EAST-WEST (Est-Ouest) A-
France Russia Ukraine Bulgaria Spain (124 mi) 1999 d: Régis Wargnier
The second half of the 20th century saw unprecedented horror from the Nazi propagated Holocaust during World War II, one of the worst atrocities in history by attempting to eradicate an entire people on racial grounds, systematically singling out only Jewish people to exterminate. But most historians agree that Josef Stalin likely killed more people than Hitler, where tens of millions were sent to the endless wastes of the Siberian Gulag. But even Stalin doesn’t hold the distinction of being the most genocidal leader of the 20th century, as that would be Mao Zedong of China, who is thought to be responsible for the deaths of over 40 million people, most attributable to famine, forced labor, starvation, and execution. Having said that, what’s unique to this film is tackling a subject rarely dealt with in the history books, namely the fate of thousands of Russians who fled the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution, who were lured back in the summer of 1946 by Stalin’s offer of an amnesty where they were supposedly needed in the reconstruction of a nation decimated by war. Returning émigrés Alexei (Oleg Menchikov), a Russian trained doctor who had been living in France decides to return to help his homeland accompanied by his French wife Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire) and their 7-year old son. Far from the glorious return to a welcoming country they expected, they were instead greeted by a harsh military force and separated into two lines, death or imprisonment, where most were executed as “imperialist spies.” Only the professionals, whose skills are needed, are allowed to remain alive, where the Soviets are suspicious of all these new arrivals, treating them with open suspicion and hostility, stripping Marie of her French passport, where their activities are carefully monitored by the KGB and local communist citizens who threaten at any time to turn them in to authorities. Wargnier, a French screenwriter and filmmaker, Louis Gardel, a French novelist and screenwriter born in Algiers, Sergei Bodrov, a Russian screenwriter and director (who son plays a major role in the film), and Rustam Ibragimbekov, a Russian, Azerbaijani screenwriter and playwright, go to considerable lengths to recreate the realities for ordinary people in the post-war Stalinist system.
Told with a Spielberg, Hollywood epic sweep, France's entry for this year's Academy Award Best Foreign Language Film, you’d think this would fall into the melodramatic, over-the-top category, seemingly modeled on the war-time romance of DR. ZHIVAGO (1965), and while there are a bit too many Russians who also conveniently happen to speak French, the romance is actually submerged into the historical reality, as the film doesn’t overplay the emotions and takes a surprising interest in the individual lives affected and in developing character, where the acting throughout is superb, as is the production design, where the choice of locations can be stunning, contrasting the immense grandiosity of the architecture in the spacious government buildings against the tiny, claustrophobic rooms allotted to citizens. Shot on location in Kiev, in the Ukraine, and Sofia, Bulgaria, the director captures a real sense of desperation and futility, where the bleakness of this family’s trapped existence is really no different than that of other ordinary citizens, as all suffer during Stalin’s reign. Transported to Kiev, Alexei is employed as a medical officer in a large textile factory, where everyday existence in the Soviet Union is permeated with the presence of the secret police, in particular the heightened xenophobia that runs rampant from ordinary citizens to the ruling apparatus, where everyone falls under suspicion. The family is consigned to a small, cramped room in a squalid communal house of drunken unemployed men, where one of the lodgers possesses keys to all the mail boxes and has the task of checking everyone’s letters on a regular basis. Marie is horrified and immediately vows to find a way back to France, but without a passport, they are trapped behind the Iron Curtain and imprisoned to involuntary servitude, where she is contemptuously treated like a foreign spy, and the only reason they remain alive is Alexei’s considerable medical skills. When the elderly Russian landlady of the house is caught singing a French song with Marie, she is rounded up by the KGB agents and imprisoned for consorting with a foreign spy, dying shortly afterwards, where her son Sasha (Sergei Bodrov Jr.) is about be thrown out into the streets. Without a word of discussion, Marie insists they can make room for him, where Sasha becomes like an older brother to their own son, but Alexei is disturbed by the continual lack of privacy at home and how he’s continually hounded at work to prove his Soviet credibility.
The film consistently supports multiple storylines that occasionally interconnect, extended through time, given a near historic reach, where a traveling French theatrical troupe happens to be visiting Kiev and Marie desperately bursts into the dressing room of the star, Catherine Deneuve as Gabrielle Develay, known for her leftist political leanings, and hands her a letter to give to the French Consulate in France, an act Gabrielle can’t ignore. With the KGB agents literally at her door, this turns into a tricky situation, as it puts Marie’s husband in a vulnerable position, as he can’t afford to offend the Communist regime. He’s fraught with his own personal travails, as due to his wife’s inattention, he sleeps with the Soviet landlady in the building, immediately kicked out by Marie, so instead he moves in across the hall with his mistress. When the Communists hear about this, it all sounds so French to them, urging him to divorce his wife and receive a large apartment as compensation. Sasha figures into his own storyline, as he’s a world class swimmer that falls for Marie, dropped from the swim team due to his lethargy after his grandmother’s death, where Marie revives his training regimen swimming in the Dnieper River, where he rubs his body with lard to protect him from the cold. Eventually he is welcomed back to the team where his skills may allow him to defect to the West, and perhaps free Marie from France. The splendid cinematography from Laurent Dailland is impressive, while the soundtrack by Patrick Doyle is equally enthralling at times, powerful and dramatic, feeling much like a rhapsodic Rachmaninov piano concerto, where the intensity rises at times to the level of a thriller. As the film leaps forward in large blocks of time, their initial hopes are continually thwarted and slowly dissipate, while their weary lives seem to move at a glacier pace, where the bleakness of the Stalinist state retains the upper hand, where it’s in the Russian blood to endure hardships, characterized by long suffering. Except for a few brief scenes, the film unwinds entirely in the Soviet Union, advancing into an era when Stalin actually increased his nationalist fervor, including his anti-Semitic belligerence by rounding up the remaining Jews and sending them to Gulags, while also renewing show trials, intensifying the purges, pogroms, mass enslavement, and murder. Yet throughout it all, this is an emotionally compelling story of would-be survivors with differing cultural instincts in play, where Alexei and Marie are two extremely resourceful and complex individuals whose enduring relationship evolves into larger-than-life feelings, where the Soviet Army Choir echoes thunderously throughout the journey.