Kirill Emelyanov and Olivier Rabourdin in Robin Campillo’s “Eastern Boys.” | FIRST RUN FEATURES
The outstanding French drama “Eastern Boys” opens as if it’s a sex-drenched film about exploited undocumented immigrant hustlers. A cluster of young, attractive Eastern European youths congregate outside of Paris’ Gare du Nord. In a hypnotic sequence that unfolds largely without subtitles one of these Eastern boys, the handsome Ukrainian Marek, agrees to meet French businessman Daniel at Daniel’s house the following day and, for €50, “do anything.”
Shrewdly, writer/ director Robin Campillo takes this familiar storyline and turns it into a far more intense and absorbing drama. Awaiting Marek’s arrival, Daniel is surprised in his apartment by Marek’s gang, who take over his posh home and clean it out, removing his artwork, destroying his furniture, and generally wreaking havoc. That Daniel dances with these intruders, rather than call the cops, is explained mostly by a chapter title that reads: “This Party of Which I Am the Hostage.” Daniel, it seems is resigned to the bad situation that has befallen him.
“Eastern Boys” is riveting in this sequence, with pulsating electronic dance music playing and palpable sexual tension, especially when a good-looking Russian, known as the Boss, taunts Daniel before dancing with him.
Robin Campillo explores a young Ukrainian immigrant’s effort to live a life other than a hustler’s
Daniel does get what he originally bargained for, as well. Marek later turns up and allows Daniel to fuck him for the €50 originally agreed on. Rather than exacting revenge, Daniel makes love to Marek, and the two agree to additional assignations.
“Eastern Boys” is a character study that will leave audiences wondering if Marek is merely gay-for-pay, exploiting Daniel, or there is more going on emotionally between the two men. The point of the film becomes clear in its third and longest act.
Campillo ratchets up the tension as Daniel hatches a plan to help Marek extricate himself from working for the Boss. The taut plot makes it difficult to anticipate whether the film will end romantically or tragically. With viewers on tenterhooks as Marek tries to quit the hustling business, an extended scene in which in which undocumented Eastern Europeans eke out fragile, tenuous existences in an anonymous hotel will surely resonate.
“Eastern Boys” may be a variation on the “white savior” genre — in which a heroic white man uplifts a racial other — but that does not work against it. How the characters subvert social constraints is what makes the film so interesting, similar to the way “Heading South,” a 2005 film Campillo co-wrote about sex tourism featured middle-aged white women and younger Haitian men. He explores marginalized characters but also shines spotlights on strange bedfellows.
The director’s voyeuristic style of shooting — from the early scene at the train station to the mesmerizing episode in Daniel’s apartment and later the nerve-wracking sequence at the Boss’ hotel — pulls viewers into the action. Campillo’s fluid visual approach makes scenes of the Boss hunting his prey and Daniel caressing Marek naturalistic and exciting, even if the plotting at times strains credulity.
The acting by the three principles is impressive. Olivier Rabourdin is very expressive as Daniel; his hangdog look upon seeing Marek enter his apartment during the home invasion speaks volumes. As Marek, Kirill Emelyanov offers a very sensitive portrait of a young man looking for a way out of a bad situation. When he waves to Daniel at his window, we can feel real affection there. In support, Daniil Vorobjev is absolutely magnetic as the Boss. Alternately tough and seductive, Vorobjev steals his every scene.
Marek’s story is one of many about foreign youth hoping to escape a bad life by moving to a new country. The film, though occasionally manipulative, is always compelling, and audiences will root for Marek and Daniel. “Eastern Boys” ends in a powerful delivery of Campillo’s message.
EASTERN BOYS | Directed by Robin Campillo | First Run Features | Opens Feb. 27; one week only | Film Society of Lincoln Center, Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 W. 65th St. | filmlinc.com