Eastern Boys

You may not know the name Robin Campillo, but it’s possible that he’s partly responsible for some of your favorite French films of the last 15 years. Campillo has worked regularly as an editor with director Laurent Cantet since 1997, and has co-written four of his features: Time Out (01), Heading South (05), the Palme d’Or winner The Class (08), and the hugely underrated Foxfire (12). In his own right, Campillo also wrote and directed They Came Back (Les Revenants, 04), an extraordinary feature that was way ahead of the current undead boom, and offered a radically different take on what’s since become the only too commonplace question of reanimation. Some of the film’s questions were refreshingly mundane, such as, what happens when someone returns from the grave expecting to resume their old job, only to find the place has been filled? Others were complex and poignant: how would it feel to have a lost loved one return, once you’ve already gone through the mourning process? They Came Back touched on some profound topics, and it’s only a shame that this clever, inventive film was so little seen.*

Campillo’s follow-up has taken a while, but it’s been worth the wait. Eastern Boys is very different, a smaller film in some ways and more concentrated, but every bit as confident and controlled; Campillo being his own editor may have something to do with that. The film starts in Paris at the Gare du Nord, Europe’s busiest railway station (and a miniature citadel in itself, as explored in Claire Simon’s interesting and idiosyncratic 2013 feature Gare du Nord). The camera, positioned somewhere overhead, scans the wide concourse outside the station, where a young man grabs our attention by strutting and stretching as if he owns the place. He’s joined by a group of other white youths in trainers and tracksuits, the Eastern boys of the title, from Russia, Ukraine, and other parts of the former USSR. They high-five, clap each other’s backs, then head inside the station for whatever their business is, although it’s unlikely to be anything aboveboard.

It’s hard to know quite how many of the people caught on film in this section are extras, how many are unsuspecting commuters, but Campillo’s use of the station crowd is superb: Jeanne Lapoirie’s camera, looking from above, follows the boys collectively or individually bobbing in and out of the throng or weaving slyly around nervous members of the public, before they are all chased out by a wary official—who then can’t do anything once they’re back out in the public zone of the concourse. This opening section is a master class on the deft editing of surveillance-style camerawork (which, for obvious social reasons, may end up being the quintessential camera style of early 21st-century cinema: see for example Ruben Östlund’s Play).

Eastern Boys

Campillo then pulls in closer, the camera coming down to ground level, to engage us in a cat-and-mouse pursuit involving one boy—a slender, elfin-faced teenager, played by Kirill Emelyanov—and a middle-aged man in a suit (Olivier Rabourdin) who’s been watching him, hovering ever nearer. At first we wonder whether he’s police. But when the two meet under a stairway, we understand what’s happening: the man, Daniel, wants to have sex with the boy, who calls himself Marek, and who speaks some English but no French. They decide upon a fee, and Marek agrees to visit Daniel’s apartment the next evening.

The next two of the film’s four sections (all rather grandiosely titled, in Campillo’s only false move) are set in Daniel’s austere but elegant home, on the twelfth floor of a block on the eastern edge of Paris, with a breathtaking city view. The door rings and Daniel answers, but instead of Marek, it’s a diminutive younger kid from the gang; he says he’s 14, but he could easily be younger, and has the lawless arrogance of a damaged pre-teen. He pushes his way in, insists that Daniel invited him, and points out that he’s underage, so his unwilling host is in deep trouble. That’s when the whole gang of boys—plus a female member—arrive, headed by the strutting youth we saw at the start. He’s known as Boss (Daniil Vorobyev) and that’s what he is. He engages Daniel in challenging eye contact, claims this territory as his, and gets the party started: dance music on the stereo, the fridge raided, and eventually one of his minions thrown through Daniel’s glass table.

As the film takes on the foreboding menace of the typical “home invasion” thriller, it’s hard to read the film’s political or moral stance towards Daniel. Do we read him as a predator using economically disadvantaged youth and now getting his come-uppance? Or is the film voicing the paranoia towards immigrant communities that has a long, unsavory history in French culture, and that’s now horribly prevalent in a France in which the far-right Front National is alarmingly on the rise? By the time Daniel’s luxury possessions are being carried out of his wrecked flat to a waiting van, Eastern Boys has you in its grip—but has you wondering what it’s saying and where it’s going.

