Vietnam in 1950, as rendered in director Pauline Chan's dazzling first feature, Traps, is still a quiet green country of low mountains and verdant plains, muddy dirt tracks and barefoot peasants. It doesn't yet look like a battlefield: American troops and napalm bombs and defoliants and B-52 strikes are still more than a decade off.
But the peace and quiet are false, a delirious dream in which black-shirted shadows flit among the rubber trees, whose milky white sap — intimately photographed in the movie's opening moments — tells a chapter of Vietnam's story without which none of the rest makes sense.
American movies about Vietnam — which began to appear in the late 1970s and, in the late 1980s, reached a high crest surfed by the monomaniacal Oliver Stone — burn with moral indigestion. What were we doing there? Why all the killing and destruction on both sides? The war has never made sense in this country because we went to vindicate an idea that held no meaning for the Vietnamese themselves. We were fighting one war, they another.
Traps shares none of this existential howling. Instead, it's about France's entanglement in Indochina — a frank exercise in economic colonialism that by the end of World War II was rapidly going sour. The French wanted the rubber, and they were willing to go to great — even uncivilized — lengths to get it.
“We are slaves in our own country!” one of the black-shirted young men — a Vietminh, a “communist” — exclaims bitterly to one of the thick-skulled Westerners whose awkward presence in the country is like a bloody wound that's become infected. Slaves require slaveholders, and in Traps this odious class consists of Daniel Renouard (Sami Frey), director of a French rubber company, and Capt. Brochard (Therry Marquet) — most of whose troops, Daniel remarks in a tart aside, “would be behind bars in France.”
Daniel lives with his adolescent daughter, Viola (Jacqueline McKenzie), in a lovely villa on the rubber company's plantation. The place is more than big enough to accommodate a pair of English-speaking guests, Michael Duffield (Robert Reynolds) and his wife, Louise (Saskia Reeves), who have been sent out by a London magazine to write and photograph a piece about French rubber operations in Vietnam.
In true British fashion, the Duffields arrive in the sweltering jungle dressed as if for a stroll through Harrods. He wears a beautiful three-piece suit, she a smart poplin dress with high heels and plenty of lipstick. It is this polite but steely disregard for local reality that helped make possible the British Empire, but whether the Duffields quite realize it or not, the empire is already a thing of the past, and their stiffness plays not as a display of imperial strength but comic ignorance.
They don't seem to care much; they've got other things on their minds — such as keeping their marriage together. Michael's reached the end of his youth and watches impassively as the last of his idealism — telling the truth about French arrogance and brutality in Vietnam — slips through his fingers, to be replaced by an offer of employment with the very company whose misdeeds he's supposed to be exposing.
And Louise, his wife and loyal sidekick photographer, has wearied of subsuming her identity in his. “I want my own view of the world back,” she tells him, knowing that however hard he tries to listen, he will never hear her.
She's also feeling the anarchic sensuality of the tropics; despite her British primness, she's a young woman of horsy good looks, and in one of the movie's most erotic scenes, she sloshes oil on her prone husband's back and rides him the way Myra Breckenridge rode poor Rusty (though she's not wearing a dildo –a small mercy). Meanwhile, young Viola is listening through the wall to all the action, opening her shirt, fondling her own breasts — a girl aflame with unfamiliar feelings she doesn't know what to do with and can't control.
Pauline Chan (who, with Robert Carter, adapted the screenplay from Australian writer Kate Grenville's 1989 novel Dreamhouse) strikes the movie's many, and sometimes shocking, erotic notes with assurance. She's neither shy nor embarrassingly explicit, and she seems to understand that sex is the flip side of the war that's already smoldering in the countryside — a rumor, a beating, a shadow, a boom that could be thunder, or dynamite. Everything glows with sinister passion.
If Traps were merely a subtle portrait of a marriage being made unstable by all the unpredictable forces — sexual, economic, and political — around it, the movie would still be superior. But it manages simultaneously to understand its characters in their difficult historical moment, and to limn that moment itself. Like no other movie I've seen in a long time, it joins the personal and historical in a brilliant cross-illumination.
Francophiles will squirm for most of the picture. Traps establishes a rational basis — plunder — for the French presence in Vietnam, but it also examines, with a devastatingly clear eye, the mounting inhumanity that corrupted what was at best a dubious undertaking. France's great intellectual and moral traditions of reason and brotherhood and individual dignity — of which we are the lucky inheritors — are nowhere in evidence. Instead of the rule of law there is the rule of the rifle butt; the French military regularly conducts kangaroo courts in which an accusation is enough for conviction — and a savage beating.
The growing desperation of the military command is clear — and a disquieting harbinger of the same creeping chaos that would infect American operations in the 1960s. Without law, men revert to savagery, which leads only to more savagery, and finally to bloody anarchy.
Traps is so tense from beginning to end that it often feels as if the film itself must break. War rumbles and mutters like a thunderstorm on the horizon, rattling the window frames with a soft violence that, like a tornado, promises to explode soon in wild fury. But the perfectly restrained, penetrating Pauline Chan leaves that to the imagination. She knows that she need do no more than suggest, and the result is art.
Traps opens Wed, Dec. 6, at the Clay in S.F. and Fri,Dec. 8, at the Shattuck in Berkeley.