Seven years after his Oscar-winning “Indochine,” French helmer Regis Wargnier returns to the field of large-scale romantic melodrama with “East-West,” to mixed results. The story of a young couple trapped in the Soviet Union after being lured back by a fake amnesty for Russian exiles, film is too often caught between trying to be a sweeping period drama and intimate love story at the same time, with a script that’s never fully satisfying on either count. This looks like a tough sell outside France, where at least Sandrine Bonnaire and Catherine Deneuve’s names should ensure some initial audience interest. The opening night attraction at the Locarno Film Festival, pic hits French theaters Sept. 1.
“East-West” is basically an old-style, behind-the-Iron-Curtain drama-adventure, without the colorful, exotic appeal of “Indochine.” Action kicks off in June ’46 on board a ship bound to Odessa that’s full of Russians tempted back by the Soviet government’s offer of an amnesty to anyone who skipped the country in the past 30 years. But their joy at returning to the motherland is soon cut short when, immediately upon arrival in Stalin’s gray Soviet Union, they’re either shot or sent off to gulags.
Because of his badly needed skills as a doctor, Alexei Golovin (Russo star Oleg Menshikov, from “Burnt by the Sun” and “The Barber of Siberia”) is given a job as chief health officer at a weaving factory in Kiev, and manages to save his French wife, Marie (Bonnaire), from a brutal interrogation by secret police chief Pirogov (Grigori Manukov), who tries to brand her a Western spy.
Alexei, Marie and their young son are assigned a room in a multifamily apartment, and Marie is given a job in the wardrobe department of an army song-and-dance troupe. Their marriage comes under strain as Marie realizes she’s trapped in the country and Alexei acknowledges that he’s blundered big-time in deciding to return home.
When Alexei admits he’s slept with Olga (Tatyana Dogilova), the apartment “supervisor” who lives in the room opposite, Marie kicks him out. Alexei moves in with Olga, and shares duties with Marie in looking after their son.
While Alexei pretends to be a good Soviet citizen, Marie becomes friendly with fellow tenant Sasha (Sergei Bodrov Jr.). A champion swimmer who’s lost his motivation since his grandmother was carted off to a camp, Sasha is encouraged by Marie to train on his own in hopes of being selected for a Euro meet — and thereby help her get out after he’s defected.
She also makes a personal appeal for help to left-wing French actress Gabrielle Develay (Deneuve), who’s visiting with the Theatre National Populaire in a Victor Hugo play. Pic’s last hour centers on Marie and Sasha’s attempts to escape, climaxing almost seven years later in a bold plan by Gabrielle to whisk Marie and her son to safety while the musical troupe is visiting Bulgaria.
Early on, it’s apparent that the movie is an old-fashioned heroes-and-villains yarn, with all of the Soviets portrayed as slogan-spouting bad guys, every doorway concealing secret police, and the production design and muted-color lensing hammering home the drabness of the place. But in the initial stages, the perfs of Bonnaire and Menshikov do at least create an emotional center for the movie, as wife and husband stick to each other to try to survive their massive mistake.
When the couple separates, the film starts to lose its focus, and in a movie whose dialogue is a good 50% in Russian, Bonnaire becomes sidelined as the young swimmer’s story is developed. Final half-hour is a dramatic jumble, with captions suddenly jumping the story ahead by months and years, as if the filmmakers are running out of time to squeeze everything into two hours. (There are also signs throughout of considerable cutting during post-production.)
Less is certainly not more in the case of “East-West,” which has enough dramatic potential to sustain a longer running time and, when composer Patrick Doyle’s symphonic score is at full tilt and Wargnier lets the visuals breathe, attains a Romanesque sweep.
Last couple of reels, as Marie plans to escape and learns the truth of Alexei’s apparent cooperation with the authorities, hint at the powerful, emotional movie “East-West” could have been. Too often, though, the dialogue is saddled with token exchanges: “I love you, Marie.” “It’s finished, Alexei.” “It will never be finished between us, Marie.”
Bonnaire, as usual, looks natural in period duds but — as Deneuve shows, when she finally strides into the frame, exuding grand dame from every pore — doesn’t have the stature to carry a big movie of this kind. Menshikov is generally good, especially in scenes where he is called on to play duplicitous games with Party members. Bodrov — son of “Prisoner of the Mountains” director, who co-scripted here — is focused and intense as the young swimmer.
Though not in widescreen, the 70 million franc ($11.5 million) production, large by French standards, squeezes the most bang for its bucks out of shooting in Bulgaria and Ukraine, convincingly re-creating ’40s Kiev. But there’s not much extra polish to Laurent Dailland’s lensing, which is glumly underlit in many interiors. Production design and costumes have a lived-in, unstarchy look that’s a plus.