Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 26, 2014 4:33 am 
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Man and boy

When a gay man takes a very young lover there may inevitably come the point when he becomes a father figure, boyfriend morphing into adopted son. This is heightened in Robin Campillo's excellent French film Eastern Boys because the boy, at first just sex-for-hire found in Paris' Gare du Nord, is a penniless orphan and refugee from Ukraine via Chechnya. And that's further complicated -- and this is what takes Campillo's film out of the confines of a gay niche -- when the boy is controlled by a kind of junior Eastern Mafia boss, getting out of whose clutches is no easy task, and leads the film into thriller territory.

Eastern Boys may be a little bit, even half an hour, too long at two hours and eight minutes. But to compensate it develops each of its independent four chapters in rich, leisurely detail. There are at least three sustained sequences that are very well done. Campillo is known for working with Laurent Cantet, who's no stranger to sex-for-hire themes, but his blend of love story and crime story slips into the realm of Jacques Audiard. The film's early scenes make clear what the Gare du Nord is like, its intermingling of hustlers of various kinds and travelers, by showing it often from above. Amid the patterns of figures in the milling crowd there are about a dozen youths (the "Eastern Boys") with their slightly bigger, slightly more muscular boss, actually known as "Boss" (the dynamic and scary Daniil Vorobyov). Among them wanders a sad-faced, well-dressed Frenchman, Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin of Of Gods and Men). The figures speed up and leave the station when groups of cops appear. Eventually the boy Daniel is interested in, who says his name is Marek (the dreamy, faun-like Kirill Emelyanov), dives under a stairway where he and Daniel, speaking English, arrange a meeting for sex the next evening. Foolishly, Daniel gives Marek his address.

The first and most flashy set piece and the second chapter (of four) is the home invasion that results. Boss and many of his young gang arrive (including later on Marek) with a large van and, while partying and dancing -- especially Boss, who flirts and shows off his muscles - they strip Daniel's cool modern Montreuil highrise apartment of many of its valuables, TV, stereo, computer, paintings, modern chandelier. This spectacular sequence, handsomely filmed by dp Jeanne Lapoirie, shows off the complex dynamics of the Slavic youth gang and its victim's ambivalence. He is aghast but also turned on, and while he momentarily objects (which Boss won't tolerate) he also drinks and for a while dances with the revelers, who use the pretense of a party with loud music to cover their thefts.

Daniel's passivity is softened by his comfortable circumstances. It's not specified what he does but when he dresses and goes off in a suit the next morning leaving his stripped-down flat for the maid to clean up, we assume it's to a very well-paying job. And so he can replace things. Maybe it was time for a do-over. Surprisingly, not long later Marek comes back to the door, all by himself this time, ready to perform sex for the amount originally agreed upon, and surprisingly also, Daniel agrees.

This begins another sequence (and chapter) in which the relationship between Daniel and Marek, who reveals his real name is Rouslan, begins developing. Marek-Rouslan calls and arranges to come back again, and his visits become regular, several times a week. Here by taking his time Campillo is able to show the subtle shift from pure sex to reciprocation and some affection, with the boy just receiving at first, then being stimulated (the scenes are graphic, but not too). Marek is cold and passive, but he starts to care a bit. This leads to a deal, and purchases, and suspicion from Boss, who won't tolerate any one of his boy gang having too much independence. They have passports, but Boss keeps them in a "safe" (a locker) in a remote hotel called Halt where the boys all live together as arranged by Social Services but not fully registered with the hotel management represented by an officious and energetic young black woman (Edéa Darcque).

As the relationship between Daniel and Rouslan grows, good use is made of Rouslan's halting, but still eloquent French (in which he now becomes pretty fluent), where simple, repetitive phrases ("You do not trust me. You do not believe me. You do not care about my father's death," etc.) takes on occasionally (in scenes in a supermarket and back in the flat) an almost poetic quality that recalls the Japanese lover in Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour. (Marguerite Duras was an expert on very young lovers too.) Rouslan, like Emmanuelle Riva's character, has a traumatic war in his past that his lover doesn't understand. This is dramatized in a 14 juillet sequence when Rouslan is terrorized by distant fireworks.

All this leads to the last chapter, entitled "Dungeons and Dragons," which introduces the thriller element, as Daniel seeks to save Rouslan from the prison he's in and become truly his protector. Here Campillo shows he can stage not just group set pieces, and one-on-one relationship stuff, but also ensemble action. The accomplishment of the film is that each of these different chapters comes as a natural transition even though it's unexpected.

Eastern Boys, 128 mins., debuted at Venice in the Orizzonti section, where it won the jury prize. It is scheduled for French theatrical release 9 April 2014 (well received: AlloCiné press rating 3.8).. It was screened for this review as part of the Unifrance-Film Society of Lincoln Center's 2014 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema (6-16 March). for public showings March 11 and 12, 2014. Later scheduled for theatrical release 27 February 2015. At Lincoln Center. Armond White reviewed it for Out: "the sex scenes of the year—offering several shades of empathy."

This review was also published on Cinescene and all my Rendez-Vous coverage can be found on Filmleaf.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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