French wife desperately seeks escape from Stalinist Russian after expat husband tricked into returning
"East-West" opens with a simple, dark -- almost black -- shot of a churning ocean liner wake on a cold sea, accompanied on the soundtrack by an resounding, distinctively Russian imperial march. The shot lingers for the three or so minutes of the opening credits and by the time the camera moves onboard the ship, there is an inexorable mood of foreboding uncertainty in the air.
This ship is carrying Russian expatriates from France back to the Motherland after World War II. They've been invited to help build a new future for their nation. But it is a trap laid by a deceptive and vengeful Stalin government. When the ship docks, it is met by armed soldiers and most of the passengers are dead or imprisoned within hours.
One man, a doctor named Alexei (Oleg Menchikov, "Prisoner of the Mountains"), is taken aside and told his family will be spared -- if he becomes a loyal, exemplary Soviet citizen. "Don't destroy your destiny," he's told in no uncertain terms after they realize the value of a young physician trained in Western medicine.
Told from the point of view of Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire, "The Ceremony"), his beautiful French wife -- suddenly trapped in a dilapidated, alien world of tenement housing and rampant suspicion -- "East-West" is an uncommon and personal epic of a kind of post-war strife, despair and obstinate hope that has never before been explored in motion pictures.
Co-written and magnificently directed by Regis Wargnier ("Indochine") -- who based his story on real accounts of Westernized families tricked into returning to lives (or deaths) of misery in the USSR -- the film is awash in Marie's fear and desperation as she watches her husband reluctantly become a spiritless Soviet stooge.
Along with their young son, the couple are assigned a single room of a large, decaying, former bourgeoisie home, currently shared by a dozen residents and overseen by a wearied, broken babushka who had grown up in the house in another lifetime, the happy daughter of a wealthy family before the Bolshevik Revolution.
Under constant scrutiny by neighbors and other informants, Marie learns quickly the cost of clinging to her Western ways when her French-speaking friendship with the landlady (who cautions her to "try to forget France") gets the old woman arrested. She's never seen again.
When her husband inexplicably abandons her for a licentious, loose-tongued neighbor (for reasons that come to light later), Marie forms a relationship with the woman's teenage grandson (Serguei Bodrov, Jr., also from "Prisoner of the Mountains"), a potential Olympic swimmer whom she hopes might be able to deliver a plea for help to a French embassy during his travels abroad.
What she doesn't realize is that the Cold War has dropped overwhelming global issues into the laps of Western diplomats and any kind of liberation is highly unlikely. Her singular true hope is to contact an activist French stage diva (played by Catherine Deneuve) on a tour of Russia, who might be willing to smuggle her family out of the country.
Packed frame-by-frame with crushing tension, fear and bottled-up emotion, "East-West" is a demanding, exhausting and ultimately rewarding socio-political drama that builds a visceral connection to Marie's tormented psyche. Bonnaire's deeply perseverant performance is so utterly absorbing that the betrayal she feels toward her unfaithful husband becomes the audience's ire and her ardent hope of dangerous aid from the enthralling Deneuve makes the heart race with adrenaline.
Menchikov does a fine job in a tough spot as the ambiguous Alexei, whose horror at what he's brought on his family lead him to sacrifices that will haunt him his whole life.
But the film would not have the lasting impact it does without Wargnier's conscientious and astute direction. The melancholy atmosphere that hangs over his indisposed immigrant family is thick with of grief and jeopardy. The film is resplendent with powerful and handsome imagery, like the churning, dark waters -- a symbol of the heroine's emotional condition -- which are revisited at the ruins of a river boathouse where Marie helps the young swimmer train, hoping his talent will in some way help lead to escape.
"East-West" is a standout among the abundance of affecting post-war movies made all over the Western world -- not only as a completely unique story, but as a splendid, gripping work of cinema, much deserving of the Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination it received earlier this year.