The Lover. Indochine
Returning to Indochina
by Sylvie Blum
from Jump Cut, no. 41, May 1997, pp. 59-66
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1997, 2006
"For general Western spectatorship, Vietnam does not exist outside of the war. And she no longer exists since the war has ended, except as a name, an exemplary model of revolution, or a nostalgic cult object for those who, while admiring unconditionally the revolution, do not seem to take any genuine, sustained interest in the troubled reality of Vietnam in her social and cultural autonomy. The more Vietnam is mystified, the more invisible she becomes."
(Trinh T. Minh-ha, When the Moon Waxes Red, 100)
In 1992, Vietnam became the locus of three major French films, with the release of Jean-Jacques Annaud's THE LOVER, Régis Wargnier's INDOCHINE released in 1991 and Pierre Schoendoerffer's DIEN BIEN PHU. French scriptwriters, filmmakers and production houses have negotiated a return to France's colonial past, involving unprecedented collaboration with Vietnamese authorities and film crews. Vietnam has opened its borders to western trade, and despite the U.S. economic embargo, which finally ended in 1994, the French nation has been among the first to resume trade. President Mitterrand officially visited Vietnam in February 1993. Tourism in Vietnam is on the rise, and the newly created "Maison de L'Indochine" in Paris offers travel brochures and tours to "mysterious Indochina."
This article interrogates the recent post-colonial filmic representation(s) of the French colonial past in Indochina. I am interested in a historical moment, the 80s and early 90s, in which the films' setting returns to a colonial time neglected or absent from previous French commercial pictures. In the Anglophone film world, critics have similarly observed a "wave of elegiac narratives about the closing of the imperial period." (Shohat/Stam, 123). Several factors have to be taken into account when dealing with a postcolonial situation. In order to address these issues, I will confine my analysis to a close reading of two films THE LOVER and INDOCHINE but discuss them first in the context of other fiction films stemming from other French colonial experiences located in Africa such as Claire Denis' CHOCOLAT (1988).
The attempt to theorize about filmic representations of colonial Indochina cannot constitute the object of study as a homogeneous entity. The analysis, and the films, encompass several discourses and compel us to reconsider the history of "orientalisms," or the European fascination with and appropriation of the Orient. In Critical Terrains, Lisa Lowe investigates the different aspects of French and British oriental discourses in literature from the 18th century on. Distinguishing differences between the French and British situations, she argues that French orientalism has a long tradition in literature which preceded some of its manifestations in French colonialism but that "colonialism is often not named or addressed" in such texts (107).
A serious representation of colonial conflicts in Indochina is seriously lacking in the narratives under scrutiny. Instead of exposing the fabric of colonialism, the stories of INDOCHINE and THE LOVER instill feelings of intense nostalgia and exoticism for something which eludes the spectator. At the same time these recent films do expose directly the colonial situation from the position of the colonialist. Such a figure is depicted by Albert Memmi in his analysis of the colonial situation as the "the colonizer who agrees to be a colonizer...[H]e agrees to legitimize colonization" (45). The films espouse the discourse of colonialism and refuse to condemn it as such. Through their nostalgic rhetoric, the screenplays are infused with colonial mores, justifying the presence of French settlers and their superiority.
Forty years after the fact, Indochina still exerts an incomprehensible fascination which does not transpose very well onto the screen. The use of eroticism and sexual attraction between the races is inscribed in both films' screenplays, as well as the fascination for the Other, be it for a geographical or human landscape. The two films, THE LOVER and INDOCHINE, are situated at the historical juncture immediately preceding the end of the colonial era. Both films conclude with the physical departure of the French presence in Southeast Asia even if the realization of such a moment is not acknowledged on screen.
French historian Henri Rousso interrogates the function of memory in France after World War II. The 70s witnessed the resurgence of lost memories or what he calls the return of the repressed — a process which started during the 70s and culminated in 1974 (19). This cycle is still present today. Instances include the Klaus Barbie trial and the affair Touvier (and more recently Papon), one involving a Nazi war criminal, the other a French collaborator, both responsible for the deportation of French Jews to Germany during World War II. More recently the French press has excavated Mitterrand's troubled background during Vichy times. Such events show evidence of the continuing necessity to purge the past.
Colonial history enters the chiaroscuro zone of France's repressed histories. Few films in France have addressed colonization from an objective historical perspective, indicating the impossibility of dealing effectively with this specific past. French cinema counts very few mainstream/commercial texts, films or novels, which deal with the war or colonial experience in North Africa, Indochina, and West Africa.[open notes in new window] The "return to reality" — a trend labeled by film historian Roy Armes in his attempt to periodicize French cinema for the years 1969 to 1974 — seems to be clearly restricted to depicting life within France (207). Examples of more politicized films are to be found in independent productions, either fictional or documentary, such as AVOIR 20 ANS DANS LES AURES (1972, René Vautier)-films which were not widely distributed. LOIN DU VIETNAM (FAR FROM VIETNAM), a collective film made by Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Claude Lelouch, Joris Ivens, William Klein, and Agnes Varda might be the exception to this rule, as it exposes "the problems of the war in Vietnam seen from Europe" (Armes, 45). The film combines documentary and fictional footage and is a product of a 1968 collective organizing spirit. Godard's LETTER TO JANE touches on Vietnam as it analyzes for 45 minutes a photograph of Jane Fonda in Vietnam. Alain Resnais' MURIEL (1964) and Agnes Varda's CLEO FROM 5 TO 7 also refers obliquely to Vietnam.
