There is some difference of opinion about whether this is a good film or not. Some have called it a "soap opera" beautifully filmed. (Both Leonard Maltin in his Movie and Video Guide and the good people at Video Hound used that designation.) But I don't think that is correct at all. Beautifully filmed yes, stunning at times like something from David Lean; and in fact this film has more in common with the Hollywood panoramic epic than it does with the tradition of the French cinema. But it is certainly not a soap opera. In a soap opera the important element is a narrow focus on things material, social, and sexual played out in a banal, cliché-ridden and bourgeois manner. In Indochine the focus is on political change and why it came about.
The story begins in Vietnam in 1930 and concludes on the eve of the communist revolution in 1954--presaging the tragic American involvement a decade later. Catherine Deneuve plays Eliane Devries, the strong-willed owner of a rubber plantation in Vietnam, then part of the French colonial empire. Having no children of her own (or a husband) she raises the Vietnamese girl Camille (Linh Dan Pham) as her own. She conducts secret affairs (and even visits opium dens) while maintaining the appearance of respectability. We are shown the decadence of the French living in Vietnam and the exploitive evils of colonialism, hardy the stuff of soap opera. We are made aware of the social unrest stirring amongst the population and even shown what amounts to a slave auction conducted by the colonial powers with the aid of the French military, in particular, the French navy.
Enter Jean-Baptiste (Vincent Perez), a handsome French naval officer who, despite the difference in their ages, initiates an affair with Eliane. She is at first put off, then reluctant, and then madly in love. Perhaps this familiar progression is what some think of as soap opera material; and perhaps it is, although their affair is only a small part of the film, and at any rate, such behavior is entirely consistent with Eliane's character and that of Jean-Baptiste, and is necessary for the plot developments to come.
Deneuve was nominated for Best Actress by the Academy but didn't win (Emma Thompson won for Howard's End), but the film itself won as Best Foreign Film. In truth Deneuve's performance is a little uneven. Regardless, this is one of the most important roles in the career of an actress who was as beautiful in 1991 when this film was made as she had been in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) at the beginning of her career. Indeed, I would say even more beautiful. My favorite Deneuve film, by the way, is Mississippi Mermaid (1969) with Jean-Paul Belmondo directed by Francois Truffaut.
Also uneven is the direction by Regis Wargnier. The scenes set in Saigon involving the French and the Mandarins at their pleasures amid their wealth as they maintain their privilege are done with strikingly beautiful interiors splashed with the kind of color seen in, for example, the films of Chinese director Zhang Yimou. The scenes amount to indictments of the French and demonstrate why the communists eventually came to power. Note that the privileged are always decked out in the most amazing displays of color while the workers and the peasants are brown and dirty.
The panoramic cinematography of the Vietnamese country is also strikingly beautiful. We are shown the sheer cliffs falling into tranquil waters dotted with junks, the rock outcrops nestled in verdant growth, the angry skies, and the deluge of the monsoon. But the trek of Camille across the land to find her beloved is not realistically done. Her quick incorporation in a peasant family is also not convincing. And the following scene in which she and Jean-Baptiste escape from the slave market defies probability. However what becomes of her and him is brutally realistic and consistent with what we know about those times, although I would like to have seen them being fed when they are rescued and some indication of how they spent their time in that Shangri-la-like hidden valley.
Despite the flaws and inconsistencies, this is a fine cinematic experience, enthralling, disturbing and visually beautiful. See this as a prelude to all other films about Vietnam and the Vietnam War. What will become clear is how foolish was our involvement and how doomed to failure it had to be.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)