The Academy Award-nominated East-West , directed by Régis Wargnier from a screenplay by Mr. Wargnier, Serguei Bodrov, Roustam Ibraguimbekov and Louis Gardel, reminds me of the rueful aphorism about the difference between Hitler and Stalin being that Hitler told the truth about what he was doing, and no one believed him, whereas Stalin lied about what he was doing, and everyone believed him. East-West tells the story of the many Franco-Russian émigrés in 1946 who listened to Stalin’s honeyed pleas to return to rebuild their homeland after its heroic but ruinously costly triumph over Hitler’s armies. Once inside Russia, these nostalgic idealists found themselves either exiled to Central Asia and beyond, or executed on the spot as dangerous enemies of the state.
Alexei Golovine (Oleg Menchikov), a Russian practicing medicine in France with his French wife Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire) and their 7-year-old son Serioja (Ruben Tapiero) naïvely heeds Stalin’s siren call, and finds himself on the dock in Odessa facing the horrifying prospect of his wife’s arrest as a French spy when her French passport is routinely torn up. It seems, according to Mr. Wargnier, that Stalin had become paranoid about the large number of European emigrants flocking back to Russia, and suspected most if not all of them of being secret enemy agents. After Alexei agrees to work loyally and faithfully for the state as a factory doctor in Kiev, his wife is released and the family is provided with a single room in a communal apartment.
When Greta Garbo’s Soviet trade representative Ninotchka is shown enduring the same crowded conditions in Ernst Lubitsch’s sparkling 1939 comedy of the same name, many liberal critics in America and Western Europe condemned the director and his screenwriters, Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch, for exaggerating bad conditions in the Soviet Union for cheap Red-baiting laughs. In fact, Garbo’s Ninotchka adjusted more amiably to the discomfort than does the Golovine family in East-West .
Alexei vows to get Marie out of Russia any way he can, as soon as he can. He doesn’t know how, and he doesn’t know when, but the very convoluted process takes years and years to come to fruition, and even when it does, it has been preceded by too much pain, suffering, and sacrifice to qualify as a euphorically happy ending. Mr. Wargnier and his knowledgeable Russian co-screenwriters have created a romantic epic not so much of escape as of endurance. The director credits his Russian collaborators for making it possible for him to depict communal living with accuracy and humanity. People did survive somehow, despite the hellish system infested with informers. For Marie the worst torture was not the constant snooping of the Secret Police, but the complete indifference of her own Government and people to her plight.
One wonders why in the West there were so many apologists for the Soviet gulags for so long. Indeed, some people still argue that the Cold War was all Truman’s fault because he couldn’t communicate with Stalin as F.D.R. would have, had he lived. When Garbo deadpanned on the subject of the Moscow Trials of 1938, “There are going to be fewer, but better Russians,” we all laughed. But by 1943 we were asked to cheer the Moscow Trials in Mission to Moscow . There was a war, of course, and the Russians were our undeniably brave allies, but even then Stalin’s diseased brain was devising new and more fiendish punishments for his people. Hence, by 1946, when East-West begins, Stalin had gotten away with so much in the way of mass enslavement and murder that he had no reason to believe that he could not continue to gull Western intellectuals.
When Catherine Deneuve’s Gabrielle Develay leads a French theatrical troupe into Kiev on its Russian tour she becomes the eventual catalyst for the final resolution of the escape plot. Ms. Deneuve is thus reunited with Mr. Wargnier after their 1993 Academy Award-winning collaboration on Indochine , which had been released in France two years earlier. The pair had been in Russia together on another project with Ms. Deneuve in a more central role when that project fell through. When East-West replaced it, Ms. Deneuve agreed to play a subordinate role.
As a left-wing artist presumably friendly to the Soviet Union at the outset, Ms. Deneuve’s character is supposedly so moved by moral and humanitarian awakenings that she places herself at risk to manage a rescue through the reluctant French Embassy in Sofia. One would like to think that such a character existed in real life, but it is at this point that Mr. Wargnier seems to have succumbed either to patriotic revisionism or just plain wishful thinking. Nonetheless, East-West does succeed in making Alexei and Marie two very complex and emotionally resourceful survivors with unexpected surges of tactical brilliance and larger-than-life feelings.