It has taken about 40 years for French mainstream cinema to engage the topic of decolonization and to treat colonization in a non-oblique fashion. On the other hand, independent militant cinema in France has exposed the situation of colonization and post-colonization in Algeria, Africa and Indochina — mostly in documentary forms. Francophone African and Arab filmmakers early on targeted the history of colonialism and its products in postcolonial Africa and North Africa. In fact, many film projects were never produced because of their reflection on postcolonialism and colonialism, since the filmmakers depend on French capital in order to produce their films.
With the expansion of productions by Francophone African filmmakers, Maghrebian filmmakers, and now Franco-Vietnamese filmmakers, such as Tran Anh Hung, director of THE SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA (1993), the production of postcolonial fictions is on the rise. As far as the treatment of colonial conflicts in Southeast Asia on film is concerned, Pierre Schoendoerffer remains the precursor (LE CRABE-TAMBOUR (1977), LA 317E SECTION (1965), SECTION ANDERSON (1967). DIEN BIEN PHU, released in 1992, is the only film to depict the 1954 battle where the French army was defeated, and the Vietnamese government and filmmakers collaborated on the making of the film.
The cinematic treatment of colonialism started in the late seventies, a period of historical introspection for France, with films such as LA VICTOIRE EN CHANTANT, later renamed NOIRS ET BLANCS EN COULEURS (BLACK AND WHITE IN COLOR), a J. J. Annaud film (1976, co-produced by France-Côte d'Ivoire; Best Foreign Film Oscar, 1977) where white settlers in Africa are seen through the mercilessly objective lens of the camera, and COUP DE TORCHON (1981, Tavernier). In France, as part of the new generation's attempt to deal with the past, several recent films have been made by French women filmmakers who attempt to cast a critical look on the colonial era. One of these is Claire Denis, who grew up in Cameroon. Her film CHOCOLAT (1988) exemplifies a good attempt to come to terms with the end of the colonial world. As Stuart Hall suggested,
"CHOCOLAT...may be the only kind of film European film-makers should be making about Africa just now. It may be time for Europeans to confront what colonization has done to them rather than instantly taking on the white man's burden, once again, of speaking for the other." (51)
CHOCOLAT is a story of a return to one's native land, seen from the ex-colonizer's perspective. The white narrator, a young French woman named France travels back to Cameroon where she grew up. Claire Denis, the cineaste, grew up in colonial Africa and was inspired by her own experience when making the film as well as by Ferdinand Oyono's novel Une Vie de boy (Houseboy, Paris: Julliard, 1956). In a series of major flashbacks, the film reconstitutes a moment in her childhood and her parents' life in a time immediately preceding independence. Although never evoked and always off-camera, nationalist struggles for independence are foregrounded by several elements throughout the film. France returns to see her old house, which she never does see again. Nor does she see her childhood servant ("boy") Protée, with whom she had a very close but conflictual relationship as a child. Instead as a hitchhiker, she meets an African American expatriate who tells her his own trajectory and his quest for his identity and roots. The camera visually explores the luxuriant landscape as the film's present-tense journey becomes a pretext for rediscovering the past.
Some critics have expressed their dissatisfaction with the narrative where nothing happens and where the lack of closure leaves the spectator with a sense of frustration. The last sequence adopts France's point of view, or so we assume, as she follows Protée at a distance. Protée, her childhood companion, is seen at his workplace, an airport, his back turned to the spectator, speaking with two other African colleagues. For the frustrated spectator, an encounter between France and Protée as adults does not occur, at least on screen. France is left with her own memories, transposed into long flashbacks.
Following the format of CHOCOLAT, THE LOVER and INDOCHINE pick two French women born in the colonies as their main protagonists. Both films rely on fictional dramas that seem to be inspired by a childhood in Vietnam during the colonial times, and so they borrow from the tradition of popular melodramas or what Ann Kaplan sees as a "maternal melodrama" (125). The plots are set during the 1930s, a moment at the height of the "colonial era." THE LOVER, adapted from Duras' 1984 best-selling novel L'Amant, is called a partially autobiographical narrative.
THE LOVER's narrative deals with a young French schoolgirl's affair with a wealthy Indochinese man of Chinese origins. It is set in the 1930s during the French colonial empire in Indochina. The protagonist is a 15 year-old girl, the daughter of French school teachers who left France to resettle in Indochina in order to better their social status. Now, as a widow, her mother raises three children by herself in a state of extreme poverty. The father is absent from the narrative, presumably dead. The older son acts as the surrogate father, in charge of authority and order in the family.
