Eastern Boys – Robin Campillo moves power around a room. (SFF Film Review)
Eastern Boys is now showing at the Sydney Film Festival
Robin Campillo can be relied upon to make statements about social class, integration and exploitation in each of his films, but what makes him so interesting is the indirect route his story telling will take, which gives the viewer access to a perspective set apart from their own. Eastern Boys is different again from his other films, though in his use of sexual desire as exploitation it glances back at Heading South, this time with the disaffected arriving on home turf rather than the wealthy leaving their home to take advantage of the young, attractive poor. As with all Campillo films, there are many perspectives represented, many things to see, but part of the beauty of Eastern Boys is the slow traveling camera work of Jeanne Lapoirie, who uses a chilling wide-screen lens doused with a cool light as emphasis on the rise of the dramatic tension, particularly in a home invasion scene that teeters precariously on the verge of explosive violence and panning shots of the surrounding highrises and mini malls taken from balcony perspectives. Side by side one gets the sense that suburbia is closed wall against millions of nameless atrocities being acted out on people who appear calm, collected and cool when they walk the streets in plain view.
The camera opens on a group of youths hanging out at what seems to be Gare du Nord in Paris. Many minutes are given to the camera watching and following them, as they pick-pocket, steal, evade cops, eat junk food and train the youngest in their group. They are young Eastern European men of questionable immigrant status and (obviously) no jobs, led by a tough, handsome blond male (Daniil Vorobyov). Throughout the shot, the young men casually meet the glance of older males as they wander, hustling them. Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin) appears on the scene, starting to make eye contact with one of the young men, Marek (Kirill Emelyanov) and we understand we have been watching through Daniel’s view all along, that this is his film and his point of view, not that of the younger men. Marek is beautiful, but so young looking, his age is called into question. His position and bravado force a vulnerability over him, particularly when he makes a secret arrangement to meet Daniel the next day, insisting on coming to Daniel’s apartment, the location of which Daniel offers up relatively easily. Troubles start for Daniel when a child turns up at the desired appointment, accusing Daniel of soliciting sex with a minor and proceeds to invite the rest of the gang into Daniel’s well turned out apartment.
This opening scene speaks to a crucial theme within Eastern Boys of the perpetual shift in power between a countries inhabitants and the presence of the immigrant other. This dynamic is further enhanced by the shift in tone of the film, moving (through clever editing) between various story tropes, making itself a thriller in one scene, a love story in another, a hero’s journey of redemption and a taut political thriller in its comments on immigration and vulnerability. Much of this is played out on the relationship between Daniel and Marek that shifts and turns, eventually settling on a position that speaks to a nuanced aspect of gay male sexuality that cannot be mirrored through heterosexuality, that I won’t speak of due to spoilers, suffice to say what eventuates between Daniel and Marek is uniquely gay, and extremely interesting to heterosexuals who can’t understand this kind of connection. It says a great deal about the complexity of gay male sexuality and through its own convoluted twist, says a lot about the exploitative nature of desire, something Campillo touched on Heading South, but comes to the fore as the males are stripping Daniel’s apartment of the trappings of wealth and he begins to understand how he brought this upon himself and in a way, it was all part of his initial desire. Desire is closely connected to what we fear, what we do not want, and yet the current conversation around desire is to indulge as if it were a natural part of our biology.
Along side the shifts in power between Marek and Daniel is the power shift in Marek’s dangerous gang leader Boss, and his frustration-fueled anger and control games the substratum of which lay his own desperate vulnerability as a young immigrant male with no job and a wife and child to care for. He plays out his loss of power on the youths around him, whom he control with a promise of a terrible violence nestled just beneath his surface. Vorobyov’s performance is outstanding, particularly when he partially seduces Daniel in his apartment, all the feelings of impotency rising up into a taunting of the older, elegant gay male that could turn to sex or terrible violence at any second. It’s a riveting spectacle, Campillo’s feel for subtlety and a still observant camera allowing for the three central performances to carry the bulk of the sub-narrative inside them, making for a close, engaging experience. Campillo’s respect for intimacy gives the opportunity to travel a path that (I am guessing) is rare for art house cinema viewers and speaks with a delicate clarity about the complicated nature of relationships between impoverished immigrants and their “host” nationals. When Marek tells Daniel his story, we immediately wonder if he is telling Daniel the truth, and when Marek is indignant that Daniel doesn’t believe him, we still aren’t sure who is fooling who.
A final word about the exceptional editing, partially controlled by Compillo himself, and its ability to faithfully track the changes in story line, capturing an evolution that should have taken many more hours to portray with the subtle depth Compillo brings to the film. Narrative never feels forced or contrived even though it moves in the unlikeliest of directions, hovering over its subjects at length all the while. Eastern Boys is a typically clever film, and a stark and strong viewing experience with many rewards in its gift.