This two hour and thirty-five minute epic offers insights into the history of French colonial Indochina during the revolutionary Thirties. As mass audience turnoffs go, that’s one to rival the collective bargaining in Hoffa. But co-writer and director Régis Wargnier draws us into the complexities of Indochine by presenting it as a melodrama about a mother and daughter in love with the same man. Since the mother, Eliane, is played by the legendary Catherine Deneuve, and her daughter, Camille, by the gifted seventeen-year-old newcomer Linh Dan Pham, rest assured you will be enthralled.
Eliane, a Frenchwoman who has never been to her native land, runs a rubber plantation in Indochina, where she was born and where she is part of the elite ruling class. Eliane adopts Camille, a Vietnamese princess, when the girl’s parents are killed in a plane crash. A haughty clotheshorse in public, Eliane indulges privately in opium and lovers. The dark fires beneath Deneuve’s cool exterior are something to behold; she’s magnificent.
Eliane’s grand passion is stirred by the young French naval officer Jean-Baptiste Le Guen (Vincent Pérez). Le Guen is a rover, which Eliane respects until his roving leads him to Camille. Up to this point, Indochine plays like an unusually elegant soap. But when Camille leaves her protected world to join Le Guen on an island in the Gulf of Tonkin, the film takes a compelling political turn. Camille is shocked to find her country enslaved. Her radicalization – set against the communist and nationalist fight for liberation – turns the hauntingly beautiful Indochine into a wrenching tale of displacement.