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East - West
A movie review

east west

Sandrine Bonnaire
and Oleg Menshikov

(France-Russia-Spain-Bulgaria, 1999)

Régis Wargnier, director

Written (in French
and Russian with
English subtitles
by Roustam Ibraguimbeck,
Sergei Bodrov, Louis Gardel
Régis Wargnier

Yves Marmion, producer

Sandrine Bonnaire
Catherine Deneuve
Sergei Bodrov, Jr.
Oleg Menshikov

Photo courtesy of
Sony Pictures Classics

By Karla Oeler

NEW YORK, 15 May 2000 - It would be easy to come to the Russian-French East-West with high expectations. In the last ten years, Russian cinema has produced interesting work, and the subject matter of East-West - the life of Russians who return from the West to their homeland during the Stalinist terror - offers rich possibilities for narrative and cinematic reflection.

The international production features elites from both French and Russian cinema; Régis Wargnier (Indochine) directs Sandrine Bonnaire, Catherine Deneuve, Sergei Bodrov, Jr., and Oleg Menshikov. Bodrov, Sr. was writer and director of Prisoner of the Mountains, a Tolstoyan narrative set in present-day Chechnya (which also costars Bodrov, Jr. and Menshikov); Western audiences may know Bodrov, Jr. as the star of The Brother, a post-Soviet film noir. Unfortunately, the film falls short of what it might have been, given this cast, crew and materials - the fault lying, perhaps, with the film's disappointingly conventional ambitions.

The film follows the fortunes of Alexei Golovin (Menshikov), a Russian-born doctor who brings his French wife Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire) and their seven-year-old son back to Russa during Stalin's post-WWII repatriation of Russian émigrés.

Welcomed by Soviet troops and secret police, all of the repatriated are shot or sent to labor camps except for Golovin's family. Marie is accused of being an imperialist spy and beaten, and the family is deposited in a squalid apartment in Kiev. Golovin begins a years-long game of playing along with the demands of the Soviet regime, becoming a respected figure and a willing accomplice to Party propoganda. Marie, incredibly obstinate before the realities of her situation, dreams only of escape and return to France. She finds solace in the swimmer Sasha (Bodrov Jr.), who, himself longing for a France he knows only through reading, becomes her lover and ally in an escape attempt; left-wing French actress Gabrielle Devalay (Deneuve) later works from the West to engineer Marie's escape.

Engaging, beautifully acted, and competently visualised (using the waters of the Black Sea as the chief visual metaphor for the liminal space dividing East and West), this international thriller, falters mostly due to its disappointingly conventional ambitions - using hackneyed images of Soviet power that fail to convey the atmosphere of habitual terror and its lingering effects, focusing, soap-opera-like, on the problems it poses for one family. The film squanders the chance to face the bewildering, troubling questions raised by Stalinism - for instance, more could have been done with Catherine Deneuve’s Gabrielle, a kind of French Jane Fonda of the 1940’s and 50’s Such a figure provides an opportunity to explore Western blindness to the Stalinist terror - particularly on the part of left-wing intellectuals - and what better way to address blindness than with the visual medium of cinema?

Released not long before East-West was Alexei German’s groundbreaking Khrustaliev, My Car! - ridiculed at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival for its incomprehensibility, but destined to be ranked among works like Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog and Hiroshima, mon amour for its originality and for the intellectual and artistic integrity with which it addresses the routine terror of late Stalinism. Sadly, despite the potential of its subject matter and its talented contributors, East-West will leave no such mark on world cinema, settling for being a merely competent thriller-drama.

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