A period piece that profiles three sisters with seemingly charmed lives, OVERSEAS is a fascinating film which says as much about contemporary women's roles as it does about the world of the past. First-time director Brigitte Rouan has managed to infuse an almost fairytale quality into
this romantic triptych, set in Algeria a half-century ago, without losing the edge of harsh reality on which her semi-autobiographical film is based.
Malene (Rouan) is the second of three grown daughters of a wealthy French colonial widower. The others are Zon (Nicole Garcia) and Gritte (Marianne Basler); all are caught up in the tumult of extreme social change during the outbreak of the Algerian War in the 1950s. In structure, OVERSEAS is
kissing cousins to RASHOMON and Stanley Kubrick's THE KILLING. Here, it's the youngest sister Gritte's engagement party that serves as the film's nerve center, a scene to which the film constantly returns. The import of that elegant bash seems obscure at first. But as the event is
replayed--slightly different each time--its significance is made abundantly clear: namely, their lives aren't so charmed after all.
Living in colonial Algeria, each sibling has been warped or emotionally wounded by its macho, often racist culture. Willing or no, they are victims, inheritors of the archaic mind-set of the privileged Europeans living there. Theirs is a sexist society with the Gallic equivalent of a Raj
mentality. The French landlords, the pieds-noirs, have lorded over that North African country for over 130 years, and feel secure in de Gaulle's promise to keep Algeria French. Insular and complacent, the plantation owners barely speak Arabic, and then just enough to order the servants around. In
fact, both rulers and ruled are hemmed in by rigid social barriers that deny either group free choice of action or behavior.
Infinitely close, infinitely different, the sisters are bound to the romance and myths of colonialism. They have been raised with some overriding credos: that Prince Charming does exist, that marriage is for always, and that men are to be worshipped and adored. To the eldest, Zon, love is an
addiction. Fecund and feckless, she's concubine, courtesan--the sensuous woman incarnate. Her total submission to the aura of male dominance is such that she's enraged when her French naval-officer husband Paul (Philippe Galland) wants to resign his command. She begs him not to, saying "I need to
admire you. Don't let me down." Her life of leisure in between pregnancies begins and ends in bed--or thoughts thereof. And she's deliriously content up to the day she's told Paul is missing in action and presumed dead.
Malene, the more self-reliant, resourceful middle sister, finds Zon's helpless-female routine hard to take. Yet Zon's cutting criticism of Malene's passive, effete husband has merit. Her marriage to Gildas (Yann Dedet) is an unhappy one. She wants to look up to him but can't, and doesn't know
what to do about it. Gildas would rather sit reading books than manage their farm or family affairs. By default, those jobs pass to her. It's Malene who gets the inappropriate, unladylike "farmhand's sunburn" overseeing the native laborers in the fields. And when Zon later dies of cancer, Malene
takes in the orphaned children. Despite her good rapport with the Algerian workers, Malene is eventually shot to death in her car during an insurgent attack.
It is the vivacious Gritte, the restless youngest sister, who holds out the most hope for change. Surrounded by generally miserable marriages and aborted relationships, she's unable to make the requisite "leap of faith" towards Kinder, Kuchen and Kirche, and tries to rebel. She rejects the
colonial racism, breaks off her engagement to Zon's wealthy brother-in-law, and has an affair with a local Arab guerrilla. Their short-lived liaison is essentially non-verbal but mutually satisfying. After he, too, is killed during a foray, the film skips to 1964 and a brief, whimsical closing
scene in an enormous Parisian cathedral. Gritte, having deferred marriage for so many years, is seen being ceremoniously wed to a carbon copy of a colonialist. He's a naval officer, and a man Zon would have entirely approved of. But by the look on her face, it seems Gritte isn't quite sure she
By showing their personal response to the same or overlapping events, Rouan skillfully pierces the sisters' public posture to reveal the inner women. Well acted, OVERSEAS keenly documents their diverse notions of love and marriage--often naive by today's standards. Wisely, Rouan's style is
non-judgmental. Their weaknesses and strengths are laid out, but she avoids proselytizing, leaving audiences to draw their own conclusions.
It was too bad that OVERSEAS suffered from the malady common to so many small foreign films, and got lost in the limbo of limited art-house release. It deserved better. Among its many awards, the film, realistically shot in Tunisia, won best film of the "International Critics Week" in 1990 at
Cannes, and the "New Directors Showcase Award" at the 1991 Seattle Film Festival. (Violence, adult situations.)
Cast & Details See all »
- Released: 1990
- Rating: NR
- Review: A period piece that profiles three sisters with seemingly charmed lives, OVERSEAS is a fascinating film which says as much about contemporary women's roles as it does about the world of the past. First-time director Brigitte Rouan has managed to infuse an… (more)