Never trust a film which has been included in the dubious category of “Best Foreign Film” in the Oscar sweepstakes. Usually European and usually directed by well-positioned, older, Caucasian men, such films almost invariably evoke historical epochs and collective patriotic memory. And whether or not they are located in times past, many of these distinguished examples focus on “big issues,” such as post-Communism and political bureaucracy, or sumptuous decadence and coy melodrama. (See Mediterraneo, Burnt By the Sun, and Babette’s Feast, among others.)
Regis Wargnier’s Est-ouest appears to mix all these loud, but basic, ingredients into a heap. At film’s introduction, and with a backdrop of a dark and stormy expanse of sea, a long epigraph scrolls down the screen, situating in several dry paragraphs a specific historical moment. It’s 1946, just following World War II, and Stalin has issued a decree inviting the millions who had fled Russia after the October Revolution, as well as those who had left prior to or during the War, to return to their mother country. This invitation contains hearty assurances that those who return will be welcomed, rather than punished. The epigraph notes that thousands of expatriates coming from Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and France responded to Stalin’s entreaty and returned to the USSR.
Sandrine Bonnaire, Oleg Menchikov, Sergei Bodrov Jr.
(Sony Pictures Classics)
Cut from the expanse of waves to an ocean liner containing hundreds of Russians and their families, drinking, dancing, and singing Russian folk songs. But the legions of returnees are not Wargnier’s interest; instead, his film focuses immediately on Alexei Golovine (Oleg Menchikov), a doctor who had moved to France as a child, his French wife Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire), and their young son Serioja (played by Ruben Tapiero and later, by Erwan Baynaud). It is their last night aboard the ship, and Alexei is awarded a vague sort of medal for being both Russian and a graduate of medical school. Still afloat and full of hope, Alexei toasts his dutiful wife (who doesn’t utter a peep for quite some time) for accompanying him back to his homeland.
As the ship docks in the port of Odessa, Marie and Alexei begin to notice, with much alarm, the proliferation of Russian troops awaiting their arrival. As the passengers disembark, they are methodically divided into 2 groups one bound for “rehabilitation” camps and the other for execution. Neither this scene nor the previous one on the ship is allowed more than a few skimpy minutes, implying an urgency to delve into the mire as soon as possible; but this immediacy comes at the expense of any background or foundation upon which to build the proceedings other than the introductory text.
Because of his potential usefulness as a much-needed doctor, Alexei and his family are spared from either of the above extreme fates. Instead, the Soviet regime represented most emphatically by Pirogov (Grigori Manukov), an evil KGB agent who appears to be an extra from Dark City and who spends a good amount of time throughout the film haunting and slapping Marie around relocates the Golovines to a Kiev boarding house. Marie is then confined to their apartment to care for Serioja, and Alexei is routed to the strangely named Red Flag Factory, where he is to serve as medical overseer for all the women in scarves and blue jumpsuits sewing red flags for twelve hours a day.
Marie is understandably quite distraught about this unforeseen state of affairs; she immediately begins to plot her escape from Communist hell back to freedom-loving France. Although she speaks of France only in platitudes and folk songs, her mad desire to return home is portrayed as an obvious inclination given the circumstances, who wouldn’t want to return to “la civilisie” rather than slowly becoming pickled in vodka? Alexei fully realizes the extent of their entrapment and the level of surveillance to which they are now subjected. Yet, to Marie he appears to adapt too easily to their new circumstances, as he plunges into his medical duties and quietly builds his status within the Communist Party. In their very differently experienced states of alienation, the couple begin to drift apart; but as their relationship was never meaningfully, and only very swiftly, established, this shift creates little emotional impact for viewers.
