The Sea Wall (Un barrage contre le Pacifique)
A measured if unexceptional adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ semi-autobiographical first novel by Cambodian-born director Rithy Panh (S-21:The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine), The Sea Wall unfolds in French Indochina in the early 1930s. Isabelle Huppert plays the unnamed widowed landowner, whose two children, beautiful teenage daughter Suzanne (Astrid Berges-Friseby) and aggressive older brother Jo (Gaspard Ulliel), are restless to leave the countryside.
When floods destroy her rice crop, Huppert’s character faces bankruptcy and the repossession of her terrain by the French Land Registry office. However, the romantic interest of a wealthy Chinese businessman towards 16-year-old Suzanne offers the matriarch an unexpected financial opportunity.
The sea wall of the title is both the system of defences the mother and the Cambodian villagers construct to protect the vulnerable fields, and a metaphor for the rising forces of nationalism, which are destined to sweep the nation. Here the colonial system exploits both the local people, who are arbitrarily expelled from their territory, and expats like the mother, who are at the mercy of crooked French bureaucrats. Despite Huppert’s and newcomer Berges-Friseby’s strong performances, the film itself surprisingly lacks the necessary dramatic urgency, and compares unfavourably to Claire Denis’ forthcoming colonialist drama White Material.
GFT, Glasgow and Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Mon 11–Thu 14 Jan.