An impressive film, "East/ West" tells the story of a French family who moves to the post-World War II Soviet Union after an edict is made by Soviet Union offering to repatriate those who left Russia during the events of 1917 and their families. Alexi Golovine, a Russian expatriate, brings his family to the Soviet Union full of hope and promises of a new and exciting life but finds something of a nightmare instead. While the film opens in grand fashion with a celebration on the ship on which these hopeful individuals are sailing to their new homes, the tone of much of the first half of the film is set by the events which immediately follow upon their arrival. After watching a father and son wrongly separated and then gunned down, the family realizes that they have made a mistake, but find that their realization has come too late, and that they are trapped in their new life.
Both Alexi, the husband, and Marie, the wife devolve further in their new life, as he feels pressure to stay and later to demonstrate that he is a good Soviet citizen, while Marie finds life in the Soviet Union much more difficult, invasive and unbearable and seeks to find a way for them to return to France and escape the nightmare they have encountered. Throughout much of the film, Marie persists in her efforts despite losing more and more of her self and the life she knew before in the process.
While much of the first half of the film is filled with gloom, despair and a life for the Golovine family that becomes more and more difficult, one of the more enjoyable aspects of the film is the change and development which constantly takes place between the characters. Particularly interesting are the growing relationships between Marie and the family's landlord and later her grandson, Sasche. Having lost many family members who were killed for falling out of step with the communist way, Sasche finds his life in turmoil and seeks to find a way out.
While her role is much smaller than her top billing would suggest, Catherine Deneuve shows that she still has a dynamic screen presence. In "East/ West" Deneuve plays Gabrielle, a revered French actress to whom Marie turns for help to escape her new life. While she adds a lot to the film by her presence, it is also explained in the commentary track that she was instrumental in getting Sandrine Bonnaire cast in the role of Marie, who is also wonderful in the film.
"East/ West" is not necessarily an "enjoyable" film, but it is an easy film to appreciate. Director Regis Wargnier, who first gained American viewers' attention with the film "Indochine" does a great job capturing the moods of the film's characters and reflecting that mood on the film itself. Wargnier captures both bleakness and splendor. While the film is a bit predictable in some parts, the true strength of the film is the interactions between the characters. Also Wargnier should be commended for his use of language in the film. While, essentially, no one could watch the film without reading subtitles, the extensive use of both French and Russian throughout the film lends an authenticity to the film that is remarkable, truly conveying the extent to which each character, particularly Marie, really feels like an outsider in their new home.
"East/ West" is presented in Anamorphic Widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The digital transfer of the film generally looks good throughout its duration, with fairly rich skin tones and colors. From the opening scenes on the high seas, the picture is quite clear and without major imperfections. Finally, the subtitles are quite clear and easy to read and there are few, if any scenes in which the subtitles blend into the picture.
"Shower" is presented in a combination of French and Russian 5.1 Dolby Digital (with English Subtitles) The film is mainly dialogue-driven, and in French and Russian so, for American viewers, the sound is not as important element in the film. Nevertheless, the sound quality of the film is generally quite good in its presentation of both dialogue and music. Further, the sound levels of the film remain fairly constant and do not require serious alteration at any time throughout the film.
The "East / West" DVD does contain impressive bonus features for a foreign film. While many foreign films contain talent files and an occasional trailer, this DVD contains both and an added treat- feature length commentary by both the director and script writer of the film. While each speaks with a fairly thick accent, having an English language commentary track for a foreign film is quite an enjoyable addition to the DVD. While certainly foreign films often eschew "Hollywood endings," the differences between American films and European films often run much deeper, both in the content and in the process by which the films are made. While not touching on as many of the thematic differences in European films, the writer and director expound in great detail on the experience of making a film on location in Eastern Europe. The two talk about the lack of any entertainment industry in many Eastern European countries and the fact that this meant that they were working with an entire film crew who had not worked on films before. In addition, the two expound on the fact that coming from Western Europe, many Eastern Europeans looked skeptically upon the filmmakers with a sense of distrust, seeing them as, until recently, the enemy. In addition, the two talk about the actors and the story itself and their experiences working with a number of fantastic actors.
While certainly not an "enjoyable" story, "East / West" is a compelling one. The film is certainly made what it is by some fine performances and interesting relationships between the characters in the film. While the film is not one which lends itself to repeat viewings, it is definitely worth watching.