Eastern Boys

That’s when things shift most intriguingly (time, then, for a Spoiler Alert). The third chapter, again played out entirely in the apartment, changes the terms of play between him and Marek—or Ruslan, as the apparently Ukrainian boy says he’s really named. He and Daniel end up having sex, as originally planned, then arrange further visits, seemingly to Ruslan’s satisfaction as well as his customer’s. Then things get more intimate between them, Daniel treating Ruslan ever more affectionately, lavishing gifts on him and offering him a monthly rate and a permanent bedroom of his own. Yes, the relationship is built on economics, and there’s an uneven match between one party’s financial power and the other’s sexual primacy—and yet this appears to be turning into a love story.

In chapter four, Eastern Boys slips into yet another register, a rescue drama in a realist mode. The action now moves to a hotel elsewhere on the city’s periphery, where Boss’s band rule one floor; immigrants here lodge in rooms bought by social services and subject to a kind of autonomy within the establishment. Given that Boss’s crew seem wholly or largely to be illegal immigrants, it’s hard to know exactly what their relationship is with the authorities, but it’s clear that they are all surviving outside official channels, by whatever means they can—with Boss at once protecting and oppressing them. The film culminates in Daniel’s attempting to free Ruslan from Boss’s clutches, but Campillo cleverly redirects the narrative in this section by focusing on a young black woman, played with steely poise by Edéa Darcque. She’s the hotel’s manager, engaged in a cautious war with Boss about who makes the house rules. It’s easy to imagine the manager being played by a white actor as one of those harassed, officious concierge types who represent one of the most dependable stereotypes of French social drama. Casting a black actress and making her effectively this section’s protagonist gives the film a completely different slant; you can almost see Campillo, or indeed Cantet, making a whole film out of this character’s struggle as a precarious authority figure, caught somewhere between Paris’s official communities and a marginal, hidden population.

The first time I saw Eastern Boys, I read the ending rather differently, as relatively straightforward and upbeat; on a second viewing, the film seems much more equivocal both about Daniel’s and Ruslan’s future, and their relationship. They may be on the verge of getting what they want only by lying to the authorities about the true nature of their bond, closeting themselves—and arguably winning only by wrecking the futures of others. What could easily have been a sensationalist drama, about a bourgeois man getting into deep water when he walks on the wild side, becomes a much more complex and delicate affair.

Eastern Boys

That’s partly because of the acting. Daniel is played by Olivier Rabourdin, who was one of the doomed monks in Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men. He’s immensely sympathetic at the start, with his shy, smiling approach to Marek/Ruslan, and then when cornered at home, with what may initially be rabbit-in-the-headlights terror becoming a steady defiant calm. The film plays Daniel cleverly, pitching him initially as a solitary figure in his cold-seeming apartment; but a single artfully placed glimpse of a dinner party shows that he isn’t the archetypal lonely man of urban drama, but someone who chooses for himself when he gets to spend time apart from others.

Emelyanov’s Ruslan, detached and vulnerable, is quietly enigmatic. We never quite know how to read his emotional or sexual responses—whether the closed-eye surrender he shows in his embraces with Daniel are erotic bliss, or just the temporary relief of having someone’s, anyone’s, arms around him. There’s just as much ambivalence in Boss, played with subtly pitched menace and charisma by Daniil Vorobyev. He has a girlfriend and a baby, but he’s very aware of his seductive power over males, and when he takes his shirt off to dance, it’s clear how much of his power is fueled by narcissism—perhaps the thing that’s most enabled him to survive.

In the end, we don’t know too much about these strays or their history—except for Ruslan. He tells Daniel his backstory, and the older man is skeptical, but a sequence in which Ruslan reacts nervily to a firework display on the night skyline speaks volumes about his past traumas. This scene is a wonderful example of the way that Jeanne Lapoirie’s widescreen photography uses our sense of the city outside, and the box-like spaces of the apartment, the hotel, and even the cavernous railway terminus, to establish an opposition between freedom and enclosure—suggesting that, for all of its characters, Eastern Boys is ultimately nothing if not a prison drama.

* In 2012, the film spawned a French TV series, also called Les Revenants (in English, The Returned), without Campillo’s involvement. For at least half its run, the show—created by Fabrice Gobert and with early episodes co-written by the heavyweight novelist, journalist, and filmmaker Emmanuel Carrère—was unmissably good, not least because of its dream cast (Anne Consigny, Clotilde Hesme, Grégory Gadebois, et al). Later episodes strayed into murky quasi-Lynch territory, but viewers eagerly await season two. As for A&E’s imminent U.S. remake, due in March with a cast including Mary Elizabeth Winstead… bofon va voir