The Sea Wall

  • Film
  • Drama
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This stuffy, snail-paced period yarn from Cambodian-born, French-based writer-director Rithy Panh (‘S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine’) sees Isabelle Huppert as a driven if frail plantation owner in 1930s Indochina who suffers at the avaricious hands of the local land registry. When her crop is ruined courtesy of a crumbled sea wall, she is forced to go cap in hand to the banks, and when they refuse to bail her out, she resorts to using her coquettish daughter Suzanne (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) as a sexual bargaining chip in negotiations with moneyed, panty-sniffing dandy Mr Jo (Randal Douc). Her swarthy, gun-toting son Joseph (Gaspard Ulliel), meanwhile, is on hand to protect the family from other usurpers, although even he is looking to break free from this strained lifestyle.

Based on a memoir by Marguerite Duras, Panh’s film is, alas, a dramatic non-starter due to woefully slender characterisations that eliminate any mystery from the self-consciously breezy narrative. You feel that Panh is loath to relinquish his strong, identifiable white ‘heroine’ despite the fact that he is obviously more interested in depicting the decrepitude and squalor endemic to colonial regimes. Huppert certainly plays to the ambiguities of her character as best she can, and while you can say this is a more pared-down and thoughtful film than, say, Régis Wargnier’s ‘Indochine’, the woolliness here will have you secretly yearning for the latter’s full-blooded histrionics. Also, it should be noted that Huppert’s talents are put to much greater use in Claire Denis’s brilliant (and almost identical) ‘White Material’ which, tragically, has yet to find UK distribution.

Release details

Release date: Friday November 20 2009
Duration: 115 mins

Cast and crew

Director: Rithy Panh
Cast: Randal Douc
Isabelle Huppert
Gaspard Ulliel
Astrid Henning-Jensen
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