Compassionately conflicted views of gay male sexuality and inter-European immigration mesh to fascinating effect in “Eastern Boys,” Robin Campillo’s sleek, shape-shifting and intermittently stunning sophomore feature. Bearing all the formal refinement and discursive human interest one associates with Campillo’s regular collaborator Laurent Cantet, this tale of a middle-aged businessman who gets more than he bargained for when cruising in the Gare du Nord is by turns a frightening home-invasion drama, a tender love story and a tense hide-and-seek thriller, with far more control over these unsettling tonal slides than initially seems feasible. A popular winner in the Horizons sidebar at Venice, this highly unusual pic will be swiftly picked up by LGBT fests and distribs, but less specialized arthouse exposure also beckons.
Though it couldn’t be more different in approach or outlook, “Eastern Boys” is the second major festival title this year, after Alain Guiraudie’s considerably more explicit “Stranger by the Lake,” to dwell on the less bodily hazards of casual gay sex. (Where “Fatal Attraction” was viewed by many in 1987 as an AIDS allegory, there’s no need for quite such disguised metaphors these days.) But if the first two chapters of Campillo’s film (which is divided into four, all ornately titled) imply a cautionary tale, punishing our protagonist for his impulsive, fumbling desires, the remainder spiders out into more unexpectedly liberal territory.
The film opens with deliberate, mostly dialogue-free observation of a gang of young Eastern European toughs as they coolly loiter around the vast public expanse of Paris’s Gare du Nord, cleverly coaxing social presumptions out of the audience that will be confirmed and subverted in due course. The patient camera eventually lands upon mild-mannered, expensively suited fiftysomething Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin, “Of Gods and Men”), as he shyly approaches one of the youths — Marek (Kirill Emelyanov), a lankily handsome Ukrainian hustler who looks barely of legal age — in a secluded corner of the station concourse. Evidently unpracticed in such matters, he schedules a rendezvous at his home address.
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It’s a naive disclosure that backfires sorely the next day, when Daniel’s chicly furnished apartment is invaded by the entire gang. They proceed to strip it bare as their charismatic Russian ringleader Boss (a remarkable Danil Vorobyev) taunts the older man with threateningly flirtatious advances. Soundtracked to the throbbing electronic music that Boss plays under the pretense of throwing a party, the raid makes for a lengthily sustained, altogether masterful sequence, one that tacitly reveals the interplay of power within the vast gang, as filtered through the intertwined terror and involuntary arousal of Daniel’s perspective. An asset throughout the film, the gliding serenity and minty tonal chill of Jeanne Lapoirie’s superb widescreen lensing is never put to more revealing use than it is here.
If nothing else in “Eastern Boys” matches the feverish technical and atmospheric high of this early climax, that is a limitation required by the film’s narrative, which immediately and surprisingly swerves into a softer register. Days later, Marek sheepishly returns to fulfill his sexual promise to Daniel, initiating a fragile but increasingly intimate romance that he keeps secret from his fellow gang members. Daniel’s interest in the boy, meanwhile, gradually crosses from the carnal to the paternal, as the desperation of his illegal-immigrant status becomes a more pressing narrative concern.
Campillo’s original screenplay demands any number of trusting leaps from its audience and characters alike, yet maintains credibility thanks to the studied assurance of its most elaborate setpieces, and the wealth of socioeconomic detail in its portrayal of both Daniel’s aging-yuppie lifestyle and the nervous group dynamic of the immigrants. The spiky spontaneity of these interactions occasionally recall Campillo’s similarly loose, perceptive writing work on Cantet’s “The Class.”
Adroit editing, in which the helmer also has a hand, can take much of the credit for the film’s elegant gear changes. If the moist-palmed suspense of the final chapter, set within in the cheap, city-limits hotel where Boss and his brethren are long-term guests, seems to have dropped in from another picture entirely, it’s nonetheless difficult to fault the construction of the film in question.
Performances from the leads are selflessly naturalistic, with Rabourdin astutely charting the slow, almost imperceptible evolution of Daniel’s relationship to Marek, from darting, bewildered lust to more assertive human concern; the actors convey a tingling mutual vulnerability in the film’s erotic (if only moderately graphic) sex scenes that is deeply moving. The film’s most arresting turn, however, comes from Vorobyev as the volatile, gym-pumped Boss, whose milky gaze betrays no empathy even as it expertly zeroes in on others’ fears. It’s easy to imagine a compelling alternative version of “Eastern Boys” that begins with Daniel soliciting him instead, though it’d be a crueller film for it.