OVERSEAS (OUTREMER) (France, 1990) *** 1/4. Directed by Brigitte Rouan. Written by Rouan, Philippe Le Guay, Christian Rullier, Cedric Kahn, from a story by Rouan. Cinematography, Dominique Chapuis. Cast: Nicole Garcia, Marianne Basler, Brigitte Rouan et al.An Aries release. 98 minutes. In French with subtitles. Rated PG.
For France, a major colonial power through World War II, Algeria was, in theory, an "overseas department" rather than a colony. But native, separatist resistance began in 1945.
The French, many of them in Algeria for generations, thought it inconceivable that this was not their land. Euphemistically, they referred to the growing uprising as "the events", somehow the way the Irish used to speak of "troubles." These "events," however, became the Algerian War (1954-62) which ended with a new, independent Algeria.
Actress Brigitte Rouan's first feature as director is partly autobiographical, complex and impressive film. Rouan chronicles three sisters, from 1945 to 1964, both as one story and as three, one per sister.
Zon (Nicole Garcia) the oldest, is married to a French Navy officer, much too often at sea, while his spouse keeps producing kids. He is insecure and mercurial but nonetheless the center of Zon's existence. In one of several striking sequences, he lets Zon dance an erotic paso doble with another naval officer, while he chats away on technical matters with another colleague. The moment the dancing is over though, the husband heaps insults on Zon.
Middle sister Malene (played by Rouan) loves her book-worm husband. He is such a do-nothing that the full burden of running their farm and winery falls on Malene's shoulders.
The youngest, Gritte (Marianne Basler), becomes engaged to a young diplomat but keeps postponing the marriage.
The film's story-telling device recalls a little that of the Japanese classic "Rashomon." With zig-zags, flashbacks and new points of view, each section focuses on a sister, yet the entire group of family, friends and neighbors are included too -- something like an expanded tribe of Europeans.
Initially, the French community is shown in what on the surface may look like an idyllic existence. In reality this is a blend of colonial and provincial life, limited and stunting. The French may also remind you of certain settlers in Westerns, who socialize with fellow-ranchers living miles away.
While the comparison with the Raj -- the time of the British in India -- also comes to mind, things were different in Algeria. True, both the British and the French ruled, but whereas the Brits were essentially aloof and held administrative positions, the masses of the French were of the bourgeoisie and the working class. They toiled just as hard as their Metropolitan (mainland) counterparts. Even the respective paternalisms of the British and the French were quite unlike.
Many of the French owned land and pitched in like farmers eveywhere. The nickname of the Algerian French, "pieds-noirs," (black feet) comes from their contact with the soil.
Each story in "Overseas" intensifies the psychological content and the political context. The "events" escalate into warfare between the French Army and the Algerian "fellaghas" (rebels). The country houses become fortresses with sandbags, the fields are protected by soldiers. As the stories develop, each one sheds more light on what we've already seen.
Rouan directs perceptively, using an elliptical style, utter realism and telling details. She stays away from gratuitous dramatics and from spelling things out -- yet she makes point after point.
Now and then the film could have used somewhat clearer editing -- though no real damage is done. Rouan's subtle feminist stance is sharp and explicit: the sisters are not "better" than the men, but they are much more interesting, complex and individualistic. Rouan neither fabricates this view nor thrusts it on the audience. She does it with convincing naturalness and naturalism.
All of this may not be immediately apparent to all foreign, contemporary audiences, unfamiliar as they are of French history or of the colonials' special mentality and convoluted politics . Although this was not in Rouan's mind, in terms of films and cultures, "Overseas" also stands for the Atlantic, a sea of incomprehension between the USA and France.
And since, even in France these days, the sense of the past is increasingly weakening among many of the younger generations, I suspect that several of the movie's subtler implications will be lost. The viewers should, however, at a minimum, recognize the exterior trappings of the period, such as the commotion among the French when insurrection leader Ferhat Abbas flies to Cairo; the car horns honking dot-dot-dot-dash-dash for Al-gé-rie FRAN-CAISE; De Gaulle on the radio stating his famous "French people, I have understood you," a declaration that raised hopes but in fact was the prelude of the retreat from Algeria and a near-civil war in France.
No matter. The powerful, accurate and deeply-felt "Overseas", both for the initiates and those less familiar with history, is an exquisitely constructed bridge between the present and another time, another place.
[Pub. 9 July 1992]