"East-West," not to be confused with "East Is East," was France's entry for Oscar's 1999 foreign film competition. Pedro Almodovar's wild, wonderful "All About My Mother" won the gold, of course, but this dramatic film is well worth seeing.
Like his Oscar-winner "Indochine" (1992), Regis Wargnier's old-fashioned period drama is set in the framework of fairly recent history. That was in the upheaval of French Indochina of the '30s. This is the Soviet Union of 1946 and beyond.
After World War II, Stalin issued an amnesty invitation to Russian exiles living abroad to help rebuild their country. Alexie (Oleg Menchikov), a Russian-born doctor living in Paris, answers the call with his French wife Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire) and 7-year-old son (Ruben Tapiero).
Big mistake. Instead of vodka and toasts, they are welcomed back to a paranoid hell. Terror, torture and even bullets await the ex-pats. Suspected of being "imperialist spies," Alexie and his family survive because of his profession. He cooperates, a seeming model apparatchik, while Marie schemes to return to her homeland.
His apparent pro-Soviet sympathy angers her as he calculatedly transfers his affection to another woman. Desperate, Marie turns to sensual 17-year-old Sacha (Serguei Bodrove Jr.) and to a sympathetic French actress (Catherine Deneuve) touring Russia with Victor Hugo's Marie Tudor.
With her passport destroyed and her husband in bed with the Soviets, Marie gets Sacha to train for a swim team that will travel Europe. She takes a job with a Russian men's chorus and plots Sacha's escape, a plan that lands her in a gulag.
As the idealistic doctor, Mr. Menchikov, a huge Russian star, was given line-by-line readings to get through the French dialogue. Nevertheless, he delivers a quietly effective, ambiguous turn. As his reckless wife, Ms. Bonnaire is both beautiful and frightening in her defiance.
It's not all gulags and grim cabbage-smelling one-room apartments. The skilled actors playing jocular black marketeers inject much-needed levity into the mix. That part comes from the actual experience of co-writer Sergei Bodrov, who once lived among such generous thieves.
All the actors engage us, but it is Ms. Deneuve who ups the ante, turning the drama into a thriller. Playing a character modeled on French stage actress Maria Casares and film star Simone Signoret, she exudes elegance, authority and strength.
What makes this sweeping tale so horrific is that it's based on testimony of survivors. The characters are composites of the thousands who returned to death and misery. Unlike "Indochine," which was largely soap opera, this is a fictionalized version of little-known happenings in the Soviet Union.