared the family romance of colonialism.

Even when Camille becomes a revolutionary, her reasons are not political but sentimental. She doesn't want her small son to know what she's been through, what she's suffered. She wants him to be happy. That's why she can never come home but must follow her destiny elsewhere.

The film ends in Geneva, at the exact place and time that Indo-China becomes Vietnam, but it is entirely characteristic that Deneuve's last line should be about something more worthy of her attention, the broken heel of her shoe. It would be a fitting climax to Regis Wargnier's film if she chucked the offending slingbacks into Lake Geneva, but alas, the director freezes the frame while her composure is still immaculate.

(Photograph omitted)