Director Regis Wargnier’s only work that drew much attention prior to East-West was Indochine, an overrated 1992 historical soaper that might better have been called Days of Our Colonial Lives. (That Indochine won an Academy award for best foreign film is only understandable in terms of its competition that year – titles such as Schtonk! and Urga, not exactly hallmarks in the history of film.)
Wargnier’s new opus is not, as reported in some parts, based on a true story, but it does draw its context from the Soviet government’s 1946 invitation to Russian expatriates to return to the homeland. In the opening scene, the dining room of a ship carrying a group from France who have accepted the invitation, the sentiment for the Russia of their memories flows like so much syrup from a Siberian maple. (Didn’t these people read newspapers?) Wargnier’s setup for the rude awakening is so transparent that when the horrors of the police state descend – even as they disembark – in Odessa, the only surprise is the degree of cliched, melodramatic overkill.
The leading couple of this soggy exercise save it from being a total embarrassment through their personal charm and skillful acting. Sandrine Bonnaire (La Ceremonie, Monsieur Hire) somehow looks every bit as lovely exiting a detention camp after several years as a prisoner as she does dressed to kill and dancing a tango. She plays Marie, the French wife of a Russian-rooted doctor, Alexei Golovin, played by Oleg Menchikov (Burnt by the Sun). They look awfully good together, but it is clear they will have to suffer deeply before the evening is over. While he sees accomodation to the authorities as the best way to cope, she understandably wants out of this miserable five-family to a one-family house existence, where the neighbors are vodka-swilling thieves or KGB stool pigeons. Wargnier leaves no stereotype unexplored.
Still, the slick production, briskly paced and well edited, keeps things moving along. For a while it gives the impression that it might actually have something to say beyond the obvious banalities, but hope quickly fades, even with the appearance of La Reine herself, Catherine Deneuve, as beautiful as ever. Deneuve plays a politically leftist star of the French stage who manages to tour the Soviet Union untouched by the police state, acting as a sort of Good Fairy of the Ouest for our leading couple.
Mostly, Wargnier focuses on the ins and outs of the Golovin’s marriage as they cope with domestic tackiness, authoritarian threats, seductive neighbors, and a marathon swim. Will their love survive? Can they ever escape back to France? Will anybody in the audience care? (There was not a handkerchief to be seen in the house.)
Wargnier says: "East-West is the movement, the breath of life, from one person to another…Like a torch that is passed on, everyone taking care that it isn’t put out but ready to give it up as long as they know that it burns in someone else’s heart." Recommended only for the most devoted soap fans, East-West earns our early nominations both for Fuzziest-Thinking Director and for Most Pretentious Film of the Year.
Renamed As the Piroshki Turns, it might do well on Bulgarian daytime TV.