Background Note

"Indochine," the 1992 French film which starts that nation's most famous actress, Catherine Deneuve, is about the demise of colonialism in French Indochina. It opens in the 1930s and ends with scenes in Geneva during the 1954 conference which followed French defeat at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. The film's historical setting, therefore, is the final period of French colonialism in what became, after World War II, a divided Vietnam.

French interests began in that part of the world in the early seventeenth century when French priests arrived as part of a Portuguese Jesuit mission. The earliest Vietnamese reaction was to resist foreign interests, religion, and commerce. The major French intervention came in the mid-nineteenth century under Napoleon III, and gradually France controlled all of Indochina. The French Indochinese Union consisted of four protectorates -- Laos, Cambodia, and two parts of Vietnam -- Tonkin and Annam. The third part of Vietnam -- Cochin China -- was a formal colony located in southern Vietnam. Beginning in 1897, the French officially referred to their Southeast Asian empire as Indochina. The name Viet Nam by 1930 had become a slogan or rallying cry for Vietnamese nationalists.

"Indochine" presents a partial but accurate picture of colonialism there in its maturity. For most Americans today, the 1930 to 1954 period of Vietnam's history is less familiar than our own troubled connections with Vietnam after the French left. Many viewers, however, will recognize the film's presentation of the French colonizers as accurate; they were dominant, wealthy, and exploitative. As Eliane DeVries, Catherine Deneuve is a symbol of privilege and of the French presence, although born in Vietnam. She had never seen France. In the film, she operates her father's rubber plantation, both abusing Vietnamese workers and treating them less harshly, almost like children, in keeping with France's so-called "civilizing mission." This latter attitude is best expressed in her adoption of a Vietnamese orphan as her own daughter. Camille is the other major female character in the film, a role played by newcomer Linh Dan Pham. Over time, Camille, who looks Asian but feels French, becomes radicalized by the communist revolution and uprising against French colonialism. Thus Camille becomes a symbol of Vietnamese nationalism and that anti-French sentiment which culminated at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

Other characters in the film also represent French colonialism. The major one, however, is Jean-Baptiste Le Guen, played by Vincent Perez. He is the young French naval officer whose love for both mother and then adopted daughter creates the required tension and builds interest in the plot. More important in maintaining that interest, however, is the visual presentation of Vietnam. Most Americans who have not traveled there, or fought a terrible war there, are perhaps unaware of the beauty of Vietnam. "Indochine" brings much of that beauty to the viewer; filming was in northern and southern Vietnam, parts of Malaysia, and Switzerland.

The record of French colonialism in Indochina, much studied by the French and others, including Americans, is of course larger and more complex than the picture presented by this film. As a dramatic and visual representation, with its required love interests and intrigues, however, "Indochine" is an excellent learning and teaching tool. It is used in college courses on the modern French film and in courses on the Vietnam War. Learning occurs by use of mixed media, and students who view "Indochine" often become more interested in reading about French colonialism, the Vietnamese peasantry, the rise of communism in Indochina, the importance of nationalism there, and the Vietnamese wars against the French and Americans. Whether this was one purpose of the filmmaker or not, viewing the film raises more interest and perhaps fresh questions about these matters. And it leaves us with a clear understanding that Vietnam is more than a war. The film presents Vietnam as beautiful landscape, as an emerging nation culturally distinctive, and as a people devoted to independence as much as were the Americans and the French in their own histories. It is no accident that Ho Chi Minh, in declaring Vietnamese independence on September 2, 1945, quoted both the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and the American Declaration of Independence. French colonialism, which stood in the way of that goal for almost a century, provides the historical backdrop for "Indochine." This film reminds audiences in France, the United States, and elsewhere that the human condition values such independence -- in spite of locale, culture, or time. Furthermore, it causes many viewers to think again about the causes and consequences of the clash of cultures which as been so common in the modern world.

Dr. Ernest Bolt

University of Richmond



Critical Comments Online

Roger Ebert, "Indochine", review in the Chicago Sun-Times, February 5, 1993

Rita Kempley, "Indochine", review in the Washington Post, February 5, 1993



Other Critical Comment

Malo, Jean-Jacque and Tony Williams. Vietnam War Films. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 1994.

The New York Times. December 24, 1992, p. B1.

Newsweek. CXX, August 24, 1992, p. 52.

Nicholls, David. "Indochine." History Today  46 (September 1996): 33-38.

Time. CXL, December 21, 1992, p. 72.