In French colonial Indochina, later Vietnam, the unmarried Eliane Devries (Catherine Deneuve) owns and runs a large rubber plantation. At the end of the 1910s, she adopts a young girl from the Nguyen Dynasty named Camille after her parents are killed in a plane crash. Although courted by Guy (Jean Yanne), head of the French security services in Indochina, Eliane declines his offer of marriage. She raises and educates Camille (Linh Dan Pham) on her own as a privileged European until the girl reaches her teens. Around the same time Eliane meets the broodingly handsome Naval officer, Jean-Baptiste Le Guen (Vincent Perez) with whom she enters into a torrid affair. Later on an incident occurs wherein an escaped Vietnamese prisoner is shot in the street and Camille ends up caught in the crossfire. Jean-Baptiste saves Camille's life and nurses her back to health, whereupon she falls in love with him too.
America's involvement in Vietnam casts such a long shadow over its history that it is easy to forget the French colonial period was even more significant and the catalyst for the war. Indochine, one of the last great French romantic epics, allowed international audiences to reflect upon a tumultuous era both intriguing and appalling with drastic repercussions. The film proved a huge success both in France, winning multiple César Awards, and overseas garnering an Oscar nomination for the ageless Catherine Deneuve. Yet in recent years its reputation has diminished. Detractors chide the film for refusing to clarify its position as pro or anti-colonial. Some have even dismissed the film outright as a glossy, overblown soap opera. While this might be a step too far the fact is Indochine remains a film of two halves.
Focusing largely upon the love affair between Eliane and Jean-Baptiste, the first half does indeed suffer as a result of its ambiguous stance. The plot is a staple of cinema: the tangled romance that unfolds against the backdrop of war. Yet these beautiful people do some ugly things. Jean-Baptiste burns a river boat belonging to a Vietnamese father and son. He claims they are smuggling opium though the viewer is led to believe his actions stem from some inner torment that remains unclear. Eliane beats a plantation worker caught attempting to escape, yet expresses regret. Later she lays out her intent to marry Camille to the French-educated Tanh (Eric Nguyen) and sow the seeds for a Indo-Chinese elite that will safeguard the country's future. Yet for all its poetic flourishes the script offers little tangible psychological insight into characters that too often come across as capricious. Perez's Jean-Baptiste in particular veers from inscrutable to borderline schizophrenic. When he rejects Eliane only to leap into the back of her chauffered car and start kissing her passionately, some may feel inclined to agree with her assertion he is mad. What is intended as heady romance can occasionally come across as frustratingly obtuse. However, in the second half director Régis Wargnier's game plan finally becomes clear. Eliane and Jean-Baptiste's relationship is only a superficial romance while the real love story between the latter and Camille embodies love in its purest form.
Although Wargnier neglects politics for the most part he takes care to show the injustice, anger and resentment held in the eyes of each Vietnamese character through every confrontation with French authority. One can interpret the plot on an allegorical level. Camille is betrayed, to a degree, by her mother who claims want only her best interests yet is somewhat self-serving, much as the French colonial powers patronize the Vietnamese. But the mother-daughter relationship is far more sincere and tender than such an interpretation might lead one to believe. Once the narrative abruptly swerves away from Eliane onto Camille as she journeys North to find her beloved Jean-Baptiste things grow considerably more compelling. Passing through a slave labour camp, Camille joins a family of runaways as they endure hardship and starvation in a search for work only to end up in the market run by human traffickers. Here is where Indochine finally comes alive as the moving, politically charged romance we were promised, gradually taking on a mythical quality as Camille's story becomes a Vietnamese Opera, inspiring the Communist movement and paving the way for her own destiny.