With a plot turn typical of a French Best Foreign Film nomination, the film has Marie and Alexei engaged in extra-marital affairs quicker than the time it would have taken Marie to learn to say “proletariat” in Russian. Alexei moves across the hall into the bed of a robust, vodka-swilling Party supporter, the unimaginatively named Olga (Tatyana Dogileva), while Marie takes in Sacha (Sergei Bodrov, Jr., from Prisoners of the Mountains), a hunky, brooding champion swimmer from down the hall, whose grandmother was sentenced to hard labor for singing French folk-songs with Marie. It is here with its romantic quadrangle that Est-ouest‘s true intentions most fully emerge; the film is less a politically-minded expose of a tragic, regrettable past than it is a pathos-ridden, melodramatic attempt at historical revisionism.
It would be erroneous for me to leave it at that, for there are many other attempts on Wargnier’s part to focus on the oppressive conditions and overall bleak state of Russia immediately following WWII. Yet these other aspects are visible only through the realm of the stereotypical and the archetypal. While Alexei toils in the Red Flag Factory, Marie works as seamstress for the Russian Army band and dance troupe, whose performances resemble nothing so much as a Russian version of Riverdance. The film’s generic cast of characters includes the previously mentioned Pirogov; Nina (Meglena Karalambova), the grim older matron/boss at the Red Flag Factory who persistently insinuates herself into Alexei’s life; and Victor (Atanass Atanassov), Sacha’s pandering swim coach who, upon learning of Sacha’s affair with Marie, transfers him to a far-away training outpost on the Black Sea.
Perhaps the film’s numerous faults can be attributed to its grandiose ambitions, although its aspirations towards epic-dom are largely undercut by its mere two hour and ten-minute duration. With Est-ouest, Wargnier wants to memorialize a little-spoken-of historical tragedy, while also providing a more intimate story of love and betrayal. In other words, Est-ouest seeks to position itself as a retelling of a catastrophic real-life event, but necessarily projected onto the lovely face of Sandrine Bonnaire and the chiseled swimmer’s body of Sergei Bodrov Jr., their closeness solidified by their mutual dreams of escape. (The sight of Catherine Deneuve trotting throughout the film as a leftist theater actress and Marie’s only chance for escape further demonstrates the film’s fanciful randomness and rather weak regard for a historical tale that isn’t bogged down by fantasy.)
Wargnier’s attempts at historical recall are continuously thwarted by his penchants for story-telling loaded with passion and romance. Such incongruousness becomes most apparent in the scenes surrounding Sacha’s much-anticipated defection to the West. After months of scheming and dreaming, Sacha’s only opportunity for escape comes in the form of a freighter leaving Odessa and heading towards Bulgaria. The freighter’s captain decides just prior to departing that he cannot risk protecting a stowaway defector, yet he changes his mind after Sacha proposes to meet the ship in international waters. As he swims the ten-mile course out of the strait and into the ocean, the camera bobs behind Sacha and around him, catching the sea’s swells and shifting currents, his breast strokes and desperate gasps for air. This intense sequence is of a very different sensibility than the majority of the film, and in its extensive stylization works to unravel the narrative itself. The suspense of his escape, combined with the aestheticization of his body in the waves and the scene’s heightened emotion works to make all else thereafter anti-climactic.
Following Sacha’s breakout, Wargnier’s movie reluctantly returns to the domesticity of Marie and Alexei and their tentative re-attempt at homegrown, and subjugated, happiness. The narrative then gears up for its “harsh political” mode; for her assumed role in Sacha’s defection, Marie is banished to a rehabilitation camp for 6 years. This time is rendered merely through the intertitle preceding her return which states, “6 Years Later.” Again the film’s erratic approach to historical narrative breaks downs into arbitrariness the previous hour and a half having signified a few months, and now, ostensibly for the good of an upcoming resolution, suddenly 6 years takes a minute. Perhaps my argument is sheerly antagonistic, a reluctance to abide by the film’s rules. But the abrupt construction of time does not represent any kind of filmic code other than convenience. Soon after this, there is yet another jump, to “2 Years Later.” This kind of temporal bungee-jumping suddenly renders irrelevant anything that cannot be shown in a scene or two; hence, all the previous uncertainty prior to and during Sacha’s escape seems part of a different film altogether, the nuances particular to non-conclusive moments now lost in a sea of sweeping historicity.