Here is one of the prettiest movies you will ever see, with stinking ugliness just under the surface. It tells the story of an old French family who have lived in French Indochina for generations, stealing rubber and exploiting the locals. Catherine Deneuve is Éliane Devries, who runs the plantation, and who I instantly hated. She refers to her indentured workers as “coolies,” but “slaves” is the more appropriate noun. Early on we see her beating one of them who tried to escape. How is this not slavery? She raises an orphaned Vietnamese girl in the European manner, just as privileged as herself.
The story begins in the 1930s. At that time the country was divided into three “protectorates” (Ha ha! The only people the Southeast Asian people needed protecting from was the French!). Tonkin was in the north. Main city, Hanoi. Cochin China was in the south. Main city, Saigon. The long narrow strip between the two was Annam. The French also controlled Cambodia and Laos. The popular communist uprising of the Viet Minh was just getting started, and our story carries on to the 1950s, shortly after the French occupiers got their butts soundly whipped (and deservedly so!) at Dien Bien Phu. That resulted in the disastrous partition of the country that led directly to the war in Indochina, where so very many American boys (not to mention over two million Vietnamese) were sacrificed to the War on Evil Communism. If you need any further proof of the absolute moral disaster of European colonialism, I don’t know what it could be.
The girl, Camille, ends up fleeing for her life because of acts of mercy that could not be tolerated by the master race, then spends a lot of time in a horrible prison camp. Understandably enough, she ends up becoming a delegate from the Vietnamese Communist Party to the Geneva Conference of 1954, where the two Koreas, the Chinese, the Soviets, the USA, and the UK (with a little participation from the Viet Minh) decided on the partition of Vietnam into North and South.
I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to feel some sort of nostalgic, possibly “Ante-Bellum South” nostalgia for the French colonial way of life. If so, I was no more persuaded than I was for the way of life Gone With the Wind. I was happy to see those bastards kicked out, and only wish it could have happened much sooner, and have left Éliane and all her contemporaries penniless and ragged, squatting behind their begging bowls on the streets of Saigon. Of course you know that didn’t happen. They got out with their wealth intact.
You may gather that I don’t have much sympathy for colonialism (though I acknowledge that I am the beneficiary of the American variety) nor for slave owners. So I just couldn’t devote much of my attention to caring about any of the white people here. That detracted severely from my enjoyment of the movie.