A strangely romantic tale of east meets west, Robin Campillo’s Eastern Boys brings European immigration from the political into the personal scale.
In The House by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Director of Les Revenants and writer of the subsequent TV series adaptation, as well as writer and editor for a host of Laurent Cantet films, from Time Out and The Class to Foxfire and Return To Ithaca, Robin Campillo comes to only his second feature film with impeccable credentials. And from the opening sequence with its pan down the statuary of the Gare du Nord (representing Paris and the far-flung places the station serves), which blends neatly into a fly-on-the-wall surveillance movement of a crew of Eastern European Artful Dodgers on the make, Eastern Boys is an acute and intelligent piece of filmmaking. It may not have the emotional subtlety or relationship intricacies of a Cantet film, but Campillo demonstrates all the same a very cinematic love of watching.
Chapter One – Her Majesty The Street. Marek (Kirill Emelyanov) belongs to a gang of boys from all over Eastern Europe. With Boss (Daniil Vorobyov) as their ringleader, they hang around Gare du Nord – looking for trouble and a way to make some money. In the station, middle-aged Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin) spots Marek and follows him, eventually securing a rendezvous at his place the following day. Chapter Two – This Party Of Which I Am The Hostage. Only when the whole gang turns up at his flat and empties it of computer, TV and art, doe he realise he’s been scammed – but he gives in and dances with them. Chapter Three – What We Make Together. Soon after Marek returns – to apologise and make a quick 50 Euro, before their relationship turns into something more permanent and paternal. Chapter Four – Halt Hotel Dungeons And Dragons. Returning to the gang to retrieve his passport from the hotel, Rouslan is suspected, beaten and locked up, leaving it up to Daniel to brave the dragons and rescue him.
Despite the minimalism of Robin Campillo’s film – or perhaps because of it – there’s something very French about Eastern Boys. Or at least something very typical of contemporary French cinema. Not only is it constructed out of four enigmatically titled chapters – reminiscent of Martin Provost’s Violette – it also cuts a path through the victimhood of antisocial behaviour – caught in the awkwardness between self-preservation and the social decorum of the middle classes – following a cinematic experience that runs from Michael Haneke’s Code Inconnu to André Techiné’s The Girl On The Train. And while Eastern Boys ventures into heist territory à la Rififi. It’s also not dissimilar from La Vie d’Adèle – just as honest if less graphic – as a gay film repurposed with a wider meaning – only here with a parable that’s political rather than personal.
How well the political arc sits is questionable. There’s no doubt as Marek/Rouslan details his childhood in Chechnya and the flood of corpses that floated downstream into the Russian town he called home that there’s more to Eastern Boys than a middle-aged lonely gay man taking a carnal interest in a nubile young immigrant. Scenes of France being robbed of its riches by a band of thieves paints a horribly conservative picture of immigration, as Daniel proves too cowardly to stand up to the interlopers and defend his home – choosing instead not to make a scene and go along with the dancing. It’s a moment of ignominious weakness, but as the relationship between Daniel and Rouslan deepens (he’s the only one to know Rouslan’s real name), the salvo is answered, as Daniel’s trust and concern is challenged until in the closing scene, Daniel adopts Rouslan as his son.
To get there, Campillo has to contort his story and their relationship from cash-for-sex to a chaste, familial love – from eros to storge. But even as the energy drains out of their relationship, Campillo ramps up the tension with a thrilling sting in which Daniel enters the cheap hotel the sans papiers are holed up in, outwitting both Boss and the police – even if he does provoke the arrest (and likely deportation) of a few innocent bystanders. Maybe Boss isn’t quite mean enough to represent a real, chilling threat, or the love between Rouslan and Daniel is too thin for Daniel’s rescue to be either gloriously romantic or fiercely protective. But there are nevertheless some beautiful and original moments – such as the hedonistic dancing in Daniel’s flat or the firework explosions of Bastille Day – and Eastern Boys is a delicately observational look at a most unlikely relationship – a love between nationalities and generations that rarely sees the light of day. And while, as an arthouse immigration heist thriller, Eastern Boys has an unusually shaped plot, like its boys, it’s excitingly foreign and yet also strangely familiar.
Eastern Boys is released on 5th December 2014 in the UK