[Est] Ouest Review
The story:In the summer of 1946, Stalin declared an amnesty on all the Russians who had fled abroad since the Russian Revolution - they were to be given Soviet citizenship and if they so desired to be shipped back to the SSSR. Thousands of them took Staline up on this offer believing that the country had become more open since the end of World War II.
It's against this historical backdrop that Régis Wargnier (director of Indochine) sets his story. Alexei (Oleg Menchikov) a trained doctor who had been living in France decides to return to help his homeland accompagnied by his French wife Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire) and their young child. Far from the glorious return to a welcoming country they expected, the Soviets are suspicous of all these new incomers treating them with great suspicion and stripping Marie of her French passport. The family winds up living in a house with 20 other people and no privacy. Marie, speaking no Russian, is in an even worse situation - she can no longer return to France and is treated as a likely spy by the Soviet government. She vows to try and find a way back to France but the task ahead of her is immense and the outcome uncertain.
Although the basic story may seen a bit too melodramatic, it is not given the rabid partisan treatment all too common in Hollywood. Instead of focussing in on the global politics of the situation, Wargnier looks at the individual lives caught up in it. This is not to say he is uncritical of the Stalinist regime - he just doesn't take a cinematographic sledgehammer to do so... The cast, complemented by Catherine Deuneuve and Sergueï Bodrov Jnr, play their parts without overdoing it. As Menchikov's French was allegedly very poor before shooting, I was amazed how well he acted in a foreign language. The soundtrack by Patrick Doyle is also worth noting for the way in which it doesn't overplay the emotions but does underline themes quite effectively - most of the soundtrack is orchestral but Russian mens choirs are also used to great effect.
The DVD:The image:The transfer is anamorphic which is now almost standard for French DVDs. The image seems a little lighter than what I remembered from the big screen but this doesn't take away from the enjoyment of it. There is little notable artifacting and the more remarkable scenes colourwise (many with beautiful Russian skies) are perfectly rendered. The image can seem a little grainy at times but bar that the print used was clean and almost flawless. Basically a very good overall transfer.
The sound:The only offered soundtrack is the original French/Russian one in DD 5.1. This is not a film that necessarily needs 5:1 but it is used tastefully and does its best at making the most of the score. There are also good subtitles available in English and Spanish so that those without perfect French (and Russian) can watch it
The menus:The dvd starts with a flashy opening sequence using footage from the film and then starts the main menu. This is also quite nicely done with a film of the sea in the background and photos of the characters looming in and out of focus to the sound of the opening scene's soundtrack. There's also a little transition clip which is quite short (a good move!) between menus.
The extras:These are not too numerous but at least worthwhile. There's 35 minutes worth of deleted scenes and outtakes. However, we have to listen to Wargnier talking over them - he's pretty talkative and his voice is mixed low enough that you can hear the scene without too much trouble. He also frequently groans about how bad some scenes are, thanking his lucky stars that he edited them out. There's also the option to have the films edited into the film (although you have to use your remote to edit each one in) but you have to choose to watch the film with Wargnier commenting it which is another extra...
Wargnier's commentary isn't subtitled in any language but his French is clear enough. His commentary is quite interesting covering the filming process, the script and the historical background. Not as garralous as Patrice Lecomte on La veuve de Saint-Pierre but not as tongue tied as Tim Burton!
Added to this there's a short making-of (less than 3 minutes) with an interview with Bonnaire (in an Orthodox church!) and Wargnier - I suspect this was made for a short plug on French TV - not as bad as some other making-ofs but a bit too slim - and also the obligatory trailer as well as a great short from Wargnier although not subtitled called "Maman, les petit bateaux"- a very funny satire of pretentious filmmaking.
One quibble I do have with this disc is that it's impossible to change the subtitles or audio track without going all the way through the menu to do so. I suppose it's not a major problem but as I sometimes like to return to the film soundtrack whilst I'm watching a commentary this does come in my way a little.
Conclusions:Despite the slightly irritating setup of the DVD (see above), this is a good release of a film that didn't do as well as it should have in the UK. As I doubt the UK DVD release (if it ever happens!) will have as many features as this one, this is probably as good a release as this film will ever get. Although many of the themes it looks at may seem slightly generic, this film is far from it and although quite harrowing at times doesn't try to pull any cheap tricks on the viewer and stands out all the more for it. Quite enthralling viewing and well worthwhile although it may not necessarily appeal to all.