A few years ago, the French film The Lover, based on the book by Marguarite Duras, made the cinema circuit. I loathed the film for its excessive romanticism. Yes I know millions loved it, but I didn’t.
So when I saw that another novel by Duras had been made into a film, I initially decided to avoid it. But then when I read that Isabelle Huppert had a leading role, I knew I would have to watch The Sea Wall (Un Barrage Contre le Pacifique). The film, set in 1931 Cambodia, is based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name.
So here’s the set-up: A middle-aged widow (Isabelle Huppert) lives with her two children, 20-year-old Joseph (Gaspard Ulliel) and 16-year-old Suzanne (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). The children have never been to France and yet they seem to lead lives of shipwrecked French set adrift in Cambodia. They speak French, and obviously the mother has tried to maintain some French cultural standards, but in many ways they’ve run wild. Joseph, whose teeth are rotting in his head, is a smuggler and spends nights hunting out in the jungle with a Cambodian he calls The Corporal (Vanthon Duong).
The first few scenes establish the family dynamic. They live in an impressively large but primitive hut and are waited on, colonial style, by servants. The mother is the driving force of the family unit, and Joseph is his mother’s favourite to be indulged as much as can be allowed when you’re dirt poor. He’s not at all an appealing character, and an early scene involving a horse highlights the sort of brutal pragmatism he’s inherited from his mother.
And what of the mother? We know that she’s lived in Cambodia for at least 20 years. Her husband was a minor bureaucrat of the French Empire. After scraping together every last penny she possessed, the mother, with relentless drive, bought a plot of 12 acres next to the sea, but now she fights to keep the family afloat. Each year the land is flooded by the sea and the rice crop destroyed. This is a marvellous role for Huppert as she plays a diminutive woman whose frail shell houses a formidable, relentless will. Yet in spite of this unbending, tireless and at times vicious determination, she visibly fades as her illness gains ground.
Although the land would appear to be less than desirable, clearly many people want to get their hands on it. Take away the flooding problem and the soil is rich. The mother is plagued by petty French bureaucrats who try to seize her land under any legal pretext they can dream up, and then there’s her fragile health. Her most formidable and seemingly unconquerable adversary, however, is nature. Huppert plays a single-minded intense character who refuses to bow to the law or to nature; eventually she conceives of a plan to build a sea wall to protect the crops.
The drama ramps up a few notches when Suzanne comes to the attention of Monsieur Jo (Randal Douc), the son of a millionaire. While Joseph is initially disgusted and humiliated by his mother’s matchmaking plans, he too gets the idea that Suzanne’s virginity is for sale. Suzanne, intoxicated with her new sexual power, alternately flirts and teases Monsieur Jo, driving him wild in the process.
The story is set against the backdrop of a bloody phase of Cambodia’s history. Natives are rounded up and used for free labour, and French bureaucrats grab the land from the natives and evict them from their huts. The mother, bitter from her experience with French rule, incites the local farmers to fight back. I’ve read several negative reviews of the film including the comment that this is yet another anti-colonialism film (and do we really need another?) I’d argue that since colonialism still exists today in a mutated form, politically the film is still relevant. To categorise the film as anti-colonial, however, is far too simplistic. We see that there’s a hierarchy within colonialism and it’s not simply the natives vs. French. After all, the mother, who has arguably benefitted from colonialism has paid a terrible price for her displacement and she and her children are now stuck in Cambodia one step from homelessness and poverty. How would this family adjust if they returned to France?
The film ends with hints of the social disaster to come. If Joseph & Suzanne remained in Cambodia until their 60s, they would see the bloody rise of Pol Pot.
On another level the film is about the bonds and the distances between parent and child. The mother is aging and in ill-health, but she refuses to give up her dream of economic independence for her children. Her decision to invest in this Cambodian plantation has in effect dictated the lives that her children will lead. While she has relentlessly sacrificed to pursue her goal, both Joseph and Suzanne cannot wait to escape. Joseph has options (hunting, smuggling) and is free to leave more or less at will, but Suzanne’s escape is limited to her sexual function.
My DVD includes an interview with Cambodian director Rithy Panh, and Panh decsribes the Duras novel as “anti–colonialist.” He also notes that the rich, fertile fields once owned by the Duras family are under cultivation today and are known as the Rice Fields of the White Woman.