If someone hasn't already, then let me be the first to call the majestic "Indochine," opening today on the big screen at the Senator Theatre, the "Doctor Zhivago of Asia.
Vast, beautiful, dense, romantic and long, it's movie storytelling on an epic scale, of the sort that was the very pride of the Hollywood system and is now a lost art. Leave it to the French who still remember how, perhaps because it's their own haunted history they cannot seem to escape.
Before there was a Vietnam, there was a French Indochina, a lush tropical paradise and cash cow for the mother country, as seemingly stable and locked in its ways as the vault of heaven itself. Though self-rule (in whatever form) was yet three wars, a million deaths and four decades away, even in the 1930s cracks were beginning to appear in the shell of empire. And nowhere will they be felt more violently than on Elaine's rubber plantation outside Saigon, which, when the movie begins, is a symbol of French glory and efficiency.
Elaine, played by the regal Catherine Deneuve, runs the place as true enlightened despot: she is humane but gets the job done, because getting the job done means survival and comfort for herself and her adopted daughter, 16-year-old Camille. Except that Camille (Linh Dan Pham) is Indochinese.
For a while, the director Regis Wargnier, a visualist on the level of a David Lean, is content to paint this elegant, blindly oppressive society in somber hues of romantic filmmaking: it's Atlanta before the war, or St. Petersburg before the revolution. Beautiful and damned, the imagery acquires the poignancy of hindsight: you know it's all going to come tumbling down. Wargnier pauses to drink in the awesome landscape, finding beauty everywhere; in the high rubber trees girding the temple-like plantation, or in the movement of the workers,
wearing torches on their helmets through the dawn mist as they bleed the trees of their vital fluid. Elaine and Camille love each other so totally they can dance the tango.
Obviously a man will come between them -- and a country. He is naval lieutenant Jean-Baptiste (Vincent Perez), impossibly --ing and handsome, his head loony with ideas of glory even while he is confronting the dirty realities of empire-running first hand. The symbolism of this triangle never intrudes on the lushness and romantic fullness of the story, but it's nevertheless compelling: Elaine is the old Colonial order and Jean-Baptiste the delusions of the mother country; both will struggle for the soul of Vietnam, in the shape of Camille, and both will lose.
First Elaine gives herself to the lieutenant, but frostily (this is Deneuve, remember), on her terms. Then her daughter falls hopelessly in love and in the wake of a scandal, which drives him to a deserted outpost. This sets her off on a cross-country odyssey to find her disgraced lieutenant and in so doing is politicized, encountering at each stop some new officially sanctioned atrocity justified in the name of empire.
When at last she finds him, in strange circumstances, their love ++ creates one of those little spasms of violence that enter revolutionary legend and become a sustaining theme for the struggle at hand. They escape to a part of North Vietnam that is mindbogglingly beautiful: an ocean sea studded with islands that are mountain tops. But the empire strikes back and claims them both, after a fashion -- he to serve it humbly, she to labor to bring it down.
Towering over all of them is the great Deneuve: icy, masculine, commanding, beautiful -- it's not so much that she's an actress but an icon. Is this performance or merely being? I can't tell. But she's the only one of whom it can never be said, in Kipling's words, here lies a fool who tried to hustle the East. Nobody hustles Deneuve.
Starring Catherine Deneuve and Vincent Perez.
Directed by Regis Wargnier.
Released by Sony Classics.