The Sea Wall

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 April, 2010, 12:00am

The Sea Wall
Isabelle Huppert, Gaspard Ulliel, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Randal Douc
Director: Rithy Panh

An adaptation of Marguerite Duras' autobiographical novel Un Barrage contre le Pacifique, Rithy Panh's latest film revolves around a French family whose unravelling fortunes in Cambodia in the early 1930s mirrors the decay of French colonial rule around them: the mother (played by Isabelle Huppert) is struggling to develop farmlands in which she has invested all she has, with salvation coming only in the shape of a moneyed Chinese aristocrat (Randal Douc) who is infatuated with her teenage daughter Suzanne (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) - a relationship which drives a wedge between mother and daughter and also between Suzanne and elder brother Joseph (Gaspard Ulliel).

Through the protagonist's tribulations, The Sea Wall manages to bring to the surface the estrangement felt by colonists who live beyond the orbit of the ruling elite, as they struggle to survive in a hostile environment shaped by an indifferent colonial bureaucracy and also a local population slowly attaining emancipation over their own fate.

Panh offers an interesting perspective here, opting to cross cultural lines to envision how the French diaspora in early 20th-century Indochina could also be victims of social and political oppression; but more would have been expected of him to interpret Duras' views from a non-French perspective, as The Sea Wall's portrayal of the rich Chinese as a shady, scheming predator runs the risk of orientalist caricature.

Again it's Huppert (below) who comes to the rescue, her audacious performance as the diffident, haranguing mother giving the film gravitas. Panh's film is ravishing to look at, but for those seeking an edgier reflection on a beleaguered white matriarch stranded in an alienating land, Claire Denis' White Material (also starring Huppert) is a better bet.

Extras: Interviews with Huppert and Panh; stills gallery; trailer.