Writer of Palm D’or winner The Class (Entre les murs 2008) writer/director/editor Robin Campillo takes elements from that film – race issues and young men in contemporary Paris – and gives us Eastern Boys, a film that explores social and relationship issues in the context of wider multicultural themes. The film’s freeform opening sequence follows a group of young immigrants hanging out at the Gare du Nord, a railway station where everyone is on the move, everyone has a purpose, although that purpose is not always clear and not everyone’s intentions are good. The camera dodges and weaves through the bustling location as it follows the gang; the languages spoken are those of varying nationalities, but most of these young men are from Eastern Europe, from Russia or the ex-Soviet countries.
Businessman Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin) cruises, looking for the immigrants at the station and eventually decides to approach a young man who declares his name to be Marek (Kirill Emelyanov). Marek agrees to accept a €50 payment for a trick and asks for the older man’s address; the pair agree to meet at Daniel’s home the following day. But the consequences of these actions prove to be horrifying. Daniel expects a quiet evening with Marek and is utterly shocked to discover that it’s Marek gang who have come to spend the evening with him. Led by the fierce and corrupt Boss (Daniil Vorobyev) Daniel fears a savage and violent assault as the gang hold a party in his home, but they are not there for any other purpose than to drink his booze, play loud music and loot his possessions, the businessman utterly helpless as they walk out with all his worldly goods and load them into their van. But Marek returns alone a few days later, offering to sleep with Daniel for the agreed sum. He becomes a more frequent visitor and the pair develop a tentative – albeit commercial – relationship, but Daniel begins to feel affection for the Ukrainian and buys him gifts. This relationship has the potential to lead to troubles for them both as Boss has retained Marek’s passport to ensure his loyalty to the gang and is deeply suspicious of his new clothes and phone. And, after such a horrific betrayal, can Marek actually be trusted?
Robin Campillo uses predominantly first time actors in the roles of the titular Eastern Boys and opens his story like a dramatic documentary which is compelling in its instigation. The multilingual sequence, without subtitles, helps enforce the cultural issues, particularly the language issues (Marek cannot speak French) but this has an additional edge when Daniel later helps Marek enhance his linguistic understanding by the two of them speaking out the French words for various body parts. The relationship between the two naturally becomes the central focus of the film but the subcultural aspects of the story – both political and gang based – enhance the situation of an immigrant, who is paid to fulfil Daniel’s physical desires, forming a relationship and having the potential to be accepted within society.
This is a film that opens with an initially simplistic documentary approach and then deliberately takes the story in a direction that you are not expecting and further twists plot expectations in a dramatic manner as the plot progresses. Partly this is achieved by the revelations of the narrative but also in the way that the settings are presented, the film employing specific chapter headings, so that the initial characters and environment are introduced in Her Majesty the Street (Sa Majeste La Rue) before the revelations and the shocks of the following day that evolve in chapter 2, This Party, of Which I am the Hostage. The sheer violation Daniel experiences as his home is ransacked whilst he is present makes for chilling viewing – the character does exactly the right thing in order to avoid any form of physical assault and just lets it happen. And having witnessed this infraction early on in the story, the audience can never be sure of Marek’s motivation, and this adds a palpable tension to proceedings. Throughout the subsequent chapters the film explores relationship themes, whether between lovers or gang members, in a wider social context. This doesn’t make the film overtly politically biased, but is rather a reflection of an age where consequences are borne out from all angles. It is also a film about emotional relationships burgeoning from financial desires even this takes place in a manner that cannot be anticipated by the protagonists.
A beautifully written and acted film love story cum thriller, Eastern Boys places its characters in a thoroughly believable environment which makes following their joys, woes and expectations all the more compelling.