In 1946, following Soviet victory in the Second World War, Josef Stalin invited emigrés to return to Russia—which they exited as far back as the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution—ostensibly to help the nation rebuild. Those who took up the offer were almost all imprisoned or executed. The principal shortcoming of Est-Ouest, which Régis Wargnier directed from a script by himself, Sergei Bodrov, Rustam Ibragimbekov and Louis Gardel, is its odd inattention to the pressing motive for all this: in a climate of Cold War, the Soviet wish to eliminate a pool of people from which spies dedicated to the destruction of the nation could be drawn. Stalin’s motive here—national defense—was no different than his motive in opposing Hitler once the latter had violated their mutual non-aggression pact. There might have been no Allied victory without Soviet participation; applauding this participation but rejecting Stalin’s admittedly cunning and cruel invitation to those who had already proven their disloyalty, banking on the powerful allure of nostalgia for the Russian homeland, therefore risks a position of fractured logic and rank bias. It makes Stalin wrongly appear to be, to use Coleridge’s description of Iago, a “motiveless malignity.”
Once we acknowledge the film’s failure on this score, however, we are left with a gut-wrenching entertainment. In time the only survivors of a shipload of Russians returning from their new lives in France are Aleksei Golovin, his French wife, Marie, and their young son, Seryozha. Aleksei, a medical doctor, is badly needed; Marie only wants to return home. The authorities have already torn up Marie’s passport, but Aleksei dedicates himself to a long-term effort of stealth to gain freedom for himself and his family. Along the way, though, his marriage buckles under the strain of Marie’s impatience and both Aleksei and Marie take lovers. Their eventual attempt at escape thrills.
Wargnier’s persistently absorbing and suspenseful film is beautifully color photographed by Laurent Dailland in somber, richly textured grays to underscore the constant sense of imprisonment and emotional strangulation in a police state. The lead acting is brilliant: Oleg Menshikov as Aleksei; Sandrine Bonnaire as Marie. Bodrov’s strapping son, Sergei Jr., plays Sasha Vasiliev, Marie’s young lover who also wants to escape; the film now draws an additional dimension of heartache because of young Bodrov’s death in 2002. Bodrov was not yet thirty when a mountain avalanche killed him while he was directing a film. Catherine Deneuve plays a Leftist French stage actress who hopes to design the means by which Marie secures freedom. In a long career, Deneuve has given only a handful of really good performances. This is one of them.
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