The Story of Russia’s Forgotten Ones
“East-West” reunites French director Regis Wargnier and Catherine Deneuve, whose 1991 “Indochine” won the Oscar for foreign language film and a best-actress nomination for Deneuve as a rich landowner transformed by the French Indo-China War.
On a similarly epic scale, “East-West” tells of a Soviet-born doctor (Oleg Menchikov) who heeds Stalin’s call for a return of Russian emigres after World War II. Many returnees were greeted with summary execution or transported to forced-labor camps, but as a young doctor, Menchikov’s Alexei is chosen to be a model “returnee,” which means he must conduct himself with discretion, especially since he has a young French wife (Sandrine Bonnaire) and a young son.
“East-West,” which was one of this year’s Oscar nominees for foreign-language film, is a story of love tested by danger and oppression and driven by a longing for escape and freedom. Deneuve has the pivotal role of a famous French actress touring Russia with her acting company who concerns herself with the family’s fate. “East-West” (which opens Friday at the Royal in West L.A. and the Colorado in Pasadena) has the scale and rich period atmosphere of “Indochine” while gradually evolving into an acutely suspenseful thriller.
In January, Wargnier, later joined by Deneuve, talked about the film during their brief stay at the Sunset Marquis while in town for the Golden Globes, in which “East-West” was a nominee for best foreign-language film.
While scouting Central Asian locations for an adventure that didn’t pan out, he encountered in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan middle-aged French-born individuals who had returned to Russia with their parents after World War II and became trapped there and forgotten in the West, largely out of political expediency. From these encounters the idea for “East-West” evolved.
“They all told me the same thing,” said Wargnier, a trim man of 51 at ease in English. “The dramatic conditions of their arrival, of people being separated, some of them being executed, some of them sent to camps and some of them sent to very distant republics where it was difficult to make a living and had terrible living conditions. They were used as hostages by the regime, like our characters.
“I was discussing all this with a Russian friend, [writer-director] Sergei Bodrov, and he told me that nobody knows about these people, and their stories could be very interesting stuff for a film.
“After a few weeks working with a French novelist,” he continued, “we realized we couldn’t go very far into the story because we didn’t know anything about the life there at that time, so I called Sergei and asked him if he wanted to work with us, and he said, ‘Of course’ and was very, very helpful, especially as I wanted to see all the places where we would be shooting.” Bodrov’s son, Sergei Bodrov Jr., who starred in his father’s 1996 “Prisoner of the Mountains,” was soon cast in a crucial role.
The first challenge facing Wargnier was to find people who actually would be willing to share their experiences with him. “The most interesting testimony I got was that I heard from these people who were children when all of this happened, and they have a very precise memory of those events, really. For them, Russia was a kind of huge prison.”
As for why the Soviets made such an effort to lure emigres back to Russia after World War II, Wargnier says, “The main thing was they felt that they should not let little Russian diasporas in Paris or wherever to flourish because they were afraid that one day these people could say, ‘We are the real Russian government and we want to fight back.’
“On the other hand, they really wanted to wipe out any remains of ancient traditions of Imperial Russia. Also, having lost 20 million people in World War II, they really needed them to rebuild the country, but when many people did decide to return, the Soviets became paranoid and decided they were spies for the West who had to be treated like enemies.”
Making the film “was a very powerful experience,” Wargnier said, “because we were working with people who only 10 years ago were supposed to be our enemy. Ukrainians, French, Bulgarians and Russians. We found that we could all work together, and we created a kind of spirit. We had so many translators on the set: Russian to French, from Bulgarian to French, from Russian to Bulgarian! Some of our people had not worked in movies for 10 years; they were like trainees. We shot 85 days in the fall and winter of 1998, mainly in the Ukraine.”
At this point in the interview Deneuve, in elegant, casual clothes, arrived. She said making “Indochine” had been a memorable experience.
“With this film, Regis simply asked me, ‘Would you consider this role? It is only in the second part of the film.’ I said yes, so they wrote Gabrielle, this wonderful part, for me. I always say it’s a shame that actors in France don’t accept to do small parts in films like they do in America.
“I didn’t mind that the part was short; it’s not the length of the part, it is the interest, the character,” she said. “This character could be a film in itself so that’s how you know if the part is important enough.”
Deneuve explains that in the ‘50s, French acting troupes actually did tour Russia. “They really wanted to go in that era because they were leftist people, and they said they had to go there, they must present their work there. They have to know, they have to see what’s going on. Actually the character of Gabrielle is a mix between [actresses] Simone Signoret and Maria Casares.
“Once Gabrielle meets Marie [Bonnaire], Alexei’s French-born wife, in the theater, it is very difficult for Gabrielle. I know, this kind of thing has happened to me--not that important an issue, but people ask for your help, you know,” Deneuve said. “I don’t know if I would have done what Gabrielle does, but I can relate very much to that character. I am someone who doubts very easily, but in things I really believe, I am stubborn, as my mother used to say.”
Wargnier, who met Deneuve when he was still an assistant director, said that for Gabrielle he had to have an actress of fame and authority so that the audience would believe her in an instant. “I think the part is built upon everything we know about Catherine Deneuve,” he said.
Soon it’s time for Deneuve to be photographed, and as she moved away, Wargnier became thoughtful and remarked quietly, “She might have the best filmography of all the actresses. OK, she didn’t make huge hits all over the world like Jane Fonda, Meryl Streep or Faye Dunaway, who were to me the three main American actresses of her generation, but what other star has worked with so many great or talented directors?”
“Everything we think we know about Deneuve,” Wargnier continued, “we used it to build a true, powerful character. And at the very first moment she appears, people believe it because it is she. That’s the way with movie stars--they have to make people believe.”