Wednesday 26 May 2010

The Sea Wall (2008)

The Sea Wall (2008), directed by Rithy Panh, is an intriguing but finally unsatisfying adaptation of Marguerite Duras’s semi-autobiographical novel. The film features Isabelle Huppert as a widow with two teenage children (Gaspard Ulliel and Astrid Berges-Frisbey) in early 1930s French colonial Indochina. Huppert’s character is sold a dud piece of frequently-flooded farm-land that she resolves to make a go of by employing local villagers to construct a dam against the sea. Her efforts are complicated by nasty bureaucrats, incipient colonial unrest and by her children’s attitudes and new-found relationships.

Admirably, perhaps, Panh seems determined not to use the colonial setting as a mere backdrop to a family melodrama, and The Sea Wall starts out as a somewhat grittier vision of Regis Wargnier's Indochine (1992), with some interesting observations on power dynamics in Cambodia at this time. But the film grows increasingly perplexing and remote; its various strands and characters simply fail to cohere. (The family’s dallying with a wealthy Chinese man who falls for the daughter is particularly bizarre.) It doesn’t help that Huppert gives one of her closed-in, slightly irritating performances that crosses the line between enigmatic and impassive; she seems disengaged in key scenes here and the film badly requires an actress with a stronger physical presence to ground it and create a more vivid protagonist. Ulliel certainly displays his physique a lot, and Berges-Frisbey (playing a verison of the teen Duras) pouts either sullenly or coquettishly; the three become a tiresome and unsympathetic bunch. Some interesting, even provocative ideas drift around in The Sea Wall, but the end result is frustrating; this is a film that never finds its form.

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