Having failed in a land-exploitation scheme and having been duped by the colonial administration, which gave her land by the delta, the mother falls into semi-madness. She leaves her children entirely free to do as they wish. The teenage girl has an affair with a wealthy 32 year-old Indochinese man of Chinese origins. Moving from novel to film, Annaud organizes the screenplay around this interracial relationship. He drops the melodramatic dimension which constitutes half of Duras' novel, articulated around the intense mother/ daughter relationship. Annaud also deletes the photographic images which permeate Duras' text and constitute its genesis. In a mixed fictional and autobiographical mode, Duras has written extensively about her own family ordeal in Indochina, where she was born.
Annaud, at first reticent to touch the novel, which is such a "national monument," decides to shoot the film back in Indochina, now Vietnam, in order to "recreate the atmosphere of Indochina in the 30s." A physical return to "Indochina" is in itself an impossibility, but impossiblity is intrinsic to any nostalgic scenario. A return to the past or home cannot be achieved if the place has been destroyed or changed. Indochine no longer exists, except as an imaginary, historical, colonial and linguistic concept. Both THE LOVER and INDOCHINE focus on Vietnam, a fraction of what composed the colonial contours of French Indochina. Vietnam's reality is that it has been devastated and divided by wars, internal and external, and it is just emerging economically. In terms of film production, Annaud's venture ironically parallels that of earlier French settlers, for he had to build roads and bring in the necessary infrastructure to make his film.
The film, THE LOVER, is faithful to a certain extent to Duras' story and text and to the special vision she has given of Indochina, a country where she was born and grew up. Duras would have liked to make the film herself, but she would have shot it in the French countryside. Duras, a filmmaker herself, recreated India, a displacement for Vietnam/ Indochina, on location in France for INDIA SONG with smaller means (1975). Her modernist theoretical approach to the recreation of the past on film, finding the cinematic potential to reconstruct situations anywhere, constitutes one of the many differences between Duras and Annaud as directors. In terms of the storyline, Annaud's script adds material gained from his doing research into the Chinese lover's background and family, enough to infuriate Duras and provoke her break with him. Gerard Brach, Annaud's collaborator and scriptwriter, insists that without the love scenes, the colonial nostalgia and the costumes would not have been substantial enough for a film:
"Despite colonial nostalgia, costumes and light, if the love scenes at the bachelor's apartment did not take place, there would not be any film" (53).
In her writing, Duras' native land is schematically outlined, its inhabitants acting as extras next to her characters' intense passion and suffering, which take centerstage. When one considers Duras' narrative treatment of the colonial question, the Orient figures as a mental landscape, with an indigenous population functioning as a backdrop. Duras is most interested in depicting the degenerating colonial milieu. In Annaud's filmic adaptation, the main characters — the girl, her mother and brothers, and the Chinese man — are also detached from interaction with the natives and always distant from them. But the film's style is not modernist, nor does it emphasize mental processes.
The Indochinese people are usually shown as silent domestic workers or in a crowd. As was characteristic of the colonialist mentality, any European settling in a colony became a colonizer and was above the natives. If the screenplay (and novel) insists on the extreme poverty of the settlers' family, the race and social status of these French colonials set them apart from indigenous people and struggles. The Vietnamese officials apparently liked this aspect, which showed a family of deprived colonizers, but a "dignified" Chinese man. (Annaud, THE LOVER press kit) Duras' distanced vision of her native land is inscribed in Annaud's film. In fact, Annaud did not reproduce on screen his astonishment at the real state of things he witnessed upon his "return" to Indochina. It was what Jane March, the actress playing the young girl, characterized as "the poorest country she had ever seen."
What went on in 1930s Indochina, besides the interracial love affair between an adolescent and a mature man? In her writing, Duras avoids the topic of nationalist indigenous struggles for independence to concentrate on the fact that she herself braved both French and Chinese cultural taboos and had sex with a member of the Chinese ruling class, long-time colonial ruler over the Indochinese population. As in Duras' writing (e.g., Hiroshima, mon amour, 1960), the film examines the parameters of an exotic passion between two people from different social and racial backgrounds, but it is limited to the geography of the Cholon bachelor's bedroom. Both THE LOVER and INDOCHINE focus on the sexual interest of thirty-year old men for pubescent girls, a treatment which is also present in Duras' novel and Wargnier/Montella's subsequently published novel. This sexual scenario follows the formula already established in 18th century popular, "imperial" narratives about transracial love, where the "allegory of romantic love mystifies exploitation out of the picture" (Pratt, 97). The narrative in THE LOVER underlines the class difference between the young French girl and the Indochinese/ Chinese man as one of the major components of their relationship. At least, it is one Duras uses in order to justify the relationship: she is the daughter of a deprived colonizer in need of money, and he is the wealthy French-educated son of a Chinese merchant. Once this class distinction is established, both film and novel attempt to construct a political statement about the colonial system, but in the film, exploring interracial desire does not lead to reexamining colonial consciousness or an anti-colonial attitude.
