The Sea Wall
By Ogier
Published: October 20, 2014
Updated: November 19, 2014

Un barrage contre le Pacifique / The Sea Wall 2009 

Rithy Panh directed this film, loosely based by screen writer Michel Fessler on the writings of Marguerite Duras (b.1914/d.1996), and it is the third of three films based on Duras’ remembrances of her early life, a life which might be described as variations on a theme: her birth to parents of French school teachers encouraged to become colonialists in French Indonesia, the death of her father, his widow's subsequent involvement in a crooked land deal in the expectation of providing a secure future for her children only to find that the land was subject to ocean flooding which made rice farming impossible, thus bringing ruination and poverty. Enter the Chinese suitor. In the first iteration, a toad of a man so ugly Duras was ashamed to be seen with him in public, but who was wealthy and to be plundered for cash, though with subsequent retelling the man morphs into a potent lover, a handsome devil with a diamond as big as the Ritz on his finger.

Panh’s program notes declared that his primary interest in the story was the political aspects and the exploitation of the indigenous population by the French (and by the Chinese as well), and the Duras story is subsumed to some degree while the mother played by Isabelle Huppert looks harassed most of the time and suffers from an unknown aliment, never to gain the stature one might expect from Huppert; the older brother Joseph (Gaspard Ulliel), while ill-mannered, is seen by his sister Suzanne (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) as sexy, and indeed there are hints the sibling relationship went deeper; the suitor here, Monsieur Jo (Randal Douc), if not handsome, is a commanding presence and a ruthless plantation owner. There is no younger brother in this retelling. Monsieur Jo’s pursuit of Suzanne (it cannot be called a courtship) is a chaotic affair that never gets off the ground, while the ring assumes a life of its own and is sold twice by Joseph in an improbable turn of events. The crabs (somehow) destroy the sea wall constructed by the mother, and the film ends inconclusively.

While entertaining, the film never approaches the elegance of Annaud’s version, nor can the indescribable impact of the waif-like Jane March as the daughter be approached by the raw-boned country girl whose dance with Joseph is close to a wrestling match.