A Song of Two Humans
By Julien Allen
Dir. Robin Campillo, France, First Run Features
Whether in the realm of documentary or fiction, one measure of cinema is how much it interrogates. And great cinema interrogates everything. When watching Eastern Boys we see a film in four chapters, each one explicitly broached by an inter-title; but we might also see a film in three discernible acts, covering three definable genres: a home invasion drama, a love story, a suspense thriller. We might see something only fit to be ghettoized in an LGBT film festival. We might be confused by what the film is trying to say, or trying to be; even if after a second or third viewing, we might be a little clearer. The heart of Eastern Boys' ambition beats in its challenging, interlacing narrative structure and in its determination to tell a potent, lasting story about uncertainty and compromise, where nothing is cleanly resolvable. Our uncertainty, in front of what we see, mirrors that of the film's protagonists. It's the tale of two men who are striving, against a background of fear, distrust, and discouragement, to work out what they want from each other and how to achieve it. And it's one of the most complex and beguiling cinematic love stories since Wong Kar-wai's turn-of-the-century monument In the Mood for Love.
The film displays its auterist colors from the start with a dialogue-free, ambient opening at the Gare du Nord in the center of Paris. The camera is distant but the mic is close. The eastern boys of the title are young Russian and Ukrainian illegal immigrants who roam and loiter around the station, apparently desoeuvrés (up to nothing in particular) but always alert and attentive to unspoken opportunities. Their interactions seem midway between those of friends and family. The first of numerous power dynamics in the story is established as their leader, the autobaptized “Boss” (Daniil Vorobyev) takes their youngest on his back like a monkey and struts his defiance at a policeman who seeks to move the boys on. A Frenchman, Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin) appears, diffidently, into the shot. His attention is drawn to one of the boys in particular, the 22-year-old Marek (Kirill Emelyanov). After a few dissolves the two men finally meet alone in a stairwell and contract—in their common language, broken English—to meet for sex at Daniel's apartment. “You don't ask me how much?” asks Marek, surprised. “Fifty euros.” “Okay,” says Daniel, confirming that for him at least, money is not really an issue.
At the appointed hour, the doorbell rings and to Daniel's dismay it is not Marek, but the youngest of the boys—the monkey—who appears. Daniel has been scammed. The child threatens to scream pederasty if Daniel calls the police. Boss and the other boys arrive, piecemeal, to make themselves at home and—gradually over the course of that evening—gut the apartment of all of Daniel's possessions. This humiliating burglary in plain sight is dramatically intensified by a hypnotic and bizarre house-party sequence: to the strains of music by French electroclash producer Arnaud Rebotini, Boss invites Daniel to take to the dance floor with him and—cautiously enraptured by everything that is happening—Daniel acquiesces. At this point in the evening, as Daniel is allowing himself to be carried along, Marek himself arrives, smiling and bumping fists with his comrades, but then he catches Daniel's eye and both men's expressions change.
The interplay between Boss and Daniel during this sequence is emotionally disorienting. Boss, the clear aggressor, starts by spitting judgment at Daniel for his wealth and for his less than enthusiastic welcome (“C'est pas bien”—“It's not right”—will become a leitmotiv in this film, beginning as a crude expression of linguistic limitation, finishing as a limpid truism about so much of what transpires). Boss's scheme means there is no need for violence, yet the threat of violence is constant. When it breaks out, rather than a show of strength, exhibiting what he is capable of if Daniel resists, Boss betrays only a lack of self-control. Until then Vorobyev—an uncommon-looking Russian actor with striking blue eyes and a clear confidence in his physical attributes—displays a cruel intensity through Boss’s faux-playful machismo, goading and homophobically baiting Daniel (at one point making him touch his bare chest and asking him if he's getting hard). Rabourdin, known to many as Liam Neeson's French frenemy in 2008's Taken, but closer here to his role as Father Christophe in Xavier Beauvois’s 2010 film Of Gods and Men, is all closeted, intelligent intensity. Boss taunts Daniel: "You came to fetch us at the station. You wanted us to come." Daniel doesn't flinch. And for us, a sudden realization: he's right, this was in one sense an invitation. Daniel (whose partner appears to have left him) was seeking sex and danger, but also renewal. When the boys have left, he refuses to replace his possessions, leaving his flat bare, in a manner which recalls the cleansing solitude of Danielle Darrieux in Jacques Demy's Une Chambre en ville or Robert De Niro in Michael Mann's Heat. Later we see a brief, wordless scene with Daniel among his “real” friends. By contrast to the scenes with the boys, which crackle with danger, this outsize-wineglass-cradling dinner party is a pure nightmare of banality.
