Eastern Boys: Venice Review

Eastern Boys Venice Film Festival Still - H 2013

Eastern Boys Venice Film Festival Still - H 2013

Observation trumps explanation in this noteworthy, if too long, second film from Robin Campillo.

The second feature of Laurent Cantet's editor and screenwriter, Robin Campillo, stars Olivier Rabourdin and Kirill Emelyanov.

VENICE, Italy -- When a fifty-something Frenchman asks an attractive Eastern European youth to come back to his place he gets a whole lot more than he bargained for in Eastern Boys, the second feature of Robin Campillo (Les Revenants). 

Better known for his collaborations with Laurent Cantet as a co-screenwriter and editor (including Palme d’Or-winner The Class), the writer-director here observes a story that starts off simply enough but quietly grows more complex without any attempt to reduce behavior to facile but reductive narrative clichés or a need to explain every single choice the characters make. This works beautifully for the first 90 minutes before the film’s final quarter, a 40-minute finale set at a banlieue hotel where the eponymous gang of boys are quartered that feels like it belongs in a more conventional movie.

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LGBT festivals will pounce on this unusually non-judgmental film but slightly wider distribution at mainstream festivals and in Francophile arthouses is not out of the question, especially if the final section’s severely pruned.

The film’s opening consists of long-shot views of young, Eastern-looking boys at Paris’s Gare du Nord station. They hang out together, split into smaller formations or operate alone and are followed and kept an eye on by the police. There’s no audible dialog, pushing audiences to look at the bigger picture and tease out what’s happening and who these kids are, a modus operandi that'll come in handy for the rest of the film.

About 10 minutes in, the camera moves in and a handsome man in early middle age, Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin), works up the courage to say “bonjour” to a strikingly handsome boy (Kirill Emelyanov) loitering underneath a flight of stairs. The latter’s defensive-seeming “What do you want,” in English, is followed by a more reassuring “I do everything.” The duo, in an awkward mix of French and English, agree to meet the next day at Daniel’s, since the dark-haired youth doesn’t have a place where he can take them. When Daniel finally asks him for his name, he offers “Marek,” but only after considering the question for some time.

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The film’s first three parts -- respectively titled Her Majesty, The Street; This Party I Am a Hostage Of and What We Make Together -- are filled with several equally well-observed scenes in which Campillo teases out the human behavior behind what on the surface often seem to be business transactions involving exchanges of money, goods or services.

Campillo never resorts to easy aggressor/victim or exploiter/exploited clichés -- even after, in the second chapter, Marek shows up for the home appointment with an entire gang led by Russian thug Boss (Danil Vorobyev, with a crucifix in his ear a la George Michael circa Faith), who practically empty Daniel’s house of all that’s transportable to the pumping dance beats of his expensive stereo. The sequence turns it into a delirious, somewhat surreal and handsomely shot party scene that intentionally outstays its welcome, just like the invaders.

More interestingly, still, is that “Marek,” who might actually be a Chechnya-raised Ukrainian called Rouslan, returns the next day and every week after that and that despite the criminal behavior of his friends, there’s no violence on Daniel’s behalf. On the contrary, a real rapport establishes itself between Rouslan and Daniel that finally turns from something involving sex and money into something more akin to a familial bond.

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Campillo thankfully refrains from offering on-the-nose explications for behavior and decisions, instead letting audiences infer psychology and motivation from on-screen behavior, with the entirely naturalistic performances of Raboudin and Emelyanov beautifully tuned in to each other and the material, much like in Cantet's films.

The almost superfluous fourth part, Halt Hotel, Dungeons and Dragons, feels like an attempt to tie up various loose ends but instead, because it has to introduce new characters and locations to do so, feels disconnected from what has come before, an impression further reinforced by the fact Campillo suddenly privileges action, violence and plot over simple (but often more revealing) observation.

Eastern Boys is beautifully put together, with Jeanne Lapoirie’s crystalline widescreen cinematography the technical standout.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)
Production companies: Les Films de Pierre, Films Distribution
Cast: Olivier Rabourdin, Kirill Emelyanov, Danil Vorobyev, Edea Darcque, Camila Chanirova, Beka Markozashvili, Bislan Yakhiaev, Mohamed Doukouzo, Aitor Bourgade
Writer-Director: Robin Campillo
Producers: Hughues Charbonneau, Marie-Ange Luciani
Director of photography: Jeanne Lapoirie
Production designer: Dorian Maloine
Music: Arnaud Rebotini
Costume designer: Isabelle Pannetier
Editor: Robin Campillo
Sales: Films Distribution
No rating, 128 minutes.