INDOCHINE recounts the loss of the French colony of Indochina, but it explores this historical moment through the melodramatic story of a family. Eliane Devries, played by Catherine Deneuve, runs a successful rubber plantation during the 1930s Indochina. Unmarried, she has adopted the daughter of two of her closest Indochinese friends who perished in an airplane accident. Eliane raises her daughter, Camille, according to French traditions, and in this way she isolates the daughter from her racial and cultural heritage. The conflict will take place between them over a man, but also over the country. The daughter will run away from home in order to join the young French navy officer they both love, but in her struggle, Camille will become politically and socially aware of her country's plight. The French man will become an instrument in her political cause against the colonial regime, and he will be sacrificed by the French authorities for his involvement with Camille — seen as an act of treason. About three-quarters into the film, the child born from their brief union, Etienne, is abandoned after his father is arrested. This baby then owes his survival to Indochinese women; in an epic scene, the infant is seen being breastfed by the milk of Indochinese women. Native women enter in this one scene, where they suddenly gain access to the plot in an interesting fashion, only to be discarded immediately after serving as a useful melodramatic device.
Wargnier's film INDOCHINE incorporates elements of the photo novella and melodrama. This director has often used Indochina as a backdrop to his films. His most recent film UNE FEMME FRANÇAISE (1995) covers the fate of a French woman and her family during the various decades where France was at war with Germany or with its colonies; but it does not offer any in-depth comment about or "return" to these countries. Instead the historical drama of France, during and after World War II, is filtered and diluted through the woman protagonist's numerous liaisons and fate. INDOCHINE also concentrates on the lives of women. It is structured as a maternal melodrama, a form which usually involves a scenario of conflict between a mother and daughter, their separation and return, and the daughter's eventual rupture with the mother.
INDOCHINE juxtaposes several layers of stories and points of view, which add texture to an otherwise shallow narrative. But in spite of its jagged nature, the screenplay details some of the conflictual relations played out between Indochina and France, and it contains allusions to politico-historical events such as the Yen Bai mutiny in 1930. In addition, INDOCHINE is an epic vehicle for Catherine Deneuve who plays Eliane in an unlikely role for a woman in those times.
The story borrows from fairytale plots, which can be traced back to colonial stories where the natives either have "European affiliations or, renewing an older motif, are "really princes or princesses" (Pratt, 100). Camille belongs to the royal family. The film's two-fold storyline first follows Eliane, then Camille, in their love for Jean-Baptiste, a young French navy lieutenant. Eliane hides her sexual life from her daughter whom she wants to protect, although the spectator does not know from what. When Eliane's affair with the young man is terminated by her father's direct intervention (as seen in the version released in France), Etienne then becomes the love interest of her teenage daughter. The strong bond which once existed between the mother and daughter is severed by the fact that both have had sexual relations with the same man. Camille leaves Eliane to join Jean-Baptiste, who has been banished to an island.
Both female characters are larger than life. Their roles catalyze the dualistic opposition between France and Indochina. An in-depth analysis of colonialism always exposes the interdependent relation between colonizer and colonized. Their lives are intertwined and mutually dependent; without the colony, the colonizer would not exist nor would the colonized. In this film, such a relation is played out within the familial cell. Eliane, a distinct representative of the colonialists, adopts a daughter of the colony, Camille, just as France claimed to adopt under its wings the country it occupied. Eliane's role is "mère-patrie" in relation to the "peuple-enfant" or "colonized people as children," and such an image is invoked more than once. It is best depicted when Eliane decides to punish a worker at her rubber-tree plantation. After she is done, the worker who was a deserter recognizes and praises her maternal and paternal character. Alongside the eroticization of the colonial "Other," a trope of infantilization is often used in colonial scripts, a characteristic which Ella Shohat and Robert Stam have recently explored.
Like Duras, the fictional character of Eliane Devries defines herself as a hybrid character, an "Asiate," someone in between, not quite French, for she was born in Indochina and never saw France. She is the equivalent of the French North African "pied-noir." A part of the ruling class along with the national Mandarins, she controls a large rubber plantation.
Eliane's maternal function, established at the beginning of the film, is essential to the plot. She raises her daughter alone, protecting Camille from her Indochinese heritage and alienating her from her ancestral culture. Race does not seem to be an essential problem. Eliane's belief is that what matters is inside the person, and this bears no relation to color. In an early scene with Camille, Eliane expounds her theory by using the mango metaphor:
"The difference between people is not the skin color, it's this!" She bites into the mango. "It's this! The flavor, the fruit. Someone who has bitten into an apple cannot be like me. I am an 'asiate.' I am a mango." (INDOCHINE text, 13).
