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Excerpts from David Nicholls' comments on INDOCHINE

[Originally published in History Today]

Regis Wargnier's Indochine, released in 1991, is one of the successes of "heritage" cinema, a hit at the French box office and winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It also represents the most lucrative fruit of a Franco-Vietnamese agreement allowing French film-makers to shoot films in Vietnam, unlike the Americans whose films about the Vietnam war have had to be shot in the Philippines or Thailand. France, it is asserted, may co-operate culturally with countries where her cultural influence is strong and (of course) beneficent. History may be confronted honestly in a new era of post-colonial collaboration, while on the domestic front, Wargnier's film allows France to come to terms with her colonial past in an age of economic recession and what French politicians call the "construction of Europe".

The very title Indochine is nostalgic, conjuring up a lost world from which the affix "French" is inseparable. Indeed, it is a film about the end of Indochina, told in flashback from the vantage point of Geneva in 1954 at the time of the negotiations which marked the final French withdrawal from Vietnam. But in a flashback to 1936, already, Indochine's Vietnamese "Red Princess" declares that "Indochina no longer exists. It is dead". It is, then, an evocation of a past which even within the film is diffused with the light of remembrance. Yet in the context of the "heritage film" Indochine is closer to historical "reality" (that is history as written by historians) than is, say, La Reine Margot, which is largely based on romantic and entertaining, but discredited and at times wildly inaccurate, portrayals of real historical characters. Dealing with still resonant events, contemporary sensibilities - both French and Vietnamese - have to be taken into account and a form of "political correctness" married to popular appeal.

The road to popular success lies in telling a good story. Indochine is a melodrama, telling a lengthy and complex tale, interweaving the personal and political in such a way that the historian and critic Jean-Pierre Jeancolas was moved to liken it to a "left-wing Gone With the Wind". The central character, Eliane Devries, played by Catherine Deneuve, is based very remotely on a real-life rubber planter in Cochin-China (southern Vietnam), a certain Madame de la Souchere, but for the most part the leading players are types who would be mere cliches or even caricatures in a shorter and less skilfully made and performed film.

The precise historical period of the story is not made explicit until near the end, when the release of political prisoners is ordered by the Popular Front government, thereby signalling to French audiences that we are in 1936 or 1937. In fact, the bulk of the action takes place between about 1928 and 1932, crucial years in the development of Vietnamese nationalism, with the foundation of the Indochinese Communist Party, led by Ho Chi Minh, in 1930, the economy badly hit by the consequences of global depression, and peasant uprisings in Annam and Tonkin (central and northern Vietnam) in 1930-31.

Despite the complexity of the story, it all revolves around the figure of Eliane Devries. The casting of Deneuve in the central role necessarily bestows a symbolic status on Eliane: the actress is not only the leading French female star of our day, but also quite literally the iconic representation of the French Republic, having replaced Brigitte Bardot as the model for Marianne, the female personification of the Republic displayed in town halls and other public places throughout the country. The key relationship in the film is that between Eliane and her adoptive Vietnamese daughter, Camille (Linh Dan Pham), whose rich parents have died in an air crash. Colonial and "native" elites are fused, but Camille will reject her inheritance in favour of the independence struggle.

Eliane represents colonial paternalism (or maternalism), but the "native" daughter rebels and rejects her colonial and privileged inheritance, an action paralleled by her fiance Tanh (Eric Nguyen), the scion of a rich merchant house who becomes a cadre of the Communist Party. Both partners in this arranged marriage abandon their mothers and the colonial world they represent for a life of clandestine political activism. The educated "Annamite" elite, the film suggests, become transformed into the leaders of the people.

The social world of the French revolves around the plush hotels of Saigon and regattas on the Mekong, while the Annamite elite is represented by the old and desiccated notables of the Confucian mandarin class and by the imperial court at Hue, a haven of tradition but illusory and anachronistic, an old power structure theoretically left intact by the French, but reduced to an empty shell. Poorer Vietnamese, meanwhile, have to come crawling for help to the rich. But the worm is in the bud. Reference is made to the killing of French officers by their Vietnamese troops in an abortive uprising at the army garrison of Yen Bai in the Red River valley in Tonkin in February 1930. Tanh, expelled from France for demonstrating in solidarity with the soldiers, is the archetypal "native" intellectual, whose anti-colonialism is fuelled by Western education and its humanist ideals of liberty and equality.

But Camille is the true Vietnamese heart of the film. She falls romantically in love with a young naval officer, Jean-Baptiste Le Guen (Vincent Perez), unaware that he has previously had a brief but intense affair with Eliane. When he is transferred to the north as a punishment for his unruly behaviour, Camille sets forth to find him, and her journey becomes a voyage of discovery, of her country and herself. Swapping her elegant European clothes for the black pyjamas familiar to viewers of Vietnam war films as the uniform of the Viet Cong, she experiences the realities of life in Annam and Tonkin: famine, epidemic disease, and forced labour, far removed from the refined colonial society in which she has been brought up.

