The waning days of French rule and the formation of the country of Vietnam are chronicled in the 1992 film Indochine, which stars Catherine Deneuve, Vincent Perez, and Linh Dan Pham. The film uses the main characters’ stories as a microcosm to what is going on in their country and foreshadow the changes that have yet to come.
The film begins in the late 1910s, and Ã‰liane Devries (Deneuve), an unmarried, independent woman, has taken custody of Camille, the orphaned daughter of childhood friends. Camille’s parents, who were members of the Nguyen Dynasty, were killed in an airplane crash. Ã‰liane takes Camille back to the rubber plantation she owns and raises the child like any other French girl of the time. Camille’s life is much different than the lives of the indentured servants who work on Ã‰liane’s plantation; Ã‰liane makes sure that the girl has the best of everything and all the privileges that a young French girl would have. When Camille (Pham) asks questions concerning the differences in their looks and their races, Ã‰liane assures her that their outside appearances don’t matter and that they are both the same on the inside. She insists that no matter what anyone might say, she is Camille’s mother, and the fact that they love each other should be the only thing that matters.
While Camille is away at convent school, Ã‰liane has a brief but passionate affair with naval officer Jean-Baptiste Le Guen (Perez). It’s Jean-Baptiste who rescues Camille from being caught in the crossfire of a police chase. When the escaping prisoner is shot, he runs into Camille, knocking her unconscious and covering her in his own blood, and Jean-Baptiste tends to her before taking her home. Camille has fallen in love with Jean-Baptiste, much to Ã‰liane’s dismay. Ã‰liane uses her influence to have Jean-Baptiste transferred to Haiphong, and after he confronts her during a party, he is sent to Dragon Island, a military base in the north of Vietnam.
When Camille graduates from school, Ã‰liane arranges a marriage for her to Tanh, the son of a wealthy Vietnamese merchant woman, who supports the Communists and independence for Vietnam. After the engagement, he allows Camille to run north to look for Jean-Baptiste. Camille travels with a family who seeks work as indentured servants for the wealthy plantation owners. When a French officer kills the family and lies to Jean-Baptiste about the reason why, it’s Camille who attacks and kills the officer. After this, Jean-Baptiste deserts the army and flees with Camille, and the two end up working with the Communists to try and secure Vietnam’s independence. During this time, Camille bears Jean-Baptiste a son, Ã‰tienne, and shortly thereafter, they are captured and imprisoned by the French. Ã‰liane is left to raise their son after Jean-Baptiste’s death and Camille’s decision to dedicate her life to the dream of an independent Vietnam. Ã‰liane sells her plantation and returns to France to raise Ã‰tienne, and she tells him the story about his parents.
Colonialism and its effects on people’s culture and identity is one of the biggest themes in this movie, and it is explored not only with the historical events unfolding in the film, but also through the relationship of Ã‰liane and Camille. The French have subjugated the Vietnamese and have made it clear that they cannot decide their own fates or rule their own country properly, so the French will do it for them. The French view their culture and their whiteness as superior to those of the Vietnamese and they seek to impose these ideals upon them.
While Ã‰liane is not so harsh with Camille, she does raise Camille as she would a French girl and teaches Camille to view herself as more French than Vietnamese. As a result, Camille is caught between both worlds, and neither one of them is kinder to her than the other, particularly when it comes to her love for Jean-Baptiste and her child’s mixed heritage. What started out as a kind and noble gesture is something that takes a toll on Camille’s life, and she must choose which world she belongs in. Because she was able to make choices for herself and carve out her own destiny while working with the Communists, this is the life she goes with, since the life that Ã‰liane sought to make for her wasn’t one that she really wanted. Breaking away from Ã‰liane, while difficult, is the best thing she can do for herself and for her son. With Ã‰tienne, Ã‰liane is much kinder and much more understanding. She allows him to choose his fate and how he sees himself in the world instead of imposing her view on him as she did with Camille and as the French imposed their ways and rule on the Vietnamese. While she can never go back and do things differently with Camille, she can do better with Ã‰tienne by remembering her past mistakes and learning from them. Looking to the past and seeing the mistakes made and repairing the effects of those mistakes can only help to create a better future.