Eastern Boys (2012)

Eastern Boys first published by Sight & Sound, January 2015

Review: There is a scene near the end of Eastern Boys in which Chelsea (Edéa Darcque), concierge at the out-of-town Halt Hotel catering mostly to illegal immigrants, asks long-term guest Boss (Danil Vorobyev) about his relationship with the 14-year-old boy (Beka Markozashvili) who is the youngest male member of Boss’s tight-knit group. Though quite probably neither the older brother nor the father that Chelsea suggests, Boss acts as both, keeping an extended family of young Ukrainians closely together for a range of criminal activities that finance their food and board while reinforcing his own patriarchal powerbase. His name – though it is more a title – defines the relationship.

Most of Eastern Boys concerns the evolving relationship between a different older and younger man – though Boss and his dealings with his gang always remain a dynamic counterpoint. In the first and briefest of the film’s four headed chapters, middle-aged, middle-class Parisian Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin) first approaches ‘Marek’ (Kirill Emelyanov) at the Gare du Nord, assuming (correctly) that the young man is a hustler. Marek, though prowling the road in front of the station with Boss and the other Eastern European boys, is not exactly a street kid, and Daniel, though certainly gay, is no queen, but nonetheless this chapter’s title, ‘Her Majesty, the Street’, encapsulates the gulf – ethnic, cultural, economic and generational – that exists between this unlikely pairing as they bump up against each other in Paris’ central hub of mobility, transit and exchange. When the two negotiate a place and a price for sex, they are also initiating a togetherness, however momentary, that will eventually lead to more permanent home-making.

The second chapter (‘This party of which I am a hostage’) sees Daniel getting more than he bargained for when the entire gang, led by Boss, turns up for the assignation at the apartment, intimidates the unwilling host, and strips the place of all its valuables and furnishings. It is a smash and grab in which power and property are transferred, even if Boss terrorises his own gang no less than Daniel. In the third, longest chapter (‘What we make together’), a sheepish Marek returns to Daniel’s now empty apartment, apparently to make amends as much as money but, as businesslike as Daniel’s Asian cleaner, offering this patron his special services. Yet what starts as a mutually exploitative liaison, transacted entirely through the sex that Marek provides and the cash that Daniel pays, becomes something else over time. As Daniel gradually refurnishes the apartment, he also starts attending more to Marek’s history, identity and desires. Where previously Daniel had communicated with Marek through the lingua franca of broken English, he now proceeds to teach his young lover the local tongue, and begins to build a new life with him. Daniel also learns, and starts using, Marek’s real name, Rouslan – even as Boss continues to insist on calling him Marek. The power relations in their sex shift too, as Rouslan slowly transforms from passive servant to active participant and receiver of pleasure – until eventually Daniel removes sex and payment altogether from the equation, granting Rouslan a room of his own and a key to come and go as he pleases. In counterbalance, Boss ruthlessly controls Rouslan’s day-to-day movements, violently rejects the young man’s bid to change adopted families, and denies him any respect, love or trust.

In these shifting and contrasting circumstances, with Daniel replacing Boss as father figure for Rouslan, the film also rings the changes on western Europe’s relations with its eastern neighbours, dramatising different kinds of abuse and assimilation while (partially) transcending boundaries of ethnicity and class. Written and directed by Robin Campillo, who previously helmed The Returned (2004) and has regularly penned the scripts of Laurent Cantet’s films (Time Out, Heading South, The Class), Eastern Boys is dominated by shots of – and through – windows, as it keeps altering perspectives and contemplating outsiders from within. It begins and ends as something like a thriller, with the initial intimidating invasion of Daniel’s home by the Ukrainian gang ultimately offset by Daniel’s no less tense encroachment into Boss’s fiefdom (part 4, ‘Halt Hotel: Dungeons and Dragons’). With this narrative symmetry comes a suggestive symmetry of character, as both Boss and Daniel are seen exhibiting forms of exploitation, control and paternalism, and each leaves the other’s domestic life in ruins (from their different sides of the law). Mostly, though, Eastern Boys is a highly nuanced love story. As Campillo observes Daniel and Rouslan struggling to find give and take in their uneven, ambiguously defined relationship, he poses questions about what distinguishes sexual from familial ties, immigration from naturalisation, and a home from a mere walled (and windowed) space.

Synopsis: Paris, present day. At the Gare du Nord, Daniel singles out hustler Marek from a gang of Eastern Europeans led by Boss, and invites him to his home for sex the following day. Instead, the whole gang invades Daniel’s apartment, drinking, partying, fighting – and loading most of the furniture on to a van outside. Later, Marek comes back to the apartment and Daniel has paid sex with him. Over time, as Daniel refurnishes the apartment, Marek also slowly becomes a fixture. Wishing to see Marek more, Daniel keeps renegotiating the terms of their relationship, until eventually, having learnt of the young man’s Ukrainian background, the loss of his family in Chechnya and his real name (Rouslan), Daniel asks him to move into the spare room (which they redecorate together), and stops sleeping with him. Hoping to steal back his passport, which Boss keeps locked away, Rouslan returns to the hotel where his gang and other illegal immigrants live. Boss beats him and locks him, bound and gagged, in a storeroom. Helped by a concierge, Daniel frees Rouslan and calls the police, who arrest the gang. Boss returns to Daniel’s apartment for revenge but finds it empty. Daniel applies to adopt Rouslan as his son.

© Anton Bitel