Instead, Wargnier is giving us a story of four principal characters in an 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 plotline. 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.