Projections - Movie Reviews

East-West East-West

East-West, France's 1999 nominee for best foreign language film from director and co-screenwriter Regis Wargnier (Indochine), was an offshoot of a project designed for Catherine Deneuve as an envoy assigned to retrieve a pure bred horse from Turkey for the French President.  Too costly and elaborate to shoot, Wargnier obtained the idea for his latest epic style feature from meeting many offspring of French mothers and Russian fathers who returned to 1946 Russia who answered Joseph Stalin's deceiving call for Russian exiles.  The resultant depiction of those who weren't executed in this little known period of Soviet history is largely melodrama amid heavy political backdrop that doesn't meet its high expectations despite the pull of Sandrine Bonnaire and the regal Deneuve, retained by the director in a less showy, but vital part.

The pallid beginnings of the Cold War era are dimly lensed that contrast with Indochine and its exotic hued appeal.  And within this easily digestible, rapidly paced adventure drama.  The notion of the world split in two extends to a blend of romance and drama, finally finding it hard to compromise its conservative attitudes between its overloaded narrative that may connect only with French audiences.

Russians aboard a ship headed for Odessa unknowing of their desire to repatriate their native land inaugurates the self assured yarn.  Instantly, when they return families are separated and gunfire downs a son who desperately flees back to his sire.

Naive, in his regret, Wargnier's male lead, Dr. Alexi Golovin is saved from execution or gulags because of his valuable medical skills and employed at Kiev as a chief medical doctor for a weaving plant.  Alexi, Russian star Oleg Menshikov of Burnt by the Sun, arrives in time to protect his French wife Marie (Bonnaire) after being slapped repeatedly by a secret policeman Pirogov (Grigori Manukow), who disgraces her as a Western spy.  The terror from the violence is an indelible image that fuels Marie who feels trapped and fears for her life.

The couple and their young son are placed in a multifamily flat and Marie works in the wardrobe department of an army song and dance group.  Their pained marriage leads to separation after Alexi discloses a relationship with the flat's resident leader, Olga, who occupies the room across from them.  So the doctor heads to Olga's, booted out by Marie, and both parents split the responsibilities for their son.

Before the breakup, there's a directness of the unfortunate folk suspected of espionage badgered by the nefarious anti-west Soviet underground cops as photography and designs expose the dreariness of Kiev.  And Alexi's conforming to the Communist side to protect his family and career corresponds well to the muted color scheme.  Bonnaire and Menshikov establish a central emotional common bond to survive in spite of their big relocating blunder.

Remaining steadfast for a while, East-West branches out as Marie becomes involved with another tenant, Sasha, endowed with increasing determination by Sergei Bodrov Jr., son of the helmer of Prisoner of the Mountains. The talented swimmer is prodded by Marie after losing his grandmother to a camp to train for a chance to get into an aquatic European meet thus leading to her defection.

More of the Russian dialogue comes into play with the rebellious Sasha training hard and winning the heart of Marie who has requested aid from left winger Gabrielle, Deneuve's elegantly sympathetic French actress in Kiev with a French theater troupe showcasing a Victor Hugo play.

Sometimes, East-West reaches a passionate sweeping stature, especially when Patrick Doyle's music hits high symphonic notes and Wargnier is less restricting in the shooting in Bulgaria and Ukraine that vividly recreates Kiev 50 years past.

Beyond the "less is more" impressive production, though, well before the gracious Gabrielle's scheme, the narrative has a restrictive, divided nature, maybe from too many collaborators, as the plans of Marie and Sasha are squeezed with Alexei's deceptive machinations with Party members.  Though Bonnaire and Bodrov pair well and Menshiukov adds dimension to Alexei, things often seem hurried and the emotions of the moment never crescendos like it should.

The obsession with the freedom that is taken for granted and the sacrifice and heroism it takes sparks East-West with an indomitable flame that is doused by Wargnier's minimalist inability to let his grand soapy drama breathe during and after the harsh era of Stalin, with much lamenting and editing diminishing a febrile Bonnaire and a too briefly imperious Deneuve.


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