Kiril Emelyanov (Marek) and Olivier Rabourdin (Daniel) in 'Eastern Boys'
A gang of youths who are obviously impoverished and street-tough troll Paris’ famous Gare de Nord train station. The dozen or so of them from Russsia, Ukraine, and Romania make it plain that they are available for hire — or for trouble. This opening sequence in Eastern Boys is itself a cruising proposition. Director Robin Campillo titillates the unthinkable possibilities familiar from that genre of East European porn that troublingly pimps harems of desperate, self-deprecating anonymous youth — a symptom of modern European crisis. Eastern Boys adds a serious sociological perspective to its neorealist eroticism.
The story of a bourgeois Frenchman Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin) who solicits one of the street urchins, Marek (Kiril Emelyanov), juxtaposes lust and greed as two defining — perhaps damning — features of the contemporary West. It unveils a criminal underground that corrupts needy immigrants while providing a surreptitious service for elites. Campillo parallels older man Daniel preying on youth in order to examine aspects of gay experience that are still subject to criminalization and, due to various, long-standing social inequities (poverty, vagrancy, homophobia), deserve to be critiqued.
Daniel and Marek’s attachment (blocked by language barriers) comes from the loneliness each one feels: Daniel’s barren middle-class habits and Marek’s uncertain prospects. Their relationship isn’t your standard gay love story. Campillo analyzes the attraction that links prostitute and john, native and immigrant in — as that opening graf suggests — an almost literary as well as cinematic fashion.
Watching Eastern Boys is like reading a Jean Genet novel, picking up details of basic but illicit impulses (Daniel and Marek first stare at each other underneath a Gare de Nord staircase as if examining mirrors that reveal each one’s secrets). There are subversive possibilities in their unarticulated longing.
Campillo’s artiness (his overture sequence recalls the distanced slow-probe at the beginning of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation) is broken-up into three sequences, the most effective titled “This Party of Which I Am Held Hostage” where Daniel is extorted by the gang to which Marek belongs — especially Boss (Daniil Vorobyov) who taunts Daniel sexually while his boys empty-out the highrise apartment. Daniel is willingly stripped of bourgeois vanity but not of his privilege. He submits to humiliation, later pursuing simplicity with Marek as if after some private fulfillment. Their remarkable sense of intimacy, arousing unanswered questions about both men’s emotional background, are the sex scenes of the year—offering several shades of empathy.
Daniil Vorobyov "The Boss" (center)
Less successful is a third chapter where Marek’s housing project, run by a stalwart female caretaker (Edea Darque), sketches the futility of modern Europe’s welfare state. Campillo missteps into a kind of political cautionary tale that is far less interesting than the mystery of Daniel and Marek’s alliance. This same problem ruined Laurent Cantet’s Heading South, an obvious Marxist critique of colonial Europe (scripted by Campillo) in which rapacious older white female vacationers preyed on black Caribbean boys.
Here, Campillo’s fascination with the realities of social exploitation — steadily shown in lengthy contemplative compositions — works better than Heading South; particularly when he observes gay desire that is as strong, disruptive and immediate as today’s social, political yearning. Ukrainian-immigrant Emelyanov has an Oliver Twist defenselessness and Rabourdin probably intentionally resembles one of our most famous, presumed closeted actors. Both characters — both performers — express the tension, the threat, the temptation of gay desire, and humanize it.
Eastern Boys is currently screening at Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City. Watch a trailer below: