Film Review: East/Westby Alan GuilfoyleNews Weekly
, October 21, 2000
This epic tale traces the adventures of an idealistic Russian doctor Alexei Golovin (Oleg Menchikov), his French wife Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire) and son Serioja who were part of a contingent of expatriate Russsians residing in France who were persuaded by Soviet officials to immigrate to the USSR in June 1946.
Within minutes of disembarking at Odessa, the arrivals realise their mistake when one is shot on the docks, Marie's French passport is destroyed and the others emerge battered from preliminary interrogations.
The young family is then moved to Kiev with the film showing a realistic depiction of Soviet domestic life where five families co-exist in one run-down house.
The treachery of the place quickly becomes apparent when the elderly house supervisor dies in custody after being denounced for speaking to Marie in the French she had learned pre-Revolution.
The two very different approaches that Alexei and Marie take in their bid to escape from Soviet society is explored at depth. Alexei utilises his expertise as a valued Western-trained doctor to subtly scheme for many years under a show of apparent collaboration with the authorities.
This culminates in the family being moved to Sofia where Marie and Serioja finally escape using French passports supplied by a travelling theatre actress Gabrielle Develay (Catherine Deneuve).
Marie in the meantime attempts a more direct approach of contacting her family in France by plotting with fellow house inhabitant Sacha Vassiliev (Serguei Bodrov Jnr).
The plan is for him to develop his natural swimming ability to gain placement on the Soviet swim team and defect while abroad. Instead, Sacha escapes in an athletic feat of swimming several hours in the Black Sea to rendezvous with a passing Turkish freighter. For her part, Marie spends six years in a concentration camp.
The impact of these events on Alexei and Marie shows in the wax and wane of their marriage. At one low point, the political commissar at Alexei's workplace comments dryly that the local party bosses would find it hard to believe that he loves his wife yet lives with another woman declaring that "... it's all very French."
The inspiration for the film [according to the official website at www.spe.sony.com/classics/eastwest/], came from the director's tour of the Central Asian Republics where he by chance met a number of French-speaking people who were the children of an estimated 3,000 to 12,000 post-World War II immigrants from France. While the plot is fictionalised, it is nevertheless consistent with known historical facts.
The outstanding attribute of East/West is that it communicates the effects of the former Soviet regime on the daily lives of the principal characters in human terms that can be grasped by viewers who are not familiar with the historical or political background.
French [and occasional Russian] with English subtitles.