STALINISM SUCKED. We all agree on that now, which is why the French—once so soft on Uncle Joe—are finally getting around to making the same kind of self-important anti-Stalinist pics we've long been producing in the Commie-hating US. A decade after the Berlin Wall came down, even former Gallic left-wingers are jumping on the bandwagon to portray Soviet Russia's abuses. In this new climate of feel-good condemnation, East-West is a handsome, nicely detailed, reasonably well acted, and occasionally convincing account of one family's misery behind the Iron Curtain. Mainly, however, it feels like one of those awkward hybrid international coproductions that wants desperately to be Dr. Zhivago, but instead ends up a high-end TV miniseries, complete with changes of season, convenient chapter breaks, and intertitles informing us that many years have passed.
directed by R駩s Wargnier
with Sandrine Bonnaire, Oleg Menchikov, and Catherine Deneuve
opens April 14 at Harvard Exit
WWII is over, so idealistic Dr. Alexei Golovine drags his French wife Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire of The Ceremony) and son back to serve the motherland. The regime is making a special effort to welcome home the ingrate bourgeoisie who waited out the war in Paris, which ought to raise alarm bells. But no, the gangplank from their ship leads straight to the gulag, indicating the principal dramatic defect to the story—it's so intent on showing the USSR's villainous abuses that East-West plays like that Sally Field-Arabs-stole-my-baby movie Not Without My Daughter. The whole drama is whether Marie and her son can somehow flee to France from this perfidious state. "They can't force us to stay," she protests in vain. "To save your lives, I do as I'm told," Alexei retorts.
A better film would've made the family's gradual disillusionment with the Reds its subject. Instead what we have—to protract the final moment of possible escape—are well-done scenes of a marriage crumbling under the pressures of captivity. Realizing their situation, Marie is justifiably angry at Alexei (the magnetic Oleg Menchikov of Prisoner of the Mountains); he then shacks up with some tart; she duly has an affair with a young swimmer; and finally Catherine Deneuve arrives as a visiting French actress who takes an interest in Marie's plight. So will Marie finally struggle to freedom? The film is good enough that you care about its protagonists, but like R駩s Wargnier's 1991 Oscar-winning Indochine (also with Deneuve), the burnished surface and serious tone are belied by a fundamentally simple, predictable story that East-West ultimately can't escape.