A movie set in Cambodia would seem an ideal choice for this week’s review. It would, except for the salient fact that Bertrand Tavernier’s Holy Lola doesn’t contain an awful lot of Cambodia despite being set and filmed here.
Neither does it contain a lot of Cambodians. Instead we are subjected to an utterly self-centred French yuppy couple’s travels through Cambodia in search of a baby to adopt . The audience is meant to sympathize with Pierre and Geraldine the childless protagonists, but it becomes increasingly difficult to do so as we watch them pursue their own selfish desires to the utter exclusion of everything and everyone around them. At times it seems like the entire country of Cambodia, and everyone in it exists only to obstruct their righteous quest to leave with a baby.
In one telling scene they are directed to a baby expert Dr Sim Duong and eventually find him at his clinic up to his neck in blood and guts, stitching wounds and applying gauzes to open wounds. Despite Pierre being a former doctor himself, the couple are quite happy to interrupt his work and enquire after their prized baby. There are villains in this movie but of course it’s not our couple. Blame is directed at everyone else.
First at the Americans with their cash dollars who don’t come in ones and twos like the French but in truckloads and who have created a shortage of babies for ‘worthy’ adopters like Pierre and Geraldine. “They take 200 orphans a year. It’s too much. Too much! It doesn”t rain orphans!” Dr. Duong tells them. You guessed it, the other villains are the heartless Cambodian bureaucrats with their petty red tape and demands for money, making life difficult for our heroes. Oh my heart breaks at the injustice of it all!
And this is the essential problem with this movie – we are meant to sympathize with a wealthy middle class French couple who show absolutely no sympathy for anyone else themselves, all the worse when they are oblivious to a people struggling with problems a thousand times worse than theirs. Given the recent bans on adoption by the US and British governments, director Bertrand Tavernier had an opportunity to tackle some very important contemporary political and ethical issues with this movie. Instead he opted for what is essentially a colonialist set piece in which Cambodians are once again relegated to ‘exotic’ backdrops while the important story of worthy (ie western) people is told.