Directed by Régis Wargnier
Review by Matt Heffernan
The Name Game returns. Last week, I reviewed East Is East, a British film that, because of its title, has affected the promotion of East-West. Its original French title, Est-ouest, has to be included on all posters and advertising to prevent confusion with the former film. It's a common problem lately, with several pairs of films that sound alike. In this case, there is a real thematic similarity, as well.
Many Russians left their country before the Bolshevik Revolution, and were scattered about Europe through two world wars. In 1946, all Russian expatriates were issued Soviet passports and invited back home. Dr. Alexei Golovin (Oleg Menshikov) brings his French wife, Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire), and their son, Serioja (Ruben Tupiero), with him to start a new life in Kiev.
The Russia of Alexei's youth is a far cry from Stalin's Soviet Union, and the move soon appears to be a mistake. Marie is accused of being a spy on arrival, and she is continuously under scrutiny, even when they move into their house -- which they share with four other families. She wants to go back west, but she is now a Soviet citizen.
East-West follows this family through years of conflict, and the struggle for freedom. To describe the scope of the film would be difficult without a very long explanation. It involves several relationships between the Golovins and other characters, all of which either help or hinder Marie's quest. Director Régis Wargnier (Indochine) weaves this story together masterfully, creating a sweeping account of love and oppression. It's not unlike David Lean's Dr. Zhivago, except from a female perspective.
Bonnaire leads this excellent cast with a powerful performance. She manages to hold her own in scenes opposite the legendary Catherine Deneuve, who plays a French actress that has the right connections to get Marie home. Also making an impressive showing is Sergei Bodrov Jr., as Marie's young lover, who also wants to defect. He is the son, of course, of writer/director Sergei Bodrov (Prisoner of the Mountains), who co-wrote the screenplay. This film was quite good, and it was the official French entry for the Academy Awards (it won a nomination, but lost the Oscar to Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother). However, it lost the César award for Best Film (the French equivalent of the Best Picture Oscar) to Venus Beauty Institute (which won't come to America until October).
Like East Is East, this film did have a harrowing culture clash, involving tyrannical men. Stalin may have been more unpleasant that Om Puri's character, but at least the Golovins didn't have to live with him.
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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan