City Paper is not for tourists
In 1947, with the Soviet Union ravaged by World War II, Soviet officials announced that Russian emigres would be welcomed back to rebuild the country. Some people of Russian descent, in a miscalculation that now seems incredible, accepted the invitation. East-West is their story.
Well, not exactly. East-West is actually fiction, although the general circumstances are true. Director and co-writer Regis (Indochine) Wargnier specializes in stories of French people living beyond the limits of civilization—which is to say, not in France—so he’s focused his account on Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire), the innocent Frenchwoman who blindly follows her Russian husband, Alexei (Oleg Menchikov), back to his motherland. Alexei toasts his wife’s loyalty on the ship carrying them and their young son to Odessa, but her flattered smile quickly fades once they dock and most of the returning Russians are either imprisoned or shot.
Accused of being an imperialist spy, Marie is slapped around by a KGB thug but then allowed to join her husband in Kiev. That’s only because Alexei is a doctor, with skills that are useful to the revolution—in particular, to the antiquated flag factory where he’s made medical director. Understandably, Marie wants to go home, and she reminds Alexei of his promise that they would return to France if she didn’t like her new home. Alexei, however, has realized that even wanting to leave is a crime against the state, and thus he tries to live as an unquestioning Soviet citizen. Although Alexei apparently takes this course in an attempt to protect his wife and son, Marie takes his acceptance of their plight as a betrayal. The two drift apart, each taking a lover; dangerously, Marie becomes involved with a young swimmer (Sergei Bodrov Jr.) who intends to use a competition in Vienna as an opportunity to defect. Marie and Alexei live separately—in neighboring rooms of the same communal apartment—and the extent of the couple’s bond is not revealed for many years.
Scripted by Wargnier with three Russians—including Prisoner of the Mountains writer-director Sergei Bodrov—East-West is just the sort of old-fashioned melodrama in which things are not revealed for many years. Although it runs only 115 minutes, a modest length by contemporary Hollywood standards, the film has a stately, old-fashioned pace that suits Patrick Doyle’s overripe score and production designers Vladimir Svetozarov and Alexei Levtchenko’s painstaking evocation of the Soviet Union’s gray and faded-gold majesty.
The lushly bedraggled look is characteristic of Wargnier. As he did in Indochine, the director proves adept at establishing period and location, yet he never sacrifices the glamour of his leading ladies to mere verisimilitude. Despite living far from Paris’ couture shops and enjoying only once-a-week bathtub privileges, Marie looks as tidy and chic as the touring French actress (Indochine star Catherine Deneuve) who tries to help her. East-West is just not the sort of movie that would require its protagonist to wear dirty, tattered clothing.
Fortunately for Wargnier, Bonnaire is more convincing than her wardrobe. Spirited but shallow—the film has her read from Madame Bovary to highlight the resemblance—Marie was clearly not built to survive a sudden plunge from the Left Bank to behind the Iron Curtain. Yet she adapts and endures, sustaining her passion as she comes to understand the vast dimensions of the trap she’s inadvertently entered. East-West is lumbering and overstuffed, yet Bonnaire manages to stir it.
Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? That was the final query Johnny Rotten posed as a member of the Sex Pistols. The Filth and the Fury raises the real question: Who’s the biggest cheat? Former manager Malcolm McLaren, who claimed the Pistols as his own inspired fraud in 1979’s intermittently watchable The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle? Rotten (aka John Lydon), who carefully controls the anti-McLaren message of the new, easier-to-take The Filth and the Fury? Or Julien Temple, who compliantly directed both films?
Odd as it may be for Temple to have taken this assignment, the playful, fast-paced The Filth and the Fury at least offers a different message than his previous Pistols flick—two messages, actually, both of them debatable. The first has already been mentioned: that the Pistols were their own punks, not McLaren’s puppets. Guitarist Steve Jones (shown, like all the surviving ex-Pistols, with his middle-aged face in shadow) obligingly calls Lydon “more of an intellectual” than his bandmates, and it’s certainly the latter’s interpretation of the Pistols story that’s offered here.
According to Lydon, McLaren doomed Sid Vicious by allowing him to buy heroin before the band’s final gig in San Francisco, after Lydon had carefully monitored Sid’s drug intake throughout the U.S. tour. As for original bassist Glen Matlock, he’s dismissed as a pop reactionary, having gotten upset when Lydon dared change the words to the Who’s “Substitute.” (Never mind that the band virtually stopped writing songs after melodist and arranger Matlock was expelled in favor of Vicious, a charismatic wreck who couldn’t even play bass.) Lydon also gets credit for the band’s ripped, scrawled, and safety-pinned look, which looked suspiciously like what Richard Hell had been wearing the year before.
