Est/Ouest/East/West

Film Review

 

This magnificent film was made in 1999, by Régis Wargnier.  He is remembered for the touching story Indochine, a classic drama about a man that is befriended by a young girl during the French Indo-China war.  A friendship that leads to tragic consequences.  This film is set in 1946 during the brutal reign of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union.  It would be misjudging this movie to characterize it as a post-Cold War look back at totalitarian Russia.  It is not, at its core about the political chemistry of the Soviet Union.  Though, the nature of Soviet society in the post WWII era is certainly part of the story’s plot.  Furthermore, for the few remaining communist sympathizers (like myself), whom actually believe that a socialist society is viable and could have worked in Russia, it is not modern bourgeois propaganda.  Actually, Wargnier is showing that Russia, even under Communism remained a corrupted Czarist state with an octopus-like authoritarian organization that terrorized and controlled its citizenry.  Far from indicting Communism, he is illustrating the corruption that those in power were able to spread, by using the communal ideas of the philosophy.  In that sense, he is really defending the doctrine.  But, as I said, Est/Ouest is not meant to be a film that expounds political ideas at all.

 

Instead, Wargnier is giving us a story of four principal characters in a unusual bind of loving relationships, and what happens to these loving bonds during a time of adversity.  He uses this theme to build a suspenseful, though sometimes predictable plot line.  His cutting technique, while excessive is always well done, and brings the different elements of the unfolding action together into a tense unity.

 

The four principals are Marie and Alexei, husband and wife, their son, Sorieja and a resident of the rooming lodge, Sacha that becomes Marie’s lover later in the film.

 

With these four characters, Wargnier explores varying forms of love: the familial love Marie and Alexei, feel for their son, the illicit love that Marie eventually gives to Sacha, and in Alexei, the failing love for his wife Marie and his wandering false love for the next door roomer Olga.  But human love is not the only form of love Wargnier wants his audience to see.  The love of country, of freedom, and of human rights are all examined through Alexei and Marie.

 

It is more than a study in love and it’s evolving nature.  It builds tension through the close quarters of a Russian rooming house.  It tests the faith that each character has in themselves and others.  It shows us that love can change and become something different as with the swimmer Sacha.  It ultimately shows that a man can sacrifice himself for another, as did Alexei.

 

What makes this a great work of cinema is not just the story, or the roles of the characters, but the very nature of what it investigates.  In a cruel, oppressive world, the principals strive to be true to their ideas and goals.  In this sense, the film could have been set in the Deep South of the US, during the times of fierce racism and strife.  The need to be loved and give love would still have been the theme.  This is why I believe that a Soviet autocratic society is just the context and not the point of this film.

 

Without a doubt Sandrine Bonnaire as Marie is the star of this work.  She portrays a woman in distress, determined to be free with such feeling, you can’t help but like her.  Everything revolves around her.  All the other players are just supporting her story.  Though, they are great too.  The tragic fate of Alexei is expected and too telegraphed.  Still, Est/Ouest is a film to be applauded. 

 

Ken Wais

1/17/04