In 1991, Regis Wargnier, who began his career as an assistant to Patrice Leconte and
Claude Chabrol, directed the Academy Award-winning historical drama Indochine, which
covered some 30 years of French presence in what is now Vietnam. That film was a sweeping
epic romance and brought its director some notice in the USA. His follow-up,
Une Femme Française, an autobiographical portrait of his parents' marriage that teamed the
then-wed Emmanuelle Beart and Daniel Auteuil as an unfaithful wife and her patient and
forgiving spouse, never made it to America. But his return to a more epic form, Est - Ouest
(East-West) put him back in contention for a 1999 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. One
may quibble with the Academy voters who overlooked such worthy candidates as Earth,
The Color of Heaven or Set Me Free, but it is quite easy to see why East-West made the
final five. It, too, has the large-scale sweep and grandeur and, more importantly, opens a
window on the little known experiences of Russian emigres who returned home after World War II
only to discover that the promises dangled before them were empty.
Following the Armistice, Stalin made a plea for those who fled Russia to return. Wargnier
begins the film as a luxury liner steams for port. The passengers are enjoying a hearty meal
and are filled with hope as they dream of the lives they will live in their motherland. When the
ship docks, however, they are herded off like cattle and any resemblance to the myriad of
Holocaust dramas wherein passengers are separated from loved ones and/or shot on sight
is clearly deliberate. It just a few brief moments, those joyous dreams become nightmares.
One couple, Alexei, a Russian doctor, (the fine Oleg Menchikov) and Marie, his
French-born wife (the superb Sandrine Bonnaire) and their young son are separated.
Suspected of being a spy, she is interrogated. Imperious and filled with incredulity that Stalin
and his promises were nothing but lies, Marie runs afoul of the government agents. Her
passport is destroyed and she is roughly treated. Only when the authorities realize how
useful Alexei can be do they allow the couple to reunite. They are taken to a apartment building
and shown the room they will occupy. Filthy, run-down and cramped, the quarters are hardly
suitable but Alexei gamely cooperates while Marie begins to immediately plot a return to
France. Her stubborn single-mindedness will be the cause of problems for many, least of
all herself and her family and the remainder of the film charts those various difficulties.
When their elderly landlady is taken away after an informer tips the authorities about her
conversing in French with Marie, Alexei is driven into the bed of a neighbor as Marie's attitude
threatens his fragile position at the hospital where he works. Marie, in turn, gravitates to Sacha
(Sergei Bodrov Jr, son of the esteemed Russian filmmaker who contributed to this film's
screenplay), the orphaned grandson of the landlady and a would-be champion swimmer.
Sacha longs to escape as well, and he and Marie fuel one another's desire to flee. In one
desperate bid, Marie makes an appeal to a visiting French stage actress (the always luminous
Catherine Deneuve who in a few short scenes lends moral weight in an underdeveloped role),
who eventually plays a role in aiding Marie to achieve her goal.
East-West, like Wargnier's previous films, has moments that border on the mundane; the
romantic subplots equal those on daytime television and some primetime serials, but the
lessons to be learned about the human spirit that refuses to give up despite a totalitarian
regime are ones that bear repeating, especially when they are as well acted as the ones
depicted in this film.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and brief sensuality
Running time: 121 mins.
|© 2005 by C.E. Murphy. All Right Reserved.