By Moira Sullivan.
Eastern Boys, directed by Robin Campillo, won best film in the 70th Venice Film Festival’s Orizzonti section. The film offers a complex and provocative narrative about a young gang of East European undocumented immigrants who plunder a middle-aged man (Olivier Rabourdin) after he tries to pick up one of the boys at Gare du Nord. Eastern Boys was rewarded for innovative form, notably seen in the visual iconography of architecture and a triptych of intertitles dividing the film into three passages.
The film is well crafted by Campillo, who also acts as editor, and cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie, who skillfully contrasts an older Paris with the new. This artistic attention to detail is first seen in establishing shots that introduce the twenty statues that adorn the top of the famous railway station Gare du Nord, built in the 1860s. The five statues in the central part of the structure represent Paris and are flanked by ancient gods. The other 15 stand for eight international cities and seven regions of France.
Part 1: “Sa majesté La Rue” (Translation: Her Majesty the Street) establishes Rue de Maubeuge in which the Gare du Nord is situated, in the 10th municipal district (arrondissement) of Paris. It is an enthralling and exciting hub of activity linking the metro to the RER commuter trains, long distance trains for the French national railway, and the Eurostar Channel Tunnel, i.e. Chunnel to the land of the “GB’s”, French slang for residents of Great Britain. The station is a site for all kinds of commodity exchanges, including sex.
In front of the station is a group of young men from Eastern Europe: Russia, Romania, and Chechnya; the youngest is around 11 years old and the rest between 18 and 22. Police patrol the area and keep an eye on the men, but they manage to stay off the radar. Daniel, the aforementioned middle-aged man played by Rabourdin, observes a young man from the gang and propositions him for sex. The boy named Marek does not have a place and they agree to meet at Daniel’s apartment in a modern suburb. Here there are huge new grocery stores such as “Carrefour”, and inexpensive hotel chains such as “Ibis” and “Novotel”, which are immaculately clean and white. Daniel owns his apartment and has a good job–he is the very picture of an upstanding citizen.
At the appointed time, an 11 year old shows up claiming he is Marek (“Petit Marek” played by Beka Markozashvili) who threatens to scream of being abused if Daniel does not let him in. Daniel reluctantly agrees, and throughout the interaction Olivier Rabourdin’s performance remains both subtle and controlled, a man who keeps his rage within and is the perfect bureaucrat.
Part 2: “Cette fête dont je suis l’otage” (Translation: The Party of Which I am Hostage). Soon other boys invade Daniel’s apartment including “The Boss” (Daniil Vorobyov), who remarks about Daniel’s age and his pathetic need to exercise with machines. With the acumen of a predator, he exploits Daniel’s need for discretion as a buyer of sex. The boys proceed to rifle through Daniel’s things, drink his liquor, and then remove his belongings one by one out of the building into a van. The set up is done in a slick fashion, under the guise of a party in which Daniel dances, clearly upset but at a loss for how to deal with the situation. Afraid of the intimidating Boss, he makes little protest before or after the grand theft.
The older Marek shows up alone the next day at Daniel’s apartment and they begin a sexual relationship that spans several weeks. Eventually he is given a key and moves in, yet still lives with the gang. The Boss keeps the young men’s passports and stolen property in a clean and functional hotel franchise in the suburbs, where all of them including the Boss’s girlfriend and baby live with other undocumented immigrants and are put up by French social services.
Part 3: “Ce qu’on barbeque ensemble” (Translation: What We Make Together). This part does not work as well as the first two because it feels oversimplified. Much has to do with the assimilation of Marek into Daniel’s life, so that Marek can legally remain with him and distance himself from the gang and the Boss. Yet the complex social issues of Eastern Boys concerning undocumented immigrants remain relevant even if the relationship of a young, pretty boy from a war torn Chechnya with a mature and well-off French national provides the boy a means to learn the language, work and acquire residency. Most undocumented immigrants exist in a world of harsh survival that the typical French national would never encounter: tucked away in the suburbs, always at risk for deportation. Ultimately, the end of the film has problems when the situation changes from a private one to one that involves legal internvention, but is still resourceful in its attempt to depict a harsh reality in France.