In 1993 Régis Wargnier's "Indochine" won an Oscar as the best foreign film of 1992. It was a maudlin, rambling soap opera of life in Vietnam as portrayed by a French planter (Catherine Deneuve), watching her Vietnamese daughter's endless battle for the man she loves. His newest film, "East-West," is a more powerful film, in part because its plot synthesizes a number of actual cases from just after World War II.
The year is 1946, and Stalin has asked Soviet citizens who now live in other countries to return home and be honored. Alexei (Oleg Menshikov), a doctor practicing in France and married to the Parisienne Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire), takes the offer and they sail to Odessa, joined on the ship by a number of other returnees and encouraged by a Soviet cheerleader, Sacha (Sergei Bodrov, Jr.). But when they arrive in port they are met by the paranoia of the Soviet state. Marie is accused of being a spy for the West, and they are put under surveillance in Kiev, where he is told to practice medicine. Sacha, in fact, turns out to be a KGB officer, who has duped them into believing the invitation was real.
The film follows them over a number of years, during which Marie makes futile attempts to get them out, and Alexei seems to accept his fate with greater equanimity than would be justified. The couple is placed in a cramped tenement, where they make friends with an old woman and her young grandson. But when the grandmother dies and the boy is to be sent to a state home, they take him into their own tiny place. As time goes by, though, the weight of constant humiliations and incessant scrutiny by security agencies, and they separate -- emotionally if not far physically. In fact, in the cramped apartment building where they live, Alexei simply moves in with another woman neighbor across the hall.
A French theatre troupe comes through Kiev, and Marie manages to get a note to Gabrielle, their star (Catherine Deneuve in a small but crucial role), who now becomes Marie's ally.
Wargnier's camera eye, probably the best thing about "Indochine," is even more in evidence here. Little things don't escape him; the walls and furnishings of the Kiev apartments are unsparing in their malign power to grind down hope. The young boy is a competitive swimmer, and his swimming practices and competitions are gorgeous escapes from the death-in-life of the tenement. Wargnier takes his time to show us how the boy and Marie find solace, and perhaps more, in each others' company. And there is a breathtaking sequence in which he attempts to escape by swimming out into the Black Sea six miles to a buoy, in hopes of meeting a bribed Turkish sea captain and his ship.
Bonnaire, with her long sad face and tall, lanky body, is utterly believable as the innocent foreigner now facing a long and demeaning life with little hope of anything better. Menshikov gives an amazing performance as the physician torn between his country and his wife, and who in the course of the film must be duplicitous both to her and to his Soviet masters.
The film is relentless in its presentation of the way in which a totalitarian state can grind the life and hope out of anyone it chooses to persecute, and this is both its strength and its weakness. It asks you to respond alternately with exhilaration and tears as hope and hopelessness are shown to us, and the film in many ways deserves every accolade it's received around the world. Yet it is ultimately less powerful than it should be, perhaps because it is just too grindingly slow, too long-winded, too deliberately paced to engage us completely; we spend the last third of the film waiting for a denouement that we know is coming; we just don't know which way it will fall out. Nevertheless, though flawed, it remains a fascinating film achievement, opening a window on a long-hidden crime of the Soviet era, and for that alone we can be grateful.