Eliane also acts as surrogate father to Camille since there is no father and no husband in the household. (Eliane's own father occupies a more dominant position in the French film version.) Eliane's colonial position is stronger than her sexual persona; along the lines of the maternal melodrama, Eliane subordinates her sexual desires to "protect" her daughter. At the same time that she sacrifices/ represses her sexual life to spare her daughter, her very sexuality is also dominated, unbeknownst to her, by her father, who offers to pay off Jean-Baptiste, the young lover. Furthermore, all the elements of the "maternal melodrama" are present in the opening version of the mother/daughter relationship, in which they are shown as an inseparable couple. One of the most revealing scenes which pairs them as a "couple" is one where Eliane dances a tango with Camille, a scene repeated later in a less auspicious light to signal their ruptured relationship.
In this way the film invites a psychoanalytical reading, for there is a deeper but unexplored level which pertains to a classic Oedipal script. Eliane is herself motherless since her mother died while giving birth to her. She was raised by her father, a self-made land speculator. The script insists on Eliane's male qualities and her role as a strong working woman with a whip at the head of a rubber plantation, a position usually socially occupied by a man, especially in the 1930s, a time when women were just beginning to enter the workplace and unlikely to occupy managerial positions. In the film, Eliane's father, now older, is an acknowledged womanizer. He has relationships with younger Indochinese female servants, something encouraged by Eliane. While her father's sexual activity is recognized as common within the patriarchal system she helps perpetrate, Eliane's own sexual desires are suppressed by her father, who wants to spare his daughter from further humiliation. Eliane's love life has been unsuccessful. A former fiancé left her to return to France and pretended a suicide. Eliane, ignorant of this incident, has mourned her fiancé for years and taken a few lovers. In a disjunctive way the film presents her as a successful colonialist and mother but a disasterous lover, for reasons which escape any explanation, which is one of the weaknesses of the script.
Although melodramatic scripts usually foreground sacrifice and suffering as well as a loss of social status for the mother, in this film both female protagonists, mother and daughter, sacrifice something personal in order to survive. Eliane loses her daughter, her plantation and finally "her country" whereas Camille loses her mother, her son, and her lover. But Camille has the glory of sacrificing her personal life to the political cause of her country's independence. As in all melodramas,
"the mother, as a mother, represents a fullness, a presence, a wholeness and harmony which must ultimately be broken" (Doane, 289).
The severed bond between mother and daughter is not repaired, but a newly established relationship is formed at the end, a mother-son relationship and the possibility of a new immaculate birth.
In the second part of the film, Eliane becomes an invisible spectator and narrator of her daughter's political emancipation, as told to her grandson Etienne. The romantic love story beginning turns into an epic narrative about Camille, who sheds the mango theory. Through her crosscountry journey, she joins and adopts the cause of starving Indochinese workers and peasants. She is initiated into her people's struggles, from which she had been sheltered all her life. The camera adopts Camille's powerful gaze to focus on poverty and injustice. The voice-over narration which frames the film takes place years later; the flashback structure grounds the script. Eliane recounts the story of her daughter Camille, Camille's murder of a French officer responsible for killing a family of Indochinese farmers who had "adopted" her, and her subsequent escape with Jean-Baptiste.
Parallel to a maternal melodrama turned colonial emerges a story of political and personal abnegation for the sake of one's country. Camille's political involvement leaves no room for her lover, so he, in turn, becomes the involuntary auxiliary to her quest. Camille's character becomes larger than life, and eventually it gains mythic proportions. In one instance, she is compared to an Indochinese Joan of Arc, a term which I see as deeply embedded in colonialist rhetoric. Here, the use of such an appellation can only equal and reflect the irony of classroom situations when French school teachers would teach about "our ancestors, the Gauls" to the colonized children of Indochina, West Africa and North Africa.
The film dramatizes the transitional period of old Indochina to new. Camille has to reject the assimilationist scenario proposed by her mother (France) in order for her (Vietnam) to gain independence. A total break takes place. The colonized must reject his/her parents, or what is called "mere-patrie." Memmi suggested the solution to the colonial conflict entails a total break:
"The colonial situation, ...brings on revolt ...[T]he colonized's liberation must be carried out through a recovery of self and of autonomous dignity" (128).
Following the Oedipal script, Camille must break with her mother in order to enter adulthood. But the conformist closure of a daughter turning away from her mother, "discovering her identity through marriage...and subordination to the male" (Kaplan, 133-134), is subverted by the geo-political reality of the time. With the figure of Camille representing the march toward the country's independence, the plot follows the evolution of the different moments which lead to independence. Clear references are made to various historically important moments in the nationalist struggle for independence and the ensuing French repression. Raising the love story to a nationalist one, a popular mythology arises among the people about the interracial love of Camille and Jean-Baptiste. The tale is appropriated and enacted by popular theatrical groups traveling around the country, told as an example of defiance against the French rule.
