One can imagine Douglas Sirk enthusing over “East-West,” a
Cold War soap opera that resembles nothing more than the lush,
women-oriented tales of woe and romance that the late director
specialized in during the 1950s. (One might also draw a
comparison to David Lean’s overripe 1965 version of Pasternak’s
“Doctor Zhivago.”) Old-fashioned and passionate, the picture
is about Marie, a French woman (the lovely Sandrine Bonnaire)
who goes to live in the Soviet Union in 1946 along with her
husband Alexei (Oleg Menchokov), a Russian emigre responding
to a general invitation to exiles to return to their native
land after the war. Once over the border, they and their
young son are treated as suspicious aliens, forced to live in
a cramped communal aparment and constantly watched. Marie
wants to return to France, but all avenues are closed to her;
and when she develops an almost maternal relationship with a
young Russian, Sacha (Serguei Bodrov, Jr.), who also wants to
flee the country, the result grows tense, finally resulting in
imprisonment. Ultimately, through the machinations of a
distinguished French actress (Catherine Deneuve) from whom
Marie had sought assistance, an attempt at escape to the west
is made.

The script of “East-West” is based on a true, if little-known,
episode of post-war history, when many Russian exiles were in
fact lured back to the Soviet Union, along with their often
foreign families, only to meet deplorable fates–often death,
but sometimes lives of continuing hardship and cruelty. But
the plot is entirely fabricated, made up of elements drawn
from countless conventional weepies and political thrillers
of the past. Its main thrust is Marie’s suffering–Lord, how
the woman suffers! She must endure the loss of her land, and
also of her liberty; at one point her husband leaves her; her
involvement with Sacha eventually results in her being sent to
the gulag; and toward the close, in order finally to escape
the Iron Curtain, she must endure a major loss (the concluding
plot twist involves a “Casablanca”-like act of self-sacrifice).
There’s even a snarling, black-suited KGB man who follows her
throughout the picture, brutalizing the family when it first
arrives and reappearing later to be the agent of Marie’s
incarceration. Quite simply, the horrifying historical
background has been transformed into a conventional melodrama,
and much of it has a bogus feel.

On those admittedly lowbrow terms, however, the picture works
reasonably well. It’s certainly beautifully staged and shot on
locations in Ukraine and Bulgaria. The cast does well, even
when the situations seem contrived: Bonnaire is a portrait of
grace under stress, Menchikov smoothly keeps one guessing about
his intentions, Bodrov is convincingly athletic and stalwart
(apart from a maudlin final scene), and Deneuve proves the very
model of elegance and savoir-faire. There’s also a small army
of very able supporting players who add color and dimension to
the proceedings.

On the other hand, the pacing of the film is often lethargic
and the direction overly emphatic. Greater subtlety in the
treatment of Marie’s story, a less conventionally soapoperatic
approach, might have resulted in a truly distinguished portrait
of the crushing oppression the Soviet state inflicted upon
exiles deluded enough to return to Stalin’s police state.

You might, however, think that such complaints are no more
valid here than if directed at “Written on the Wind,”
“Magnificent Obsession” or “Imitation of Life.” If you’re
searching for the kind of old-fashioned histrionic passion and
florid female suffering that those Sirk titles represent (the
spirit of which was recaptured, with a similarly Russian
theme though a male protagonist, in Lean’s epic)–and if you
don’t mind reading subtitles to find it–Regis Wargnier’s
glossy, Oscar-nominated tearjerker will suit you just fine.