FILM / Under a sun that never sets: Indochine (12); Wittgenstein (12); Distinguished Gentleman (15); Forever Young (PG)

Quentin Curtis
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:16

SUFFERING has never seemed so soigne as in Indochine. Regis Wargnier's epic smothers the final throes of French rule in 1930s Indo-China in chic. The clamour of the insurgent nation is all but drowned by the sobs and sighs of the Mills & Boon story that is the film's focus - a remix of Madame Butterfly which makes Puccini seem a model of plausibility. The Cio-Cio-San figure is an orphaned Vietnamese princess, Camille (Linh Dan Pham), who falls in love with Jean-Baptiste (Vincent Perez), a French naval officer and former flame of Camille's adoptive French mother, Eliane (Catherine Deneuve). Eliane has the officer dispatched to a northern outpost, Devil's Island. The infatuated girl follows him, taking us on an exquisite travelogue. It might have been called Indo-Sheen.

The film's heart is with the French, lolling on Deneuve's rubber plantation. The coolies squeeze sap from the trees while Deneuve sits on a verandah. If the camera glances at the gnarled face of a worker, it swiftly returns to the officer class. Camille, the only native we get to know, is a princess. The Indo- Chinese are extras.

Early on we see Deneuve teaching Camille to dance. Their awkward tango is a rich image the film fails to follow up: France civilising its colony by treading on its toes. The film shows the evils of colonialism, but only to contrast its benefits, as represented by the benign Deneuve. It takes the Montesquieuan line that conquest was France's right and duty. There is no sense that even by doing good - educating and ordering - the French may have been doing wrong, cutting the natives off from their culture. The most interesting character, Tanh (Eric Nguyen), a revolutionary Marxist and the husband lined up for Camille, is barely seen. The revolution takes place off-stage.

Distance has always been the source of Deneuve's enchantment, making her peculiarly suited to playing the disturbed. Her porcelain face is a screen which directors have projected their fantasies on. But here she plays a character trapped in worldliness, dulled by sensuality - Belle de Jour without her secret life. 'I have had casual affairs,' she records in the clipped, over-elegiac voice she uses to narrate. 'The kind that leave no trace.' No trace, that is, except a weary regret that has her staring moodily into the distance much of the time. She only seems at peace in the mandatory opium scene. Eliane's too steady for Deneuve's mystery.

Like all the characters she's really only a pawn in the melodrama, to be pushed around in time to the soaring music. Vincent Perez's Jean-Baptiste, the object of mother and daughter's passion, is just a smouldering look in a suit. Camille, the girl he stakes his heart and career on, has little more than jeune fille charm. As the film lurches from absurdity to absurdity - murder, imprisonment, pregnancy - the score is left to do the work, underlaying each empty image and line with a stirring crescendo. The film sinks into farce but the band plays on.

There are parallels with British Empire movies: nostalgia is always the enemy, creeping up on any critique. But at least A Passage to India gave a voice to the colony. In Indochine there is no native to compare to Victor Bannerjee's delicately drawn Dr Aziz. Yet the film won awards and drew huge audiences in France. How did so cine-sophisticated a nation fall for such tosh?

Indochine might have appealed to Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose taste in movies was schlockish and escapist - mainly westerns and musicals, according to Derek Jarman's Wittgenstein. A J Ayer revealed that Wittgenstein quarrelled with Gilbert Ryle 'because Ryle refused to agree that a good British film was not even a possibility'. Wittgenstein's view is popular now, but those who believe a good Jarman film an impossibility may have to reconsider. It's odd to praise Jarman for restraint, but he uses his limited means to represent Wittgenstein's ideas clearly and his life unsensationally. Bertrand Russell's libertinism is merely hinted at - by his scarlet pyjamas. Keynes's homosexuality goes no further than a chaste kiss. We have Wittgenstein's pillow-talk (outlining the private-language argument) but no pillow-play.

Karl Johnson's Wittgenstein is a carbon copy. Not just the open-collared white shirt and tweed jacket, but the boyish crop and the intense, gentle gaze. He speaks English with a German tinge and a foreigner's love of idiom. The supporting roles are less successful. Michael Gough's Russell and John Quentin's Keynes, who is caricatured as both a toff and a fruit, are a little too dazzled by Ludwig's brilliance. The English are all brightly clothed (Tilda Swinton as Lady Ottoline Morrell has a feather boa with a chameleon life of its own), as if to show up colourful dilettantism against the diligence of genius. Thought can't be filmed, but this picture, which has the feel of a dramatised documentary, honours the thinker.

The Distinguished Gentleman is a decent Eddie Murphy vehicle - not exactly a Cadillac, but better than some of the beaten-up Chevrolets he's driven us round the bend in. Murphy plays a con-man who sees that the big bucks lie in making the law rather than breaking it. He sails into Congress with the serendipity that smiles only on heroes of Hollywood light comedy - by having the same name as a hulk-headed lecher (James Garner), who dies during late-night desk-work with his secretary. When in Rome, Eddie does as Roman emperors used to do.

Murphy doesn't look like a politician. With his middleweight physique and heavyweight charm, he's far too classy. But he sounds just right, delivering old saws with phoney emphasis. The film is as much a showcase for his mimicry as his gleaming smile. He ranges from Swedish sex-siren to Miami Yiddish via Martin Luther King. The Distinguished Gentleman is the not-so-distinguished scion of films like A Face in the Crowd and Mr Smith Goes to Washington, which also put outsiders in power. The movie is crudely cynical about American politics, but some of its shots, particularly at lobbyists, hit the mark. Like Bob Roberts and the forthcoming Dave, an Ivan Reitman comedy about an ordinary punter punted into the White House, it's plugging Perot-noia. Flimsy but fun.

Flimsier still is Forever Young. Mel Gibson freezes on the point of proposing to his girlfriend (Isabel Glasser), and ends up frozen for 53 years. We first meet him in 1939, an air-force pilot and part-time goofball - all toothy grins and tickling with his girl. When the girl goes into a coma after being hit by a car, rather than watch her die Mel volunteers for a cryogenics experiment conducted by his doctor friend (George Wendt, with his usual lardy charm). Science being what it is, he spends decades instead of the planned months in the cooler and turns up in 1992, unaged, but having to defrost his legs before using them.

Too little is made of him being an alien from another age. His matinee- idol hairdo is out of place in either era - he's forever old-fashioned. But beyond a raised eyebrow at the casual profanity of the Nineties, he has no problems with modern idiom. A good gag with an answerphone (not so good to merit using twice) is his only technical hitch. Mainly he's cosying up to Nineties love-interest Jamie Lee Curtis and joshing with her son (Elijah Wood), whose stageyness makes you think well of Macaulay Culkin. The agelessness wears off, of course, and the movie becomes a race against time and senility to the ultra-corny finish.

Wind is a yachting film, helmed by Carroll Ballard, about Matthew Modine losing and regaining the Americas Cup. If half the effort that went into the sailing had gone into the script it might have got somewhere. Yachts slap the waves like writhing whales, but little else is stirring. Mostly it's like Boat Race Grandstand, with bigger boats and cliches.

'Indochine' (12): Curzon WE (439 4805), Odeon Kensington (371 3166). 'Wittgenstein' (12): ICA (930 3647). 'Distinguished Gentleman' (15): Odeon Leicester Sq (930 3232) & gen release. 'Forever Young' (PG): Trocadero (434 0032) & gen release. Nos 071 unless stated.

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