The Sea Wall (Un barrage contre le Pacifique)


This adaptation of Un barrage contre le Pacifique by Marguerite Duras is probably easier to enjoy if you don’t know the original novel.  In the novel, which is set in French Indo-China of the 1930s, the emphasis is on the struggle between mother, daughter (as portrayed above) and a rich young Chinese man who wishes to have sex with the daughter to extract some advantage from each other.  And in this case (as I recall) it’s Monsieur Jo who ends up as the victim while in L’Amant it’s the daughter.

But here we don’t really get either the sexual obsession or the squalor of the impoverished colonialists’ life–everything looks very beautiful, as it tends to do in colour films (see above again).  So what’s the point of it all?  I suppose it’s a portrayal of the decadence of French colonialism–there are some disturbances among and reprisals upon the native population, while at the end we see ‘Les rizieres de la femme blanche’ being advantageously cultivated in 2007.  So the mother’s attempts to build a wall to keep out the sea instead of being disastrous and symbolic of her failure to keep (Indo-Chinese, sexual) reality at bay is now a successful piece of Dutch-style land reclamation.  Strange.

Apart from the beautiful pictures on screen, the main interest was Isabelle Huppert’s depiction of the mother slowly dying and losing her hold on reality.  As the daughter, Astrid Berges-Frisbey didn’t really suggest anything very much–I would write that she was neither pretty nor sexy enough, which is a very strange thing to write about an actress, especially a French one.  Of course, if she had been decidedly plain, that would have given some key to the weakness, softness and vulnerable uselessness of the original’s  Monsieur Jo, but here he was just a cipher:  If seducing the daughter won’t work, try buying up the land…

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