Which brings us to the film’s other contention: that the Pistols were truly, madly, and deeply English. Temple presents this thesis—Lydon’s, of course—by cutting clips of British highbrow actors and lowbrow comedians into the action, sometimes chopping and looping the footage like hiphop samples. Lydon, we’re informed, is heir to both music-hall buffoonery and Shakespearian tragedy; the latter is illustrated by repeated clips of Laurence Olivier as a hunchbacked Richard III—twisted, loathsome, and hammy, just like his spiritual offspring, Johnny Rotten.
This contention is amusing, but it shares something with McLaren’s claim that the Pistols were his personal Situationist art project: It undervalues the music. And it’s the music that shows just how English the Pistols’ inspirations really were. Jones inconveniently admits that he modeled himself after New York Dolls/Heartbreakers guitarist Johnny Thunders, and Lydon originally auditioned by singing Alice Cooper’s “Eighteen,” which—along with “School’s Out”—provided the template for the only Pistols songs that really mattered, “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “God Save the Queen.” The band had its fun with “Substitute,” but such star-spangled punk songs as the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner” and the Stooges’ “No Fun”—both performed here—were more essential to its sound and its vision.
The movie doesn’t make the case it intends, but the fact that it’s peddling some revisionist theories does keep things interesting for those who already know the story of the Pistols’ two-year career—and for those who’ve seen a lot of this recycled footage previously in D.O.A. and The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. What the movie does reveal is how much the Pistols owed to the remarkable naivete of mid-’70s Britain: The clip of Jones and Lydon unleashing such barbarisms as “shit” and “fucker” on a London TV talk show—the outrage that inspired the tabloid headline “The Filth and the Fury”—is distinctly bloodless, as were many of the band’s provocations. The footage of devout Welsh fundamentalists singing “Silent Night” outside a Pistols show in Caerphilly and the shot of the Top 40 chart with a blank space at No. 1—the title of the banned “God Save the Queen” could not even be printed in newspapers—are hilarious, but these aren’t really the Pistols’ accomplishments. Rather than demonstrate how English the Pistols were, The Filth and the Fury shows how much their scandalous success owed to the Englishness of their opponents.
Set behind a different sort of curtain than East-West and evoking a different sort of outrage than The Filth and the Fury, Amos Gitai’s Kadosh looks at ultra-Orthodox Judaism from the viewpoint of the members of the community who are granted no legitimate viewpoint: women. Bleached of both melodrama and outward passion, Kadosh (“sacred”) is hushed and deliberative, yet indelibly painful.
The film, which premiered locally at last December’s Washington Jewish Film Festival, is the first fiction feature by Gitai, who has previously made documentaries and cinematic essays. (Kadosh began as the third in Gitai’s series of films on Israel’s major cities, after Tel Aviv and Haifa.) But a documentary crew would not be welcome in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim district—where the film’s few exteriors were shot early in the morning to avoid offending local sensibilities—so an invented story was the only way inside the subculture.
The simple narrative follows two sisters with disparate but related dilemmas: Acquiescent Rivka (Yael Abecassis) is happily married to Meir (Yoram Hattab) but is threatened with divorce because their 10-year union has yet to produce any children. (“A woman without a child is no better than dead,” hisses an anonymous letter the couple receives.) Meanwhile, rebellious Malka (Meital Barda) is about to enter an arranged marriage with a brutish zealot (Uri Ran Klausner), even though she loves another man (Sami Hori), one who is unacceptable because he’s left their strict sect.
Discussions between the men delineate the limited role of women, although everything the men say can be inferred from the opening scene, in which Meir recites the famous prayer thanking God for not making him a woman. The men’s theoretical talk is contrasted by the women’s circumscribed routines—including Malka’s ritual self-abasing preparations for marriage—and underscored by scenes of male entitlement in action. The most stunning of the latter is Malka’s harsh, loveless wedding night, which the unmoving camera observes as if stunned.
“I have an initial respect for any group of people trying to resist the homogenization of culture,” Gitai told the New York Times. “In a world where everything is geared to the smooth operation of production and consumption, I have sympathy for enclaves.” Despite its laconic style, however, Kadosh leaves no doubt that, for women, the enclave it depicts is suffocating and cruel. When one of the sisters finally leaves Mea Shearim’s claustrophobic interiors and narrow streets for a place with a wide view, the tiny gesture seems explosive. CP