What follows is the dramatization of a love affair in a constant state of metamorphosis. It begins with illicit sex, danger and distrust; before long it becomes a power struggle based around class, as Fassbinder might have envisioned; then something altogether more indefinite, in the wake of Abbas Kiarostami's 2012 film Like Someone in Love. From 50 Euros a fuck, Daniel re-ups with a 400 Euro monthly retainer, in return for regular weekend visits on condition that Marek stays the night and shares an evening meal. Marek negotiates, like a child asking for more pocket money. There is almost nothing exemplary about this relationship—it’s a commercial contract between two men of significant age difference, forged in a lie, cauterized by Daniel's forgiveness of Marek's crime and enshrouded by the nagging, remorseless fear of Boss's retribution. (Marek being with Daniel releases Boss's grip on him, in a sense breaking up Boss's family). Marek and Daniel are repeatedly negotiating and interrogating, not the strength, but the very nature of their feelings towards one another. It offers hope, because despite all the imperfection and threat, despite the dozens of reasons they should give up trying, the audience is never left in any doubt that they cannot give up.
The film's French-Moroccan director, Robin Campillo is first and foremost a screenwriter and editor, performing both roles with distinction on Laurent Cantet's films, including Time Out and The Class. It is no surprise then that Eastern Boys showcases Campillo's facility with both economic storytelling and a complex, multi-themed narrative. So for example, a passing reference by Daniel to a story from Marek's past is a three-second alternative to our hearing the story itself, yet it carries as much if not more power. Conversely, through this story Campillo simultaneously forces his viewers to interrogate their own preconceptions on immigration, welfare, sexual freedom, solitude, European politics, class, community, and aging. From Daniel's apartment in the recently gentrified suburban sprawl near the Porte de Montreuil (Campillo, reluctant to invent a different quotidian lifestyle than his own, chose to use his own apartment), the skyline of Paris is seen from the East, a new and unfamiliar view, without the comforting nib of the Eiffel Tower. This suburban landscape, patrolled by the eastern boys, strewn with the last vestiges of French generosity (the clinic, the budget hotel block-booked by the local authority for the sans-papiers—"no papers") but denuded of any sense of community life, is an unloved, rubbish-strewn garden out of which something imperfect but valuable will ultimately have to grow.
Campillo may have bookended the central love story with two protracted and demonstrative sequences of genuine suspense—which some critics have deplored as tonal lurches—but in the long run these remain bookends. They amplify the context and define the contours of Daniel's and Marek's story. In so doing they open a window on the predicament of the eastern boys and girls—Boss has a wife and baby back in the budget hotel—whose young life experiences are forged in the legal hinterland of the sans papiers: between existing and not existing.
A prominent feature of Campillo's scripts (especially Time Out and The Class) was the fruitlessness of trying to discern or impose a clearly partisan viewpoint in the face of complex societal problems. He ramps up the ambiguity, thereby forcing the interrogation of our own consciences and our political assumptions rather than offering policies or bogeymen to target. In Eastern Boys, the boys are criminals and victims; the French authority figures are shown to be variously heroic (the hotel manageress) and heavy-handed (the police). In the central relationship, Daniel himself is both proprietorial and self-sacrificing; Marek is wholly selfish yet apparently loyal; and the ultimate solution to their problem, delivered in a final coda, is on the surface both morally and legally unconscionable, yet who in the audience would deny it to them?
For a film so preoccupied with trust, we are left with a deal of uncertainty, over Marek's real intentions—and even Daniel's; over their future and those of the remaining eastern boys; about the best solutions for all of them. Campillo locates the precise distance we need—somewhere between the twin extremes of pedagogic remoteness and hysterical proximity—to enable us to project and then question our own feelings and fixations. Once Marek and Daniel have survived everything thrown at them, they have only the audience to contend with: just one more reason why this captivating romance deserves to linger long in the memory.