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'East-West': Heartfelt, Riveting Drama

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 28, 2000


    'East-West' Catherine Deneuve, Sandrine Bonnaire and Erwan Baynaud in "East-West."
(Sony Pictures Classics)
It's the end of World War II, and Soviet premier Joseph Stalin has extended a warm hand of welcome to his émigré countrymen scattered around the world: Come home, brothers and sisters, he says, help rebuild the motherland, all is forgiven.

While thousands of homesick fools did accept the invitation to return, most of them were summarily imprisoned or murdered upon their arrival by a despot too paranoid to trust his own people. "East-West" is the riveting fictional story of a family of the "lucky" ones, although that word will seem strangely inappropriate when you see the living hell that doctor Alexei Golovin (Oleg Menchikov) naively stumbles into when he gathers up his pretty French wife Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire) and their young son (played by Ruben Tupiero at 7 and Erwan Baynaud at 14) to return to the land of his birth.

Director Regis Wargnier wastes no time showing us the folly of Alexei's decision. Literally before they've even set foot on the Odessa dock, the family is forced to witness the cold-blooded execution of a fellow passenger who's had the temerity to have second thoughts about repatriation. Now, history-minded moviegoers will recognize the omen that our heroes miss: If the Golovins had any sense they'd turn around and run right back up the gangway, but who in those days knew exactly how bad things were going to get? And anyway, what was to prevent Stalin's goons from ventilating the Golovins' skulls with a rifle bullet, too?

They decide to stay, but not for long. Mere minutes after getting the guided tour of the dingy communal apartment in Kiev they've been ordered to share with five other families, Marie announces that she's had enough and wants to go back to France. Hope springs eternal, even after her own passport has been shredded and she's been roughed up by the secret police, who refrain from shooting her as a spy only at the behest of her husband (whose sought-after medical skills have earned him a certain amount of power).

"Every prison," she chirps, "has a way out."


Weeks turn into months turn into years (illustrated by at times annoying on-screen titles) though, astonishingly, the two-hour film never feels a minute too long. As in "The Great Escape," the gripping drama propels itself over hurdles and pushes past setbacks by instilling in the audience – who ought to know better by now – the same gullible confidence that keeps its protagonists from ever giving up. When Sacha (Serguei Bodrov Jr.), a charismatic orphaned swimmer who's unofficially adopted by the Golovins after the death of his grandmother, attempts a seemingly impossible nighttime escape by swimming to a Turkish freighter 10 miles off shore, you find yourself gasping, breath-for-breath, along with the desperate young man as he churns through the waves of the Black Sea.

Despite the absence of a visible villain (the offscreen Stalin's evil is mainly felt in the subtle mistrust that turns neighbor against neighbor, husband against wife), "East-West" boast a larger-than-life heroine in the person of Gabrielle Develay. Catherine Deneuve brings her usual celestial presence to the role of Gabrielle, a star of the French stage whose tour of the Soviet Union allows her to cross paths with the increasingly hopeless Golovins. Like "Touched by an Angel's" Roma Downey, she shows up at just the right moment, and with just the right mix of inner strength and outer babeliciousness.

But it's Bonnaire and Menchikov who carry the film, recently up for an Oscar in the foreign film category. In their sad, watery eyes, you can read the despair, the anger, the faith and the resolve that alternately buffet and bolster their fragile psyches. Their love is a strange one that weathers and outlasts even each other's lies and betrayals, not because it wants to but because it has no other choice.

EAST-WEST (PG-13, 120 minutes) – Contains brief scenes of violence and sexuality. In French and Russian with English subtitles.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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