Thursday, April 7, 2011

East/West

East/West (France, 1999)
Dir. Regis Wargnier
Union Generale Cinematographique (UGC); price varies, DVD

The roiling ocean in the opening scenes of Regis Wargnier’s 1999 film, East/West, makes for a powerful symbol of the disturbing upheaval to come. Inside the ocean liner, the atmosphere is warmly lit and exuberant. These White émigré Russians—those who emigrated from Russia during the revolution of 1917—are returning to their motherland. They have been offered Soviet citizenship and amnesty for fleeing. Here, in the midst of the journey home, they dine, sing patriotic songs, and tell stories. One family stands out—Alexei Golovin, his French wife Marie, and his son, Sergey.

As the journey ends in a starkly lit dockyard in the new Soviet Union, we see the contrast between the warmth of the scene on the ship and the new reality. Wargnier punctuates the frightening change of scene with gunfire: the newly returned citizens are gunned down in cold blood. The horror begins to dawn on the faces of the family, especially Alexei.

The family now must survive under the oppressive regime. Alexei makes a deal with the Soviet officers and they are sent to Kiev, but not before Marie is brutalized by an officer, accused of being a spy for the French government. Wargnier uses this as a catalyst for Alexei and Marie to begin to grow apart. It is clear that Marie blames him for taking them to this hellacious land of oppression, and Sandrine Bonnaire, does an excellent job portraying a woman who suffers and smolders while never losing her vulnerability. Bonnaire is a veteran film actress whom I remember from another excellent French film, Monsieur Hire (1989). Here, her character only wants to return to France, and as the film progresses, we see her determination to escape from Soviet oppression.

Catherine Deneuve plays an actress in a theatrical troupe that tours the country. During a performance the Golovins attend, she gives Marie an ally in her escape. Meanwhile, the couple and their son move into a rundown house that has been converted into apartments with a cast of interesting, or in some cases, malevolent characters. Alexei goes to work as a medical doctor in a textile factory.

The central characters in this narrative are Alexei and his wife, but it is Marie whom we see being crushed by her new world. The movie charts her journey: growing distant from her husband, striking up a relationship with her seventeen-year old neighbor, a competitive swimmer named Sasha, her fomenting an escape plan for Sasha that leads to him swimming out to and boarding a Turkish freighter to freedom, her subsequent accusation as a CIA spy, and her long sentence in the Gulag from which she is released a broken prematurely aged woman.

Alexei suffers his own horrific trials as well. The actor Oleg Menshikov portrays Alexei so poignantly that we can never forget his shame and guilt at bringing his family into this mess. He leaves his family and takes up with another tenant in the building, and we ponder whether guilt is the prime motivator for his infidelities. He cannot live with himself, nor with his family whom he has betrayed. Marie resents his allegiance to Stalin and the Soviet regime, failing to understand that his playing along with the Soviet leadership is a method of survival. He is biding time and waiting for the right moment to escape. He ultimately sacrifices his own security for his family’s freedom, and his fate is revealed to us in a postscript to the film.

Wargnier hits all the notes of impending tragedy in his film, and in this way, his work is a bit formulaic. There are plenty of comparisons with other like-minded films, one of which is The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), a work which predates Wargnier’s film. Still, East/West is a powerful and moving piece of art, capturing a time and place that has only recently emerged from the darkness and secrecy of Russian history. The west still has much to learn about the Russian mindset, and one of the successes of the film is Wargnier’s ability to render the richness of the émigrés on their way home with the stark and dilapidated environment of the new Soviet Union. Like the gunshots that ring out almost as soon as they arrive on the dock, the fast-changing fortunes of these people, duped into returning to their homeland, startle and shock us into the realization of the brutality of the regime and the inescapable quagmire in which our characters sink almost to oblivion. From the first moments over the roiling sea, we feel the tension in the plight of Alexei, Marie, Sergey and the others, and although the story seems destined for a tragedy of immense proportions, the end of the film does offer redemption, especially for Alexei, whose desire to return to Russia nearly costs his family their lives.

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