The revelation of sordid reality continues when Camille finds Jean- Baptiste at a transit camp in the Red River delta where "volunteers" from the starving north are recruited for the plantations of the south through a system which amounts to slave labour. After escaping from the camp and recuperating in a hidden valley, the lovers are sheltered by a travelling theatrical troupe, who in turn are Communists involved in stirring up the peasant uprisings of 1930-31, directed against the mandarins and pro-French village notables and landlords. Historians are divided about the extent of the Communist Party's role in the revolts: the Party was only founded in 1930, but it was formed by a fusion of various groups, some of which possessed considerable organisation in the countryside. The Party did set up village committees which took control in some areas, the so-called Nghe-Tinh Soviet Movement, and village self-defence forces which official Vietnamese histories, published in 1974 and 1981, transmuted into the first units of the People's Army of Vietnam. But there is no doubt that the roots of the revolts were economic, lying in the appalling burden of taxation imposed upon the peasantry and the dreadful hardship of rural Annam and Tonkin. The film, realistically or not, goes along with the official version as the fires of rebellion flare up along the track of the subversive theatrical company.

After their capture by the French, the story of the two lovers, who now have a son, becomes a legend, enacted on travelling stages throughout the country, but it ends with Camille's imprisonment and the death of Jean-Baptiste, officially through suicide but in fact obviously killed by the secret police. The story now jumps forward five years to 1936. The Popular Front government in France orders the release of political prisoners and dismisses the head of the secret police, the Surete Generale de l'Indochine, Guy Asselin (Jean Yanne). Camille, now known as the "Red Princess", emerges from prison camp, but refuses to return to the plantation with Eliane: she will devote her life to the cause of Vietnamese independence. Eliane sells her plantation and "returns" to France, a country she has never seen. In the course of the film it has gradually been revealed that Eliane is narrating the story to Camille's now adult son in Geneva in 1954, where his mother is part of the Vietnamese delegation to the peace talks.

Making the figure of Eliane, elegant, attractive and ageless, the emotional centre of the film clearly tempers and even distracts attention from the pro-Communist politics. She is in more ways than not an attractive figure, sympathetic but flawed. "Unfulfilled as a woman" in a quite conventional sense, she is a romantic heroine in the grand tradition of such figures in French and American cinema, as capable of courage and self-sacrifice as she is of self-delusion. Her illusions are those of colonialism: she thinks she can pass on her inheritance to Camille and that a new pro-French elite will gradually take over the running of the country.

The role of villain is assumed by the police, specifically the Surete Generale de l'Indochine.Guy Asselin is the archetypal colonial policeman, aware that brutal methods are necessary if the empire is to survive and personally supervising or taking part in the torture of suspects. His ruthless realism will not allow him to release Camille from prison, even to please Eliane, the woman he loves. If Asselin is cynical but realistic, his subordinate Castellani is downright psychotic, humiliated by Jean-Baptiste and filled with hatred and contempt for the Vietnamese. But whether inspired by realism - "just doing the job" - or by personal hatreds, harsh and brutal policing is seen as the essence of colonial rule, the necessary protection for the privileged world of the settler elite.

The armed forces in Indochine means not so much the soldiers, who are only seen as guards for prisoners, as the navy. The higher echelons, represented by Jean-Baptiste's commanding officers, are punctilious and correct. In an exchange with Asselin towards the end of the film, the admiral in command refuses to let Jean-Baptiste be interrogated by the police because he disapproves of Asselin's methods, an example of the squeamishness which Asselin believes will lose France her colonies. Jean-Baptiste is more enigmatic. He is the only leading character who expresses no viewpoint about the colony and its future, and his actions and reactions throughout are all emotional rather than rational, let alone political. His name, `John the Baptist' suggests a forerunner, and he is captured while baptising his son in a river, a coincidence too obvious to be accidental. But of what exactly is he a forerunner? A new Franco-Vietnamese relationship? French anti-colonialism? His death precludes the necessity for an answer.

As for the Vietnamese, the elites are either blind, like Tanh's mother who believes that she and her kind are destined to rule forever because they are rich, or ossified and decadent, like the mandarins who are the prime target of nationalist attacks. "Native" traditions, apart from the theatre, are portrayed as negative: the cult of ancestors is shown as a kind of moral blackmail of the living by the dead, used by Asselin to try and force a prisoner to turn informer and by Tanh' s mother to dissuade her son from going underground as a revolutionary cadre- in other words to preserve the social hierarchy and colonial rule.

The final shot shows Eliane, dressed in a chic Parisian version of the Vietnamese "black pyjamas" gazing out on a sunset over Lake Geneva. It is a beautiful but enigmatic image which makes a suitable close to the film. The sun sets on French Indochina, now safely confined to the past with a mixture of regret and acceptance of inevitability. It still lives as dream and nightmare, beautiful but ignoble like the human traffic which provided the labourers for Eliane's estate. France and Indochina, inseparable at the beginning of the film, are now estranged.

Early in the film Eliane's voice-over tells us that youth is perhaps a belief that "the world is made up of things that cannot be separated: men and women, mountains and plains, humans and gods, Indochina and France". By implication the film suggests that the end of empire means national adulthood for France as well as Vietnam.

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