Eliane, whose role as the eternal (but never biological) mother controls the story, is eventually able to rescue and adopt the child Etienne as her son, a role she readily embraces. Camille, also arrested, spends years in the Poulo-Condor penitentiary. She converts to communism and despite obvious ideological contradictions, she is called the red princess. When briefly reunited with Eliane in one of the most climactic and surreal scenes of the film, Camille tells her mother that in order to live she had to forget the past. Camille does not have the luxury to revel in the colonial dream and land-exploiting schemes of her adoptive mother, whose ambition was to combine land and agricultural resources to the benefit of her daughter.
The maternal and paternal relationship between France and Indochina is abolished. People like Camille and her childhood friend and husband, Than, free from the conservatism of their upbringing, will presumably inject life into their country. It is inferred that Camille will take a leading role in the forthcoming independence of Vietnam. Eliane's situation as a plantation owner and French colonizer, a position she inherited and maintained all her life, is thus brought to an end by the rise of nationalist struggles. In the film version, initially a forceful mother- and father-figure to her Indochinese workers, Eliane is forced to "go back" to France, where she never set a foot. She goes into exile from the paradisiacal plantation as Camille wished her to do and returns to an imaginary France for a "better future" with her adopted grandson. who now considers her his "true mother." However, the actual return to France is left out as the film never relocates in France, but instead ends in Switzerland.
Camille accompanies the Vietnamese delegation there in July 1954 to sign the Geneva agreements, which grant independence to Vietnam but also cut the country in two. The spectator does not see Camille again but may imagine seeing her in what amounts to five seconds of a documentary style news sequence. The potential moment of reunion between Eliane and Camille, and Camille and Etienne, never takes place. Eliane decides to remain on the periphery of this potential meeting and dispatches Etienne to meet his mother. Eliane becomes the outsider, a silent spectator, sacrificing herself for her daughter's future. The film thus concludes with the end of the French colonization of Indochina, given as a final note, in the neutral zone of Switzerland.
There are some evident shortcomings in INDOCHINE, which cannot function as a model for a film dealing with colonization, assuming that there is one. Such a model ideally would reconcile both sides of colonial history, and speak in two voices: that of the colonized and the colonizer. So far, the films only present the perspective of the colonizer. Here the authoritative voice behind the voice-over narration belongs to Eliane. She is telling the story of her daughter and her native country. The script's attempt to merge the two sides of Indochina and France is manichean and simplistic. The vision is thoroughly nostalgic of the ties between the two countries, presented as a "maternal" love affair.
THE LOVER and INDOCHINE explore the colonial ties between France and Indochina under the primarily erotic and sexual components of a nubile order, leading to a surface exploration of interracial intimacy between a Chinese man and a French girl, or a Vietnamese girl and a French man. Both colonial stories' denouements show the European reabsorption of the colonizer, whereas the native reintegrates the "colonial" space assigned to him/her. The Chinese "lover" marries his Chinese bride; Camille fights for her country's right to independence. Initially respectful of linear history, INDOCHINE stops short at the Geneva conference and leaves out room for further development. It imposes a giant ellipsis in time past and future, such as Camille's story, and Eliane's return to France, as well as Etienne's potential adapting to France as a Eurasian child. It also refuses any representation of extensive wartime conflicts, Vichy times and the Japanese occupation, or the final defeat at Dien Bien Phu, not to mention the name of any of the political leaders on either side.
The end of colonial Indochina suggests a loss for France, amounting to dismemberment, visually emphasized by the incision made on rubber trees, which are said to be bleeding: "Tomorrow France loses Indochina." INDOCHINE's title sequence shows Eliane in black clothes, which in the West connote mourning, surrounded by a crowd of Indochinese people dressed in white mourning attire. They are crossing a river. She is attending the funeral of her closest friends, the parents of her adoptive daughter. The film closes with Eliane, dressed in black, now the adoptive mother of her grandson, mourning the loss of her native country and resigned to the loss of her daughter. In the last sequence of INDOCHINE, the camera lingers on the landscape, which accompanied by the musical score becomes grandiose and colorful.
The picturesque landscape blends two opposite views that are presented throughout 1NDOCHINE's narrative, emblematic of France and Indochina: one is the marine painting of the coast of Brittany and the second is the aerial (birds-eye) point of view of the bays in Vietnam, a recurrent motif. INDOCHINE's closing scene presents the spectator with the familiar shot of the Vietnam bays craftily and surreptitiously transposed into that of Swiss mountains surrounding a lake; the shot produces a feeling of disorientation. The final image reinforces the travel motif reminiscent of 1930s films, which it reenacts here, ending with the protagonist's (failed) escape on board of sea liners. In fact, both Annaud and Wargnier have carefully crafted 1930s imagery into their scenes. THE LOVER concludes on board of one of these old-time sea liners with the young heroine on her way to France.
