Est-Ouest 1999 French entry for Best Foreign Film Oscar®
In French and Russian, with sub-titles
Directed by Régis Wargnier
Starring: Sandrine Bonnaire, Oleg Menchikov, Serguei Bodrov, Jr., and Catherine Deneuve as "Gabrielle"
US Distributor: Sony Classics Pictures.
Note: the spelling of the names of both cast members and characters varies from country to country; the spellings used here are from the American sub-titled version.
East-West is Casablanca for the '90s. With the Cold War well-thawed, one of the darkest chapters in modern European history is brought to film in East-West: Stalin's encouragement of "White Russian" emigrés who had fled the Soviet Union to return in 1946 to help "rebuild the Motherland." What the idealistic returnees did not know was that the days of Stalinist opression had not passed: almost all of those who returned were promptly executed or imprisoned.
East-West tells the story of French citizen Marie Golovin (Bonnaire), her Russian husband Alexei (Menchikov), and their French-born son, Serioja (played by Ruben Tupiero and Erwan Baynaud), who arrive in the Soviet Union filled with dreams of helping it rebuild itself after years of warfare against Stalin's former ally, Hitler. Before they have even set foot on the dock they witness the first horrific killing, and Marie is immediately arrested at the dock and charged with being an "Imperialist spy." Only the fact that her husband is a much-needed physician (who is willing to play by the rules of the Stalinists) saves her from immediate execution or imprisonment.
What follows is a nightmare for Marie: sent into internal exile with her husband and son to Kiev, they live fairly well by Stalinist standards (only five families share the apartment in which they live) but Marie dreams of escaping back to France with Alexei and Serioja, a dream which becomes more distant with each passing day.
When one of their neighbors is denounced as a spy for speaking in French to Marie, who does not understand Russian, Marie and Alexei take in the last surviving member of the family, Sacha (Menchikov's former Prisoners of the Caucasus co-star, Serguei Bodrov, Jr.), a teenager who dreams of using his swimming talents as a means of rising in the sports-oriented Stalinist state and -- just perhaps -- of escaping to the West . . . and freedom.
Already under suspicion and constant surveillance, the taking in of Sacha (whose parents and grandmother were all executed as "enemies of the State") further dims Marie's visions of returning to France, even as she finds herself becoming more and more interested in the young man, first as an orphan who needs protection, and then as both a possible lover and a means for her family's own escape back to the West.
Only Alexei, with his valuable medical skills (and Communist Party membership) is given any hope by the Soviets, for he is willing to do whatever it takes to keep himself and his family alive. When a French theatrical company comes to Kiev as part of a cultural exchange program, Alexei, who has sworn to Marie that he will work for their freedom, is chosen to introduce the program, and he does so by publicly thanking his wife for coming to the Soviet Union and accepting Soviet citizenship. The outraged Marie, feeling betrayed by her husband, manages to slip a letter to the star of the company, the Leftist actress Gabrielle Develay (Deneuve), despite her husband's interference, right in front of watching agents of the K.G.B., Stalin's secret police.
The result of what was to have been the beginning of the family's "rehabilitation" in the eyes of the Soviet authorities is complete domestic turmoil: Marie locks Alexei out of their room and drives him into the arms of another woman; Sacha, now the eldest male in the apartment, is cut from the local swim team because he has turned to drinking to cope with his tragedies; while young Serioja is torn between love for his freedom-loving French mother and his compromising Russian father.
Looming over this microcosm of Soviet life is the all-seeing, all-hearing Communist STATE. Every meeting is watched, every conversation is listened to, all travel, all employment, all monetary transactions carefully monitored. A single wrong word, a gesture, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time could lead to instant death or years of imprisonment.
Director Wargnier, already an Oscar® winner for the Deneuve-starring Indochine, Composer Patrick Doyle, Cinematographer Laurent Dailland, Editor Herve Schneid and the rest of the production team utilize authentic locations and ominous undercurrents of music, mood and lighting to elevate East-West from the level of a '50s-style piece of anti-Communist propaganda to a taut, edge-of-the-seat drama in which the nightmares of Stalinist Russia which inspired George Orwell to write 1984 are brought vividly and frighteningly to life on the screen.
Based upon actual interviews with survivors of this "return to the Motherland," East-West is, in many ways, even more frightening than 1984, because the same paranoia which fueled the Stalinist purges is alive today -- in the West -- and East-West serves as a sharp warning of where such paranoia of the foreign and the unusual, and a willingness to accept constant invasions of privacy ("for the good of the Motherland" or "to fight crime" or "drug abuse" or "'pornography'") may lead . . . straight to a society which is a Hell on Earth.
The cast in East-West is uniformly excellent. Sandrine Bonnaire is magnificent as the indomitable Marie, and will undoubtedly be a strong contender for Best Actress awards when the film opens in the English-speaking world, while Catherine Deneuve simply is the imperious Gabrielle, trapped between her own Leftist sympathies and her oath to help Marie and Serioja. Oleg Menchikov provides a strong counter-point as the accomodating Alexei to Bonnaire's unbreakable Marie. Serguei Bodrov, Jr., as the tragic Sacha, speaks throughout the film with gestures, glances, a well-spoken word, and the exertions of his whole body when swimming -- his is the eloquence of body language, the speech of the boy who has grown to manhood always mindful of every word or gesture -- it is a language well-suited to international cinema, and one hopes that young Bodrov will actively pursue film work throughout Europe and the rest of the world.
The supporting cast is as well-assembled as a fine chronometer: Ruben Tupiero, who plays Serioja Golovin at age seven, is a bright, sweet, bouncing innocent who is shocked as his world decays around him; Erwan Baynaud, who plays Serioja at age fourteen, portrays the youth as a stiff, inflexible, emotionally guarded "good boy," whose true feelings are rarely allowed to show -- like his father, he has learned how to play the Soviet game. Bogdan Stupka as the perfectionist Colonel Boiko, for whom Marie works, Meglena Karalambova as Nina Fiodorvna, Alexei's perfectionist boss, and especially Grigori Manoukov as the vicious K.G.B. interrogator Pirigov, who loathes Marie, well-illustrate the type of person Serioja is likely to become if Marie fails to bring him back to freedom in France, and their occasional "friendly advice" to Marie and Alexei is chilling in its ruthless, Machiavellian pragmatism, and serves to continually heighten the tension as Marie desperately tries to rescue herself and her family from the madhouse of a country in which she is trapped.
East-West sets a high standard against which its score of competitors must strive, and if East-West fails to make the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences list of nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, one can only hope that it was because 1999 was a year for great films from around the world, and not for any partisan or political considerations. This is a film which should be seen . . . in every country . . . by everyone, not so much for its historical significance as a period piece, but for its very timely reminder about what a society founded upon fear may become.
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