Combustible Celluloid
Search for Posters
Own it:
Search for streaming:
NetflixHuluGoogle PlayGooglePlayCan I
With: Sandrine Bonnaire, Oleg Menshikov, Catherine Deneuve, Sergei Bodrov Jr., Ruben Tupiero, Erwan Baynaud, Grigori Manukov, Tatyana Dogileva, Bogdan Stupka
Written by: Sergei Bodrov, Louis Gardel, Rustam Ibragimbekov, Regis Wargnier
Directed by: Régis Wargnier
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and brief sensuality
Language: French, Russian with English subtitles
Running Time: 121
Date: 03/19/2013

East-West (1999)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Contiental Drift

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Many French filmmakers are among the world's best, achieving great things and breaking new ground. And, on the other hand, there are the filmmakers who win awards. Regis Wargnier is one of the latter, having won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1993 for Indochine. His new film is East-West (not to be confused with the comedy East Is East), which was recently nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. I'm sure I was supposed to think it was brilliant, but truthfully I found it to be dreadfully mediocre.

In East-West Sandrine Bonnaire stars as Marie, a French woman married to a Russian man ( Oleg Menchikov). After World War II they move with their young son to Russia with the promise of a new life, but instead find themselves trapped in a horrible world of wretchedness, spying, and oppression. Marie becomes involved with a young Russian swimmer named Sacha (Serguei Bodrov Jr.) and hopes of escape are borne. A traveling French actress (Catherine Deneuve) also lends a hand.

The entire length of the film is made up of four kinds of scenes, showing: 1) how horrible their lives there are, 2) how Marie's husband seems to be fitting in quite nicely and ignoring his wife's plight, 3) shots of the muscular Sacha swimming, and 4) talk of escape. So after two hours of this, I think I got the picture. Years pass, and Wargnier puts up title cards: 2 years later; 5 years later. Yet no one ages. Finally after two hours, Marie escapes. For me it was too little, too late. Overall, the film moves too fast to really capture any interesting detail, and too slow to generate any suspense.

East-West has the feel of most "true stories" turned into fiction films. It's a long story crammed into a small space, and phony gimmicks are forced into place to supposedly make everything run smoother. Deneuve's character is such a gimmick. How probable is it that a French actress would be allowed to play in Russia when they distrust the French so? (I found out afterwards that Wargnier and Deneuve had been previously working on another film together that fell through, and so she agreed to stay on for this smaller part.)

I had two French films on my top ten list last year, one was Eric Rohmer's Autumn Tale and the other was Leos Carax' The Lovers on the Bridge. Neither qualified for the 1999 Oscar, because the former was made in 1998 and the latter in 1991, though they were both released in the U.S. in 1999. Autumn Tale was a simple love story, intelligently and warmly told by a master director. The Lovers on the Bridge was a brash, expensive, foolish epic masterpiece by an younger visionary director. Compared to these two filmmakers, Wargnier sits squarely in the middle. He's less dangerous and more controllable. The system likes him. He makes films with easy political messages that don't rock the boat. His films come across like they're important, but really don't make a lot of difference. He's like a French version of Stanley Kramer, who supposedly made "important" movies in Hollywood in the 1950's and 60's, but whose films pale beside those of real artists.

However, I'm torn, because I do love Bonnaire and Deneuve with a passion. To see a film with both of them together was a real treat. Bonnaire, who appeared in Maurice Pialat's A Nos Amours (1983), Agnes Varda's Vagabond (1985), and Claude Chabrol's excellent La Ceremonie (1995), has a wonderful face with strong lines and striking eyes. She's intelligent, restrained, and lovely. And Deneuve is nothing less than a living legend. Her credits include bona fide classics like Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1964), Luis Bunuel's Belle de Jour (1967), and Francois Truffaut's Mississippi Mermaid (1969). Both actresses have made many more great films that have never been released in America. It's too bad that, of all of them, East -West was chosen for a stateside release. I would gladly have missed it.

Movies Unlimtied