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BERLIN — Critically esteemed Lithuanian writer-director Sharunas Bartas takes a wildly unexpected leap toward the mainstream with “Eastern Drift,” a slow-burning underworld thriller that presents a bleak vision of crime-riddled 21st century Europe. Widely derided after world-premiering at the Berlinale, it’s an undeniably flawed but quietly fascinating enterprise that may well find more receptive berths on the worldwide festival circuit on the back of Bartas’ name. With the correct handling, this self-consciously sombre affair could even have commercial prospects in France — as well as in the director’s native land — and also a considerable degree of small-screen potential.
In his first big-screen appearance for more than a decade, Bartas (somewhat unwisely) casts himself in the central role of Gena, a fortysomething chap who — as his taciturn opening voice-over informs us, has seldom known anything other than the criminal life. “Life is short,” he growls, “the greater part of it already over.” Embroiled in a complex drug-running operation that requires him to traverse Europe from France to Lithuania (the continent’s geographical center), to Poland, Belarus and Russia, Gena has no less than two beautiful women on the go: brittle blonde Sasha (Klavdia Korhsunova) and classy brunette Gabrielle (Elisa Sednaoui).
The fact that Bartas — no oil-painting — has co-devised a scenario where he’s lusted after by two gorgeous babes may strike many as narcissistic. Ditto his decision to give himself numerous close-ups and to show off his wiry physique in a nude scene that allows contemplation of his trim buttocks. In addition, there’s more than a whiff of misogyny about the presentation of Sasha and Gabrielle, both of whom prove less than faithful to their gruff paramour — the latter preferring the charms of Gena’s supposed friend Philippe (Erwan Ribard, meatily impressive).
And as if narcissism and misogyny weren’t enough, “Eastern Drift” (a bland English-language alternative to the original, “Indigene d’Eurasie,” or “Native of Eurasia”) also lays itself open to charges of pretentiousness, as Bartas includes numerous brief shots — a knife cutting a kebab, birds flapping across a lake — that add little in terms of plotting or atmosphere.
Taken as a whole, however, there is something quietly persuasive and cumulatively engaging about “Eastern Drift,” not least the way it depicts a Europe that seems to have become progressively “Russified” since the early 1990s. Bartas finds grey, bleak corners of every city he comes across, often with ironically inappropriate terms like “Eldorado” and “Shangri-La” spelled out in Cyrillic neon on building fronts.
Abandoning his previous trademark ultra art-house austerity (“before there was a world of silence — now my characters are speaking,” he has commented) in films like 2005’s “Seven Invisible Men,” Bartas now ventures into gangland terrain more closely associated with the likes of Robert Guedigian (“La ville est tranquille”). He pays homage to his genre forebears in a steely, resolutely unflashy style — subtly and ably scored by Alexander Zekke and shot in a cobalt-heavy palette by Bartas himself — that skirts ponderousness but ultimately yields low-key rewards.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival
Production companies: Lazannec, Paris; Studio Kinema, Vilnius, Kino Bez Granic, Moscow
Cast: Sharunas Bartas, Elisa Sednaoui, Erwan Ribard, Klavdia Korshunova
Director: Sharunas Bartas
Screenwriters: Sharunas Bartas, Catherine Paille
Producer: Gregoire Dabailly
Co-producer: Jurga Dikciuviene
Associate producer: Sam Klebanov
Director of photography: Sharunas Bartas
Production designer: Olga Orlenko
Music: Alexander Zekke
Editor: Danielius Kokanauskis
Sales: Umedia, Paris
No rating, 111 minutes
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