In 1946, Stalin issued a proclamation offering Russians in exile Soviet citizenship if they would return to help rebuild their ravaged homeland. Thousands heeded the call, only to fall through the cracks between warring ideologies, face xenophobic accusations of espionage by Soviet authorities, and be imprisoned or executed. Only a master could resist the temptations of melodrama in rendering this tragic chapter of Cold War history. Régis Wargnier (Indochine) is not that director. For East-West, he’s assembled a stellar French and Russian cast, but all that talent can’t overcome his heavy-handed screenplay.
As the film opens, Alexei, a Russian doctor (Oleg Menchikov), is returning by ship to the motherland with his French wife, Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire), and their young son. Any utopian ideals they may harbor are shed on the loading dock in Odessa, where one of their fellow passengers is executed. Roughed up and sent to Kiev, the family is issued a room in a cramped communal apartment. Marie dreams of fleeing; Alexei knows they’re trapped. The gap between them grows wider, as Marie enlists the aid of their teenage neighbor (Sergei Bodrov Jr.), a talented swimmer, in her plans for escape, while Alexei becomes, at least in appearance, a model apparatchik. Enter Catherine Deneuve, playing (of all things) a famous French actress who meets Marie while on tour and resolves to help her. Yet many years and twists of fate will intervene.
Wargnier is best at depicting the corrosive atmosphere of petty surveillance and suspicion that pervaded daily life in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Still, his KGB bigwigs are stock villains in dark hats and coats; if they had mustaches, they’d twirl them. In a fine performance, Bonnaire provides a key note of understatement. (Deneuve’s role leaves little room for development.) Menchikov, an actor of feline grace, is wonderful to look at, but until the film’s final moments, we never know what he’s really thinking.