sat 15/06/2024

Eastern Boys | reviews, news & interviews

Eastern Boys

Eastern Boys

Tight, disturbing French gay drama of contact between outsiders

Attractions across borders: Marek (Kirill Emelyanov) and Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin, right)

Eastern Boys is a disturbing film. Robin Campillo’s second feature as director catches the often aggressive world of immigrant grifters in Paris – they’re a gang of young men largely from the former Soviet Union – and their interaction with the society that surrounds them, through prostitution and crime.

The issue of prostitution itself is given a complex nuance in the film’s central relationship, where control and care, exploitation and protection become uneasily mixed up, before the film’s closing third moves into thriller mode. It won the director the Best Film award in the Horizons section of the Venice film festival last year.

Campillo is perhaps better known as a scriptwriter, and his themes have frequently been based around teenage or early-adult interactions. His first feature was the 2004 The Returned, about back-from-the-dead school kids in a small French town (Campillo went on to script the television series adaptation from two years ago). In between he’s been a writer and editor, most notably for director Laurent Cantet, including that director’s 2008 Cannes Palme d’Or winner The Class.

It's an environment that smacks of the work (and lives) of the likes of Pasolini or Fassbinder

Those films were about young people in school situations. The immediate difference with Eastern Boys is that his young protagonists in this one can’t have seen the inside of a school building in a long time. We encounter them first in a fluid 10-minute scene set in and around the Gare du Nord, where they congregate to hustle (it’s light on words, the few snatches of Russian untranslated). Whether they’re from Russia, Ukraine or Romania isn’t stressed – they have a collective identity as la bande – though their leader, referred to only as “the Boss”, is Slavic and Russian; he’s taken their passports, effectively keeping them in his control (Daniil Vorobyev as “the Boss” pictured centre, below right).

When middle-aged, mild-mannered Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin) comes to the station to cruise he encounters Marek (Kirill Emelyanov), who says he’s Ukrainian though he looks much more eastern. We don’t learn much of Daniel’s surrounding life in the course of the film, except that he has a nice enough apartment, a job and a circle of friends. We come to suspect he’s a bit of a loner, but not necessarily one who cruises the stations obsessively: it's an environment that smacks of the work (and lives) of the likes of Pasolini or Fassbinder.

Whether he’s a regular there or not, the liaison he arranges with Marek for the following day changes his life. Campillo divides his film into four chapters, and the title of this second one, “This party at which I am the hostage”, gives a hint at what happens. It’s more than 20 minutes of largely hand-held camerawork (by Jeanne Lapoire) flexing between those present with remarkable directorial confidence (and cruelty). The experience comes close to that of the “droogs” of A Clockwork Orange, literally so here given that that word from the Anthony Burgess source novel for Kubrick’s film was drawn from the Russian word “drug”, loosely translated as “pal”. The crew that “the Boss” commands are pals in that sense alright.

Chapter three has the inter-title, “What we made together”. Given what has just happened, the return of Marek to Daniel’s flat comes as a surprise, not least that the latter lets him in at all. There are all sorts of conflicting interactions going on between the two of them, but their relationship gradually builds towards real connection (we’ll have to decide for ourselves whether the film’s closing scene is overly optimistic or not). It’s one that fluctuates, not least when Marek confesses he's not what he's been claiming to be. He’s clearly scarred – a scene where’s he’s scared by festive fireworks in the Paris sky, which remind him of the explosions of the conflict he's escaped from, makes that clear – and divided between the loyalty of gang allegiance and the desire for a different life.

Campillo sets us up for a denouement which brings in thriller elements, handled with accomplishment. He has drawn powerful performances from his leads: Emelyanov and Vorobyev have acting experience behind them in their native Russia, but the other gang member roles appear to be from non-professionals. Rabourdin keeps our attention through his silences and apparent distance more than through his action, at least until the final scenes. Eastern Boys is an impressive film, and one that challenges many of our preconceptions.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for Eastern Boys


There are all sorts of conflicting interactions going on between the two of them, but their relationship gradually builds towards real connection


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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