Back in the USSR - and then desperate to get away again

In 1946, thousands of Franco-Russian émigrés returned to the hell of Stalin's state. Robin Buss meets Régis Wargnier, whose new film creates high drama from this shameful chapter of history
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Régis Wargnier's film East-West is a spin-off from another that was never made. A few years ago, the director of Indochine was planning an "Eastern Western" - an action movie, with lots of wide open spaces, set in former Soviet Asia. The project never materialised (backers hate pouring money into wide open spaces), but while doing the preliminary research in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, Wargnier was intrigued to come across several people of his own age who spoke French. It turned out that they were the children of prewar Russian émigrés who had accepted Stalin's invitation in 1946 to return home. East-West tells the story of such a family: a Russian, his French wife and their young son, who voluntarily head for the USSR in the grim days of the Stalinist tyranny.

Régis Wargnier's film East-West is a spin-off from another that was never made. A few years ago, the director of Indochine was planning an "Eastern Western" - an action movie, with lots of wide open spaces, set in former Soviet Asia. The project never materialised (backers hate pouring money into wide open spaces), but while doing the preliminary research in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, Wargnier was intrigued to come across several people of his own age who spoke French. It turned out that they were the children of prewar Russian émigrés who had accepted Stalin's invitation in 1946 to return home. East-West tells the story of such a family: a Russian, his French wife and their young son, who voluntarily head for the USSR in the grim days of the Stalinist tyranny.

"You have to realise that Russian émigrés were not very well treated by the French during the Occupation," Wargnier told me, when I asked him why they did it. Stalin was still admired as one of the Allied war leaders and the "amnesty" seemed like a genuine offer to emigrants to participate in rebuilding their country. Wargnier's imaginary couple represent the estimated 3,000 to 12,000 Franco-Russians who made the journey - most of them to be as swiftly disillusioned as Alexei and Marie in his film. The French government showed little interest in their fate; hence the uncertainty about their numbers.

After being accused of spying and deprived of their passports, Marie and Alexei are released into the gloom and hostility of postwar Kiev. Marie quickly decides that she has to escape; Alexei tries to compromise. The marriage falls as far apart as is possible in a communal flat, while Marie befriends a young swimmer who wants to defect and hopes to use him to alert the French authorities to her plight. From here on, history becomes the backdrop to an escape movie.

It is no simple matter for a Western director to give a plausible representation of a world as distant in time and space as Soviet Russia; it is not enough to put Omar Sharif in a fur hat and stick him in Helsinki in the snow. Wargnier wanted authentic settings and dialogue in the appropriate languages. He wrote an outline, then brought in two Russians, his friend, the director Sergei Bodrov (whose son, also Sergei, plays the swimmer) and the scriptwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov. After some debate - in Wargnier's words, "We had a lot of rows" - they rewrote the scenes in the communal flat. "The Russians, who grew up in that world, kept suppressing our romantic impulses, telling us: what you've got here is just not possible..." But the problems of recreating this Stalinist reality seem to have been nothing compared to the trauma of filming in post-Communist Bulgaria and the Ukraine.

Wargnier has since published his diary of the shoot ( Editions du Seuil), which includes several poignant references to "the loneliness of the long-distance director". He makes frequent morale-boosting phone calls to Bodrov and to his friend, the French director Diane Kurys, who is herself busy making a film in France. Oleg Menchikov, who plays Alexei, cheerfully tells him, "my French - zero!", and has to learn half his dialogue parrot-fashion. Sandrine Bonnaire (Marie) is not crazy about the idea of playing opposite a monolingual Russian, and the climate of East Europe doesn't suit her. Then there is the question of the swimming pool: an important scene involves a race to decide whether the young swimmer will be chosen for an international competition, but the pool where the race will be filmed is full of stagnant green water. The Ukrainian manager blithely offers to tip gallons of chlorine into it, but Wargnier has no wish to see his actors dissolve in this chemical bath. In Bulgaria, meanwhile, thieves have driven off with the generator van...

"Whenever you go away from home, there are problems," says Wargnier. "But the film had a duty to be authentic: I wanted to be immersed in a Slavonic atmosphere, and in the Ukraine we could film things that had not changed since Stalin's time. Moscow is dearer, it's difficult to make films there and prices there are as high as in the West. However, the East European technicians had not made a film for years and it was not easy to get through to them. The Bulgarians kept themselves to themselves."

As for the two leads, their acting styles turned out to be sharply different: "Sandrine is an instinctive actress, while Oleg takes his craft to the extreme: he's very proud, I think, and he doesn't look for friendship or reassurance ... His working style is not at all French..." It is clear from his diary of the shoot that he was a lot happier working with Bonnaire. In the end, however, Bonnaire and Menchikov got on well together, Wargnier was very happy to be filming again with Catherine Deneuve, his star in Indochine (here playing a French actress who helps Marie's escape), and he was delighted with the Russian actress Tatiana Dogileva and the veteran Bulgarian star, Bogdan Stupka, who have supporting roles; but there were enough uncomfortable moments along the way to drive a director to the sleepless nights and occasional bouts of alcoholic excess that his diary records.

As so often in the cinema, an apparently chaotic shoot results in a well-crafted and watchable film. Wargnier is the sort of mainstream director who can still flourish in the French cinema industry - though his childhood ambition to make films was nearly defeated by the closure of the cinema school, IDHEC, after the "events" of May 1968. Instead, he went to university and did an arts degree, managed to get a job as trainee with Claude Chabrol in the early 1970s, then worked his way up to camera assistant, second assistant and assistant director, before his debut feature, La Femme de ma vie, appeared in 1986. He got the Foreign Language Oscar for Indochine (together with a host of Césars) and was nominated for the Oscar again for East-West - which, though a very different film from Indochine - and not at all the Eastern-Western that he originally intended to make - can be seen as another story of what happens when the twain collide.

'East-West' (12) is out 24 November

Comments