The Sea Wall – A veritable barrage of clichés

29 January 2010

Laurie Martin is left cold by an uninspired and dull adaptation of a French novel set in Indochina.

The Sea Wall – 1hr 55 mins, 12A


I don’t remember signing up for cryogenics. But after 115 minutes I’m glad I did.

Maybe some future race a couple of thousand years down the line will melt me down and enquiringly poke me with strange instruments, at which point this film might actually be good.

All the freezers in the world, however, wouldn’t leave me as cold as this turgid adaptation of Marguerite Duras’s novel Un Barrage contre le Pacifique, directed by Rithy Panh.

This period piece, set in French colonial Indo-China, follows the perils of a widow and her two children farming a piece of land naively bought unaware of the crippling floods that ruin the harvest every year.

To even sum up the plot in one sentence so easily indicates the pace with which such flimsy material is dealt with over almost two hours.

The direction has less charm than a BNP conference, and about as much sensitivity towards the issues of colonisation to boot.

The saving grace that adds a star to this otherwise incessantly dull film is the chilling, if at times restrained, performance from Isabelle Huppert as the unnamed widow.

Huppert is an onscreen enigma, defying our sympathy. She refuses to take the drugs that would cure her clearly terminal illness; she chides both her children and never even speaks to her unquestioning daughter until her Machiavellian plot to marry the 15-year-old off to a wealthy Chinese landowner.

The plot is weak. We can’t blame Panh for that (although he did chose to base a film on such a weak premise, so perhaps we can). Why the film is called The Sea Wall at all is beyond me.

The wall that the family must build in order to save their crops is neither symbolic of the central tensions in the film, nor a particularly important aspect of the action at all.

The anger I feel when writing this review is compounded by how much promise the film had. The nuanced opposition set up between land as a commodity and our sexualised bodies, in the form of the alluring son and daughter, is hinted at but not extended to anything beyond a nod.

This is a great loss. As is their subtly hinted at repressed incestuous feelings for one another, which Panh seems to struggle with.

The film is screening at the Art’s Picturehouse, though I wouldn’t recommend it. Go to two lectures; see if you can beat your old record on the Helicopter Game; count the books in the library. Just don’t waste two hours for the experience of sitting on an ice cap.

The Sea Wall is now showing at the Arts Picturehouse