Both films INDOCHINE and THE LOVER emerge from the French tradition of literary adaptation on screen but also of orientalist narratives. INDOCHINE resulted in the publication of a novel based on the script while THE LOVER is the adaptation of a best-selling autobiographical novel (de Montella). The use of voice over in both films reinforces their literary aspects and at times is extremely poetic. INDOCHINE sets a lyrical tone from the beginning, when Eliane evokes her own belief system in an incredible nostalgic and reactionary prose that resonates with earlier colonial formulae:
"Maybe this is what youth was about. The belief that the world is made of inseparable things: men and women, mountains and plains, humans and gods, Indochina and France."
The myth of colonialism as being eternal and the humanist inclination to blend differences permeate the ideology of colonialism. Its discourse is faithfully adopted in INDOCHINE. In a similar vein, THE LOVER closes with the voice-over narration of the now older heroine (in voice over by Jeanne Moreau) who recalls the telephone call she received years later from the older Chinese lover, when he reiterated his eternal love for her. A linguistic difference separates both films: Wargnier made his film in French and sometimes mixed in Vietnamese. But Annaud made his film in English, dubbing and subtitling it in French for the French spectator, and allowing the two versions to be distributed in France, transferring Duras' discourse into a more international language by using two English-speaking actors, Jane March and Tony Leung. This difference instills a useful and necessary distance from the French colonial past for a French spectator of THE LOVER, while at the same time it internationalizes a linguistic kind of of colonization as it makes the film more "marketable" to a foreign audience. Ultimately, the linguistic preference for English reconciles us as French-speaking spectators with the fact that French is no longer the dominant language spoken in Vietnam, where English has replaced French.
Poetic moments in film create a veil between us and the events that happened prior to the end of the colonization, and lyricality leads the spectator astray from the problematic appropriations taking place within these narratives. I discern several of these instances in INDOCHINE: Eliane Devries in an omniscient perspective narrates her daughter's escape and life with Jean Baptiste, almost to the point of becoming one with Camille and borrowing her gaze. Another moment is when Eliane and Guy, the police inspector, discuss the future of Indochina as belonging to the young generation of intellectuals they sent to get trained in Paris, like Than. These instances demonstrate that colonial representatives are omnipresent, even when absent from the picture, as they decide what is best for the people under their rule, even under the cover of liberalism which becomes paternalism (e.g. Eliane's telling of her daughter's story).
Does the filmic renewal of interest in Vietnam echo or precede the renewal of the diplomatic and commercial relationship between Europe, the United States and Vietnam? The emergence of the Orient as the focal point of these films serves to displace certain problems within the domestic scene, some of them being the direct legacy of colonialism. Ultimately these films tackle the vision which French people have of themselves and the divorce created by the end of the colonial era.
CHOCOLAT reflects the impotence of French people to deal with their colonial past. This remark, however, should be nuanced, for I believe that French governmental censorship has contributed largely to this collective amnesia when dealing with colonial conflicts. It is true that throughout the history of cinema, films dealing with the colonial era reflect such a lack, or if they discuss the colonial past, it is under the pretense of other narratives, such as sexual or travel plots, which are very different from the U.S. exploitation of, for instance, Vietnam on screen. But unlike Ien Ang's comment that CHOCOLAT serves to expose the inability of the colonizer to tackle its colonial past (21), I suggest on the contrary that CHOCOLAT is one of the few engaging attempts to represent on screen the position of the postcolonial world from the colonizer's position and acknowledge that there is no point of return. The final sequence in that film shows that there needs to be respect for the other's life in a now-independent Cameroon. The film leaves an open ending where we do not know what might happen next between France and Protée. The airport scene cannot objectively be read as a "failure."
The films discussed previously do not evoke the decolonization process and its aftermath. Instead they court the "past and present" harmony between France and Vietnam. INDOCHINE's discourse is emphatic in its attempt to authenticate colonialism and the impact of "good" colonizers like Eliane. In contrast, by 1992 three films of epic proportions returned to Indochina, primarily to the Vietnamese countryside. Only one of them was a "war film" and confronted the military battle of Dien Bien Phu where the French forces were defeated. Schoendoerffer presents us with a sober look at the long battle where the French army was bitterly defeated. Different from the films evoked previously, DIEN BIEN PHU retraces the final months of the French military battle which figures as the significantly absent moment in INDOCHINE. For two hours, Schoendoerffer exploits in a stylized manner, visions of shellings and the absurd butchery that war essentially is. Schoendoerffer' s involvement with the past differs radically from the other filmmakers. Despite his rightwing political views, this filmmaker is able objectively and lucidly to present his radical transformation as he personally witnessed the French army's defeat. However, DIEN BIEN PHU is not able to tackle presenting the Indochinese side of the war.