For much of the film the most romantic and physically engaging character is a young Olympic-class swimmer named Sacha (Serguei Bodrov Jr.) who is taken in by the Golovines after his Franco-Russian grandmother is sent to the gulags for her sassy outbursts against the authorities. His parents had been arrested years before for similar alleged crimes against the state. Marie’s growing passion for Sacha is fueled by Alexei’s self-confessed infidelities in the course of an apparently cold-blooded careerism. These moral quandaries facing the major characters are what keeps East-West from degenerating into a simple black-and-white sermon on the evils of Stalinism. Marie, Alexei and Sacha find themselves repeatedly torn between their own desires and feelings of loyalty owed the kindly superiors who trusted them. In this respect, East-West is a genuine Franco-Russian co-production in that there is a genuine affection for the warmth, conviviality and spontaneous generosity of the Russian people under the most hellish circumstances. After all, life is not all politics.
Consequently, the happy ending is, at best, bittersweet. We in the audience find ourselves deceived by the unexpected patience, cunning and dedication of a character who turns out to be heroically devious. Ultimately, East-West transcends the horror of its subject with the amplitude of its epic vision of lives ennobled through time by a steadfast yearning for freedom. As with the paradox of Titanic , the massively physical is transformed into the movingly spiritual by the durability of a great love.
Sister Act, Minus the Ephron
Danièle Thompson’s La Bûche , from a screenplay by Ms. Thompson and her son Christopher Thompson, was one of the highlights of the Walter Reade Theater’s recently concluded “Rendezvous with French Cinema,” a series consisting of 16 new and striking French films, none of which to my knowledge has yet found a New York distributor. On the basis of the delighted reaction of the packed assemblage, I would venture to guess that this family saga mixing merriment and melancholy at Christmastime in Paris would be a good bet for an extended run at an art house. Heaven know La Bûche is everything Diane Keaton’s dismally Ephronish February release Hanging Up is not: warm, smart, grown-up, poignant but not sappy, generous but not unbelievably forgiving, thoroughly bourgeois but not calculatingly chic, and frequently funny without ever succumbing to the most desperate klutziness and buffoonery.
Furthermore, the three sisters at the core of La Bûche are not the faux trio they are in Hanging Up , a thinly disguised Meg Ryan star vehicle flanked by two uncaring stooge siblings played by Lisa Kudrow as a scatterbrained narcissistic failure in every career she undertakes, and Ms. Keaton as a monstrously megalomaniacal magazine editor intended possibly as a composite of Gloria Steinem, Tina Brown, and Anna (nuclear) Wintour. Poor Ms. Keaton, particularly, is saddled with the bluster of Baby Boom without the redeemingly loving sweetness that is Ms. Keaton’s glory as an actress. Ms. Kudrow fares somewhat better with her expertness at self-deflating self-mockery.
By contrast, the three sisters in La Bûche emerge triumphantly from the web of deceit, betrayal and infidelity that has ensnared them from early childhood as the disillusioned offspring of bitterly divorced and adulterous parents. Yet, as Jean Renoir observed in The Rules of the Game (1939), “Everyone has his reasons.” And in La Bûche , everyone gets to tell his or her side of the story, which, come to think of it, is the supposedly uncommercial alternative to star-centered cinema such as Hanging Up in which only the Meg Ryan character’s point of view is represented and respected. In La Bûche not only the three sisters, but even the errant parents are given their moment of precious memories presented in front of the camera as intimate asides to the audience. Suddenly the mood shifts, another commercial no-no, and the screen bursts into feelings with which we can all identify.
Louba (Sabine Azéma) sings lusty love songs in a Samovarish Russian night club while engaging in a back-street affair with a balding middle-aged man with four children, and yet comes up smelling like roses even after she has become unexpectedly and inconveniently pregnant. Sonia (Emmanuelle Béart) starts out as the easily caricatured, upscale married bitch of the family, but she too has her moment of pathos when she overhears her spoiled-rotten daughter on the cell phone with a classmate, chatting blithely about her mother not having a clue that her father is getting ready to dump her. Milla (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the rebel, discovers the final secret that makes their mother (Françoise Fabian) and father (Claude Rich) truly human for the first time. I hope everyone gets a chance to laugh and cry with the lovingly drawn sinners in La Bûche .