(Est-Ouest, Régis Wargnier, France/Russia/Spain/Bulgaria, 1999)


“We belong to history much more than we can guess”: this is director Régis Wargnier’s storytelling creed, and he has expressed it in films including Indochine (1992) and A French Woman (1995). More gamely, Wargnier has attempted to become the Douglas Sirk of today – using grandly melodramatic plots and a glamorous style to trace the intersection of historical forces with individual destinies.

The mixture of elements never quite catches fire – and Wargnier’s work, as a result, ends up looking noble, pretty, star-studded and vacuous, an official French cinema that travels well but disappears swiftly from memory. East-West does not break this mould.

The script (on which noted Russian director Sergei Bodrov collaborated) certainly alights upon a fascinating and turbulent slice of political history. In 1946, Stalin enticed many former Russian residents back to their homeland. They arrived to find a miserable, oppressive life far below the standards they had enjoyed elsewhere. However, getting free of the grip of the Soviet state proved difficult, if not impossible. Any act of "civil disobedience" – such as speaking the truth – could have dire consequences.

Alexei (Oleg Menshikov), Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire) and their son have traded a life in France for this hell. They live in a cramped kommunalka (communal apartment) full of petty intrigues and ruses. Where Marie’s opposition to the Soviet system and her determination to get back to France is firm from the outset, Alexei becomes a complicit pawn in the state’s game. This political difference drives them apart.

Wargnier combines a soap opera of alienated affections – Marie’s bond with an idealistic swimmer, Alexei’s empty affair with a communal neighbour – with a social drama of allegiance and betrayal. When a French diva, Gabrielle (Catherine Deneuve), comes to Kiev, a dash of suspense is added as Marie schemes to get a message through to anyone in high places who can help her.

Do all political melodramas hinge on the moment when a hitherto "unconscious" character finally grasps the truth, and takes a stand, whatever the cost to his or her own life? East-West skilfully, agonisingly builds to the possibility of such a climax. Unfortunately, much of the movie (despite the intensity of the lead performers, especially Bonnaire) is flat, vapid and schematic. Wargnier is no Bertrand Tavernier (Life and Nothing But, 1989) when it comes to capturing the tangle of passionate individuals with brutal history.

© Adrian Martin August 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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