I’m not a big fan of French cinema. Although the country has produced some magnificent movies, I find most of it to be ponderous and far too impressed with itself. However after Stranger By The Lake and now Eastern Boys, I’m starting to think France may be becoming the premier place for gay-themed cinema.
Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin) solicits a young Eastern European man, Marek (Kirill Emelyanov), for sex at the Parisian train station, negotiating a price and arranging to meet at Daniel’s place later that week. However when the time comes it’s not Marek who turns up, but all his ‘friends’, led by their intimidating boss (Daniil Vorobyov), who proceed to party in the apartment and then completely clear it out, threatening that they will accuse Daniel of being a paedophile if he does anything.
Later Marek – who it turns out is really called Rouslan – returns, seemingly feeling bad about what happened before, and this time he really is ready to be paid for sex. What starts out as a hooker/john relationship begins to become something deeper – despite their age difference and Rouslan’s undocumented status. However lurking in the background is the threat of the controlling boss and the young men he has under his control, and the fact they don’t take kindly to anyone endangering their dangerous fiefdom.
It’s an excellent film which drags you in early and keeps you hooked. What could have been a simple film about a May-December romance is underpinned by a constant sense of threat, which ramps up early on with the incredibly effective sequence where Daniel’s home is invaded and he’s powerless to do anything about it.
What helps with this is that the film refuses to give easy answers to what is going on. Nothing is spelled out, instead allowing the viewer to piece things together and consider the different pressures in play. This allows the movie be a lot more interesting and complex than most, so that, for example, you might initially think that from the way it deals with the young men in the movie, that it really has a thing against Eastern European people. It could easily read it as an anti-EU, anti-immigration rant, playing on fears about who we’re allowing over our borders. However it soon becomes something more interesting as various issues are brought into play, such as ideas about how the fact many undocumented immigrants are pushed to the edges of society leaves them open to be manipulated and controlled by others, with few options to make a success of their lives. It’s not their nationality that’s the issue, but their vulnerability as undocumented immigrants.
As well as the tense, thriller angle, the romance is well-handled too, detailing how the two men – who initially seem like a very bad fit – find something in one another that is both worthwhile and where you can understand why they’d want to hang onto it and each other. And as with many good films – especially those that want to keep you thinking and not spell out every little thing – it offers an interesting curveball towards the end.
Sometimes Eastern Boys’ strategy of leaving a lot of the work to the audience doesn’t work so well, as there are moments where in laying out lots of pieces and then letting the viewer try to piece them together, it feels like it may be trying to hide the fact that not all the pieces actually do fit properly. However it’s a minor concern for a film that is extremely well-made, written (which it should be, considering director/writer Robin Campillo wrote the Palm d’Or winning The Class) and acted.
It’s a fascinating film where all sorts of ideas and possibilities come into play, successfully bringing together tension and romance to create a potent mix. Issues of class, nationality, age, loneliness, sexuality and power are brought into play, all bumping up against one another. From the moment it shows how a rich, successful, older man’s life can by brought to its knees in 30 seconds by a knock on the door from a 14-year-old boy, you know this is going to be an interesting movie.
Overall Verdict: One of the best gay-themed films of the year, bringing together a great romance and genuinely tense thriller, shot through with a mix of social issues and passion.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac