Director Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers and director Regis Wargnier's Indochine showcase French colonialism. In Indochine, the political aspects of colonialism take a backdrop to a love story set amid gorgeous scenery, while The Battle of Algiers is an uncompromising look at the bloody cost of French rule in Algeria. In essence, Indochine provides a cursory look at French colonialism before the onset of a revolution, while The Battle of Algiers shows the bloody cost of stopping the revolution to both the French and their captors. Though they are set in different times and locations, The Battle of Algiers and Indochine both clearly depict the cost of colonialism.
Overall, I found The Battle of Algiers to be difficult to watch in light of recent events in Iraq, and instead preferred the lighter, romantic tone of Indochine.
Regis Wargnier's Indochine is set in the Vietnam (then known as Indochina) in the fading years of France's colonial grasp of the country during the 1920s and 1930s. The movie stars Catherine Deneuve as the narrator, Elaine, a French woman who is the owner of a rubber plantation. Elaine adopts the only daughter of a Vietnamese royal couple after their death, and the rubber plantation expands greatly as a result of the child's inheritance. By 1930, the plantation is profitable, and Elaine and her father live in the luxurious style of the French ruling class. Elaine's adopted daughter Camille (played by Linh Dan Pham) is completely assimilated into this luxurious lifestyle, and attends Catholic high school. Their lives are comfortable and settled until Jean Baptiste, a French naval officer appears on the scene. Elaine has a brief, passionate affair with Jean, but he discards her quickly. Later, Jean saves Camille's life in Saigon, but is unaware that Camille is Jean's daughter, and the pair fall in love. Elaine is understandably crushed, and arranges to have Jean transferred to the gorgeous Tonkin islands. Camille, deeply in love, takes the dangerous path to find Jean, and the two are united. During the journey, Camille rediscovers her homeland, and begins to sympathize with those who oppose the hegemony of French rule. Camille is ultimately thrown in prison for crimes against the state, forcing her to abandon Jean and their baby, and becomes a committed Communist leader in this setting.
Indochine is generally told from the view of the French colonialist, and as a result the viewer gets only a cursory understanding of the trials and issues that inspire the Communist movement. For examples, Camille's time in prison is narrated by the cool Elaine, showing Camille's political metamorphosis through the eyes of French rule, rather than from the viewpoint of the Vietnamese. Scenes of Camille's time in prison are few, while Elaine's life at the plantation is well chronicled. The end result is a muting of the emotion of Camille's transformation, and a dulling of the understanding of Camille's life. Essentially, Indochine provides a cool, emotionless understanding of French neocolonialism in Vietnam in the 1920s and 1930s.
More than anything, Indochine is a love story that is set against the gorgeous natural beauty of Vietnam. It is the complex relationships between Elaine, Camille, and Jean Baptiste that take up Gillo Pontecorvo's energy, rather than the political undertones of the story. The love story of Camille and Jean is set against the gorgeous backdrop of the scenery of Southeast Asia. For example, when Camille finds Jean in the beautiful Tonkin islands, the camera lingers lovingly on the scenery, while Camille's revolutionary transformation in prison is barely chronicled.
In the end, Indochine left me with the feeling that I had been beautifully entertained, as if I had spend close to two hours watching a gorgeous, living painting. Watching Linh Dan Pham and Catherine Denevue on screen was a quiet pleasure, as the camera lingered on Denevue's classic features, and beautiful linen clothing. Scenes of Southeast Asia were similarly captivating, showcasing the lush coastline, and rugged natural features.
As entertaining and beautiful as Indochine is, it is clearly not the political movie about the neocolonial life in Vietnam that is likely was meant to be. The movie's love story is passionate and involving, the scenery is beautiful and captivating, but the political undertones of the movie are largely unclear. Director Regis Wargnier fails to make any clear political statements in the movie, and the end result is a film that lacks focus and impact in its theme.
Gillo Pontecorvo's movie, The Battle of Algiers, was first release in 1965, and chronicles the French occupation of Algiers during the 1950s. The movie shows the struggles of the Algerian independence movement to win independence from France. Filmed in black and white, The Battle of Algiers is filmed in the style of a documentary, but it is in fact not. The movie begins in 1957, as the last remaining Algerian Guerrilla leader, Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), is pinned down in his hideout by the French military. As he contemplates his fate, La Pointe recollects much of the history of the Algerian independence movement, where Muslims struggled for independence from France. Ultimately, La Pointe chooses to die rather than to surrender, and the French are apparently victorious, at least for the time being.
In The Battle of Algiers, Pontecorvo manages to portray both sides as real, sympathetic characters. Through his treatment, the viewer sympathizes with three female Muslim terrorists, who separately attack a cafe, an airport, and a bar. The sympathy of one of the terrorists for her victims is even apparent, as she looks sadly around at those whose lives she is about to destroy. Similarly, Pontecorvo paints a sympathetic portrait of guerilla leader La Ponte's motivations that lead him from a street criminal to the leader of the revolutionary movement. His portrayal of the leader of the French troops, Colonel Mathieu shows a man capable of ruthless actions in stopping the revolutionaries, but who is capable of understanding that he and France must accept these necessary consequences if France decides to stay in Algeria.
Overall, Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers is a much more political movie than Wargnier's Indochine. While Indochine was largely a love story set in a political context, The Battle of Algiers focuses virtually exclusively on its political content.
Despite their differences in scope and content, The Battle of Algiers and Indochine act to showcase the differences and similarities in French colonialism in Algiers and Indochina. In The Battle pf Algiers, French colonialism is seen as a brutal, bloody struggle to keep down insurrectionists and Muslim revolutionaries. In Indochine, the physical brutality of war is not so apparent, but the spoils of colonialism to the French are more easily seen in Camille and Elaine's privileged lives on the plantation. Based on the two movies, French colonialism in Indochine is seen in a much more gentle light, and the viewer is spared much of the physical brutality of war. However, this difference likely simply reflects the difference in the timing of the revolutionary sentiment. In The Battle of Algiers, Director Pontecorvo takes us into the middle of the bloody revolution, while Wargnier only depicts the beginnings of revolutionary stirrings in Indochine. The difference, then, is not in the actual realities of French colonialism, but in the timing of the events depicted in the movies. Colonialism in both movies is thus seen in a similar light - as a violation of the freedoms and rights of the native population, and a concurrent privilege for the colonialists that must be enforced by physical and political means.
The Battle of Algiers provides a means for viewers to challenge the map of meaning through which we organize our entire understanding of the world. In this map of meaning, we organize, and arrange concepts in complex relations with each other. For many Westerners, colonialist history remains a time where 'civilized' nations rightly invaded 'uncivilized' frontiers, as a simple right of progress. We even see this neocolonialist map of meaning in today's war in Iraq, where most of the Western world understands the conflict in terms of the civilized world, represented by the United States, struggling to bring order and 'civilization' to a people and area that are chaotic, and 'uncivilized' to our understanding. Certainly, recent acts in Iraq like the kidnapping and assassination of Westerners, and suicide car bombers only act to reinforce this neocolonial, Westernized understanding of the world. As Westerners, we are helpless to understand why people would undertake such actions, why they would behave in such a barbaric and seemingly futile manner. The Battle of Algiers provides a Western audience with a real explanation and understanding of such terrorist actions that begin to challenge and unravel this neocolonialist map of meaning.
Had I not watched these movies in the context of an academic course, I likely would not have compared them to one another, except perhaps to note the presence of French colonialism in both movies in passing. In Indochine, as noted earlier, the political…