East-West, the new film from Oscar-winning French director Régis Wargnier (Indochine), is, like Wargnier's earlier film, a drama about how political circumstances can dominate personal relations. (Also like Indochine, East-West was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film; it lost out to Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother.) Sandrine Bonnaire plays Marie, a French woman who accompanies her physician husband, Alexei (Oleg Menchikov), back to his Russian homeland in 1946. It seems that Stalin, in the aftermath of Allied cooperation during World War II, has instigated a campaign of repatriation, encouraging Soviet refugees to return to a newer and better Russia. As the boat they are on approaches port, everybody is in high spirits, eager to return to their homes. But their happiness is short-lived: The moment they disembark at Odessa, they are rounded up and brutalized by the KGB. In a less-than-subtle scene, one old man drops to his knees to kiss the Russian soil, only to be shot and killed by this ugly greeting committee.
Soon we are told that everyone on the boat except our protagonists has been executed or sent off to a camp. Alexei is immediately separated from his wife and told that, because she is French, she must be a spy. But he has a trump card to play: Being a trained physician, he possesses skills that are of value to the government. He agrees to be a model citizen and eventually even a party member, if his wife is spared.
Together with their 7-year-old son (Ruben Tapiero), Alexei and Marie are installed in a single room in an apartment that they must share with several other families. Because of the close quarters, everybody lives in eternal fear and suspicion. Marie, a cultured woman from a privileged background, is miserable. Put to work ironing uniforms for a government performing troupe, she gradually begins to unravel.
Alexei, on the other hand, appears to thrive. He becomes a trusted party member, rising through the ranks after distancing himself from Marie. After he starts an affair with Olga, the main local informant, Marie throws him out, preferring to share her space with their son and Sacha (Serguei Bodrov Jr.), a local youth whose own room has been taken away. It's pretty clear that romance will develop between this handsome champion swimmer and the lonely Marie.
Wargnier follows the fates of Marie, Alexei and Sacha throughout the next decade, occasionally (though, unfortunately, not always) giving us a superimposed legend to inform us of the passage of time.
One of the film's central flaws is its predominant point of view. Marie is the most sympathetic character, and Wargnier most frequently sticks with her. But it is Alexei who is more interesting. Marie's story is simply one of a person whose life has become intolerable. Alexei has the more intriguing conflicts. Given how devoted to his family he seems, his conversion to gung-ho party weasel is baffling at first; then we begin to wonder whether he's really changed or is simply putting up a front to keep his wife from the firing squad.
Bonnaire is first-rate. Indochine veteran Catherine Deneuve fares less well, simply because her character -- a crusading French actress who becomes involved with Marie's plight -- is one-dimensional in the writing. Menchikov and Bodrov, who co-starred in Prisoner of the Mountains (directed by Bodrov's father, who is also one of the screenwriters of East-West), are both fine, though the story doesn't allow them to display any of the chemistry that powered their earlier collaboration.
The film looks great, but Wargnier is so heavy-handed in his portrayal of postwar Russia that it casts suspicions on the film's reliability as history. At this juncture, no one is going to suggest that Stalinist Russia was truly a jolly worker's paradise, with all citizens gladly joining hands to build a new society. For that view of '40s Russia, one should check out the 1943 Hollywood production Mission to Moscow, made at Roosevelt's behest. No Soviet propaganda film ever cleaved more rigidly to the Stalinist line; this extraordinary curio even defends the late-'30s purge trials. But Wargnier paints a picture that, from the moment the ship docks, seems just as unlikely, almost like something from a horror or sci-fi film. Unlike the amazing 1965 Czech film The Shop on Main Street -- which methodically shows how decent people could be persuaded to help out the Nazis -- East-West simply pulls out a bunch of inexplicably evil characters who exist without any context. Nor do we ever find out precisely why Stalin would want to lure these people back. The motivation seems to be some sort of sadistic prank rather than anything that makes political sense.
Because extreme claims require extreme proof, it would be nice if Wargnier had provided more historical evidence that the film isn't simply an overheated anticommunist fantasy, along the lines of Red Dawn (1984) or the even goofier The Commies Are Coming, the Commies Are Coming (1962). But his only cited sources are anecdotes by a few aging survivors of the repatriation. For a film that purports to present a historical portrait, this would seem less than adequate.
Opens May 19 at the Plaza Frontenac.
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