In 1992 and right before, there have been more films made about France's colonial past in Asia than during the 1930s, a moment of French colonial splendor par excellence. In general, France has remained closer to her former colonies in North Africa, at least in their filmic transposition. But one can say that Indochina still generates and exerts an uncanny fascination for the French, more so than North Africa or West Africa especially in recent French fiction. THE LOVER and INDOCHINE elaborate on what I call the colonial maternal melodrama in order to explore the historical moment which marked the end of the colonial era. The representation of Indochina on film serves as a displacement and interlude for problems at home. At a time when France was approaching the unification of Europe in 1992, a move supported by Mitterrand but disapproved by 49% of the electorate, the image of former colonies or "empire" celebrates a moment of splendor necessary to maintain the myth of France. This myth provides a unifying gesture for the French nation and its citizens, who are increasingly concerned with the economic crisis and the influx of immigrant workers. The focalization of the gaze toward the past on what was once an empire suggests a desire to escape from problems at home. The colonial past is embraced by popular French ideology with nostalgia, oblivious of or indifferent to the indigenous struggles which marked the prewar times, struggles whose legacy is still lingering. This colonial nostalgia seems heavily directed to the young generations born in the postcolonial period, roughly after the 60s, as in a gross pedagogical attempt to educate them about the past.
1. The French government's control over television has been analyzed in Ruth Thomas's Broadcast and Democracy in France (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1976). The governmental control over film has also influenced the treatment of colonialism or its absence of such from mainstream filmmaking.
2. For a discussion of recent films made in Vietnam, see Karen Jaehne, "Cinema in Vietnam: When the Shooting stopped...And the Filming Began," Cineaste vol XVII. 2 (1989). 32-37. Discussions of recent Vietnamese literature is discussed in "Les cent fleurs du Vietnam," Le Monde Friday 22 July 1994. VII.
3. During the 1995 Sarasota French Film festival, after the premiere of Une Femme Française, I asked Wargnier about his personal interest with Indochina, which I see as a backdrop in most of his films. He reacted to this question by explaining how important Indochina (and the war) has been for French people. He also promised that he would not use this source in his next film.
4. "The Coolie was on his knees, the hands tied behind his back. 'You wanted to escape, you're a deserter. You forced me to beat you. But you are my child. Do you think a mother likes to beat her children?' The coolie bowed down. 'You are my father and my mother.' Christian de Montella, Indochine, 36-37.
5. I saw two versions of INDOCHINE. The U.S. version cut one important scene in which the father bribes the young navy lieutenant with money in exchange for leaving his daughter. Without this scene, the father does effectively appear lame.
6. A discussion of both soundtracks would be particularly enlightening to a discussion of how both films were made to seduce a western audience, but constitutes the topic of a different paper.
7. In 1993, a low-budget film was made by a French Vietnamese filmmaker in a French studio. It won an award at Cannes' film festival. L'ODEUR DE LA PAPAYE VERTE (THE SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA) by Tran Anh Hung recreates in a suburban studio an atmosphere among Indochinese people during colonial times, just before Vietnam's independence. The film is on video in the US.
8. Genevieve Nesterenko, "L'Afrique de l'autre," Générique des années 30, eds. Lagny, Ropars, Sorlin (Vincennes: Presses Universitaires de Vincennes, 1986). 127. Chirat's Catalog of films produced in the 30s reports that out of 1305 fiction films made, only 85 films were situated outside of France with 53 films in Africa mostly North Africa, and only 13 in Asia.
Ang, Ien. "Hegemony in Trouble," Screening Europe: Image and Identity in Contemporary European Cinema. Ed. Duncan Petrie. London: BFI, 1992. 21-31.
Annaud, Jean-Jacques. L'Amant. press kit.
Armes, Roy. French Cinema. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.
Doane, Mary-Ann. "The Moving Image: Pathos and the Maternal," Imitations of Life: A Reader on Film and Television Melodrama. Ed. Marcia Landy. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1991. 283-306.
Hall, Stuart. "European Cinema on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown." Screening Europe: Image and Identity in Contemporary European Cinema. Ed. Duncan Petrie. London: BFI, 1992. 45-53.
Hennebelle, Guy. Ed. "Le Cinema Militant." Paris: Cinema d'aujourd'hui 5-6 (March-April 1976).
Kaplan, E. Ann. "Mothering, Feminism and Representation. The Maternal in Melodrama and the Woman's Film 1910-40." Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman's Film Ed. Christine Gledhill. London: BFI, 1987. 113-137.
Lagny, Michèle, Marie-Claire Ropars, and Pierre Sorlin. Générique des Années 30. Vincennes: Presses Universitaires de Vincennes, 1986.
Lowe, Lisa. Critical Terrains: French and British Orientalisms. Ithaca, London: Cornell U. Press, 1991.
Memmi, Albert. The Colonizer and the Colonized. Boston: Beacon Press, 1965.
Montella, Christian de. Indochine. Paris: Arthème Fayard, 1992.
Petrie, Duncan. Ed. Screening Europe: Image and Identity in Contemporary European Cinema. London: BFI, 1992.
Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London, New York: Routledge, 1992.
Rousso, Henri. Le Syndrome de Vichy: de 1944 à nos jours. Paris: Seuil, 1987, 1990.
Shohat, Ella and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Thomas, Ruth. Broadcast and Democracy in France. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1976.
Trinh, T. Minh-Ha. When the Moon Waxes Red. New York: Routledge, 1991.
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.