The Sea Wall

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Rome Film Festival

ROME -- For those who fondly remember Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “The Lover,” Rithy Panh’s “The Sea Wall” will offer some of the same exotic sexual, emotional and interracial flavors, while it delves much deeper into underlying social issues. Far less glossy than “The Lover,” this adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ semi-autobiographical 1950 novel “Un Barrage contre le Pacifique” (which preceded “L’Amant” by 34 years) is breath-takingly beautiful in its photography and historical sweep. It is well-packaged here in an expensive-looking French-Belgian-Cambodian co-production.

Though convincingly rooted in the rice paddies of French Indochina and its uneasily coexisting colonial and indigenous cultures, the film has an oddly old-fashioned feeling about it, as though it echoed the heroic era of Soviet filmmaking, just as Duras’ novel echoes Steinbeck and Hemingway. The result is a story that immerses the viewer in an exotic world, but rarely connects emotionally.

The main attraction is Isabelle Huppert’s original portrayal of an impoverished but indomitable widow, whose rice paddies are flooded by the sea every year and therefore not cultivable. Only by getting the peasants to join forces and build a sea wall can the land be saved. Huppert outwits greedy French bureaucrats and bankers, who conspire to drive them out of business and take over the peasants’ land as well. Her visceral hatred of these hard-core colonialists is memorably expressed in her closing words.

While the drama of the rice fields is going on, the forces of nature are physically exploding in Huppert’s smoldering 16-year-old daughter Suzanne (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) and strapping 19-year-old son Joseph (Gaspard Ulliel.) Suzanne is a coy rosebud who attracts the morbid attention of a rich Chinese businessman, Mr. Jo (Randal Douc), young, good-looking and unmarried. Joseph is a snarling piece of beefcake whom no one can resist;

Cambodian director Panh, noted for his films against the Khmer Rouge, depicts the amoral French family with disarming frankness, without ever losing sympathy for them. On the contrary, after Joseph’s racist outbursts against the locals, he moves towards balance later in the film. Suzanne, who is pushed by her mother to sexually lead on Mr. Jo and who seems ready to sell herself for a diamond ring, finally turns into something like a heroine. And in Douc’s sensitive performance, even the greedy and lustful Mr. Jo falls in love.

For the record, the novel was previously adapted to the screen by Rene Clement in a lavish Italian film released under the titles “This Angry Age” and “The Sea Wall.” That film toplined Silvana Mangano and a young Anthony Perkins, who was called in as a last-minute replacement for James Dean after his death in a car accident.

Production company: CDP, Studio 37, France 2 Cinema, Scope Pictures.
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Gaspard Ulliel, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Randal Douc.
Director: Rithy Panh.
Screenwriters: Michel Fessler, Rithy Panh.
Based on a novel b: Marguerite Duras.
Producer: Catherine Dussart.
Director of photography: Pierre Milon.
Production designer: Yan Arlaud.
Music: Marc Marder.
Costumes: Edith Vesperini.
Editor: Marie-Christine Rougerie.
Sales Agent: Films Distribution, Paris.
No rating, 115 minutes.

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