Hard bargain: Rabourdin (left) and Emelyanov in Eastern Boys
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Station to station: Eastern Boys is a cool French take on the politics of desire

This gritty tale of eastern European rent boys in Paris might at first sound like Ken Loach gone gay. But the effect is more redolent of a Gus Van Sant spin on Oliver Twist.

Eastern Boys (15)
dir: Robin Campillo

A surreptitious kind of ballet takes place at the start of Eastern Boys, right there among the criss-crossing commuters on the concourse at the Gare du Nord. The participants wear shell suits and hoodies rather than leotards and tutus. Two lads step over a security chain in elegant unison while a clump of boys in clomping white trainers disperse themselves through the crowd like petals scattered to the wind. The film’s surveillance-style camera observes their choreography with cool fascination. These eastern European adolescents are scammers, pickpockets and extortionists. The ones near the top of the food chain measure out their success in iPhones and LCD televisions. For the foot soldiers, it’s Happy Meals.

Their furtive glances have something in common with the cruising vocabