We know almost nothing about him. He’s one handsome, confused, curly-haired young face amid a boatload of refugees. He’s got a buddy who’s even more bug-eyed and frightened. They speak in heavily accented French. Their ethnicity or nationality is obscure and flexible. We surmise from recent history that they’re either from somewhere in Eastern Europe or a little into Asia, perhaps Turkey or farther south.
Costa-Gavras’ film Eden Is West (Eden a l’Ouest) released in 2009, and its message is not dated, unfortunately. Debuting on OVID.tv’s streaming service this month, Eden Is West centers on the young man who calls himself Elias. The dialogue immediately plays with his name, citing “alias” and “alas”. Nobody says “Alice”, but it’s there too.
He’s played by Italian actor Riccardo Scamarcio, although Elias isn’t Italian. Late in the story, he meets a fellow countryman played by Kurdish actor Ahmet Zirek. That seems a significant detail since Kurds don’t have a specific nationality and have a prominent recent history of displacement in Europe, but the language these two characters speak isn’t Kurdish. According to a trivia listing on IMDB, it’s French in reverse.
I love that detail, and it’s appropriate for two reasons. First, it’s the strategy of Costa-Gavras and co-writer Jean-Claude Grumberg that cultural specificity doesn’t matter in this fable, for Elias is an Everyman who represents all refugees displaced in Europe. Borders and nationalities are illusions we choose to enforce, a consensus delusion maintained by magic and force of law. By a simple extension, the same is true of identity in general. In the first scene, our Everyman throws his passport and ID papers into the sea and becomes an official nobody, or rather everybody.
The second reason for reversed speech is that Elias enters a topsy-turvy multilingual Wonderland in which guesses prove wrong, appearances are deceiving, and his fortunes can reverse at any moment as anyone or anything might oppose him. Language obstructs as much as it helps. Elias’ odyssey is determined by chance and magic, by hope and fear, by will and wit.
The word “odyssey” evokes an ancient Greek epic. The first half of this Greek-French co-production takes place in a Greek resort called Eden Club Paradise, and the first inhabitants he sees are nude. Is that on the nose enough? The whole film has this delightful deadpan irony, light and delicious in its mythical and literary nods. Well, such resorts tend to be pretentiously on the nose. Realizing that naked is the best disguise, Elias doffs his rags for the first of many makeovers and re-costumings. The police and everyone else will continually judge him by what he wears and will take their cues accordingly as to whether he deserves respect or a hassling.
This particular pilgrim’s progress derives an erotic charge from the fact that Elias is young and handsome. This means something different than if he were some ragged old troll. Many men and women are attracted to him for various reasons, willing to help and/or take advantage of him. Elias is aware that virtually everyone he meets, from the kindest to the most predatory, and all ambiguities in between carries about them the possibility of a sexual dimension. It’s one of the film’s givens, along with the pervasive paranoia generated by the fact that the world is full of police looking for his kind – those who don’t belong.
In the opening scene with Elias and his friend on the boat, they glance at someone offscreen and break into half-bashful laughter. We intuit that their attention has been caught perhaps by some pretty woman. It’s one of Eden Is West‘s many telling and loaded details, for nothing here is wasted. As Elias continues his journey, he’ll frequently be regarded by pairs of women or men who assess him. The women smile and look at each other knowingly. Some men react with hostility, being in uniform, while others have slightly different intentions. In an ironic moment blending all possibilities, two policewomen give him the eye and can’t help smiling.
When Elias briefly helps a middle-aged merchant woman, and she observes how well he relates to her two young children, Costa-Gavras gives her a surprising closeup in which she registers sadness and yearning. She must be thinking of someone absent, perhaps gone forever. Her husband or some family member? Her past struggles? We’ll never know, for like most Eden Is West‘s characters, she can barely speak with Elias, but she’d like to keep him too.
This element of erotic tension in balance with the paranoiac places Elias in a literary history ranging from Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742) to James Purdy’s Malcolm (1959). The most pertinent model is Voltaire’s Candide (1759), although Elias isn’t quite so unblemished; he can’t afford to be. He steals and uses his body, darting like a pigeon or a dog toward whatever scraps of opportunity can be found between the cracks. He’s less innocent than picaresque, living on his wits and automatically defined as a criminal simply by his inconvenient existence.
Elias becomes one of those mysterious figures upon whom strangers project their issues. At one point, he’s taken for a Gypsy and brings official trouble to a Romany camp. Every brother’s keeper in the scenario is implicitly judged by the degree to which they help or hinder Elias. For example, Costa-Gavras lingers for a privileged closeup on a weary old waiter who’s allowed Elias to finish a scrounged meal instead of chasing him away. If this isn’t too much, I think I felt the wingtips of the Recording Angel marking it down and moving on, and I had to restrain my tears.
Another defining tension is between the context of consumer luxury and pleasure, the sheer magical convenience and beauty of everything, and the underworld of workers who make it run while complaining about their jobs, or the homeless underclass continually rousted like detritus on the street, blown about by the rain. Perhaps this is an “easy” observation, if only because it’s obvious and irrefutable, and few films present those interlaced levels so clearly while being so entertaining.
Indeed, the Eden sequence is so entertaining that it’s almost too bad when Elias leaves it halfway through the film to continue his odyssey to Paris, but we know well from our myths that Eden is always the place from which we must be expelled, and the rest of the journey is just as revealing and suspenseful. The most on-the-nose scene in Eden is when Elias is drafted to unclog a Russian family’s toilet. The symbolism doesn’t end there, for Elias later participates in a toilet-oriented illusion for visiting magician Nicolas Nickleby (Ulrich Tukur). He’s another character who’s pretty handsy, if only for the sake of his act.
Goodness, the literary allusions never stop. Nickleby is named after one of Charles Dickens’ orphans in one of his novels that blend episodic fun with a harsh panorama of society’s ills. The name must also be a nod to real-life magician David Copperfield, another Dickens namesake. Elias hopes Nickleby will be a literal magical savior. He carries the man’s card like a totem or golden ticket (washed into a sewer!) until he arrives in the Promised Land of Paris.
In reference to the magician, the old doorman at the famous Lido cabaret says that with the world in its current state, only a magician could change it, and he’s currently out teaching children to save the world. The doorman is played by the illustrious and prolific Michel Robin, a privileged piece of casting that almost seems a meta-character, perhaps a double for Costa-Gavras.
That Nickleby is a magician seems like a detail harking back to French cinema’s first star-auteur, the pioneering Georges Méliès. One hidden meaning is that the magic of cinema is what humankind needs to save ourselves and remake ourselves. Film can deliver the message that we each hold the wand in our hand if only we know it and figure out what to do with it.
Will Elias’ problems vanish in an easy, feel-good solution? No, nor will Costa-Gavras provide the other easy solution of contrived tragedy. The ambiguous, Chaplin-esque ending avoids the depressing calamities that mark so much of Costa-Gavras’ political oeuvre, the inevitable sense that the worst cannot be avoided can only finally be revealed. Eden Is West finds him in a playful, almost optimistic mood, though he doesn’t get carried away. The result is a deep, nimble and humane masterpiece. At the risk of overstating, Eden Is West is the rare film that could make its viewers into better people.
His politics belong to the most empirical strain, that which examines humans in their environments to see how they live with the boot on their necks. When you feel the boot, you don’t care which political, economic, or philosophical “ism” is endorsed by the boot. You don’t care that everybody has a rationale about big pictures and long terms. You don’t care what language the boot speaks, which is only the language of power. You only know there’s a boot. Costa-Gavras has devoted his career to the relentless anatomy of the boot in all its styles and materials, under all its surfaces and allegiances and brand names. This isn’t a common thing to do. The only other example who comes to mind is George Orwell.
Grumberg, meanwhile, is one of France’s most illustrious playwrights as well as being a writer for children. According to his Wikipedia entry, he’s drawn to the theme of the Nazi death camps that killed his father; an example would be his collaboration on the script of François Truffaut‘s The Last Metro (Le Dernier Métro, 1980). Eden Is West never brings that up in so many words, yet its sensibility is of a pervasive awareness of history in the moment, and especially of having to flee those in uniform.
Costa-Gavras, a Greek immigrant to France, is one of the world’s major filmmakers. His works are conveniently available on disc if you happen to live in France, whereas in the US it can be hard to locate even some of his American films, never mind some French ones that have never come to disc in Region 1. For example, one film unavailable is a previous collaboration with Grumberg, La Petite Apocalypse (1993), from a novel by Tadeusz Konwicki. What accounts for this mystifying state of affairs? To be sure, Costa-Gavras is far from the only major filmmaker to suffer this fate in the US, but that doesn’t make me feel better.
According to the film’s IMDB entry, the US debut of Eden Is West occurred in March 2009 at Lincoln Center‘s annual Rendezvous with French Cinema series. No US theatrical distributor is listed, a point supported by the absence of US reviews. Nor has this humane masterpiece been on video in Region 1. We can only roll our eyes and pray for patience at the vagaries of distribution. While much of the world is denied a film like this, I’m sure everyone had a chance to be saturated with the latest big-budget bilge. At least Eden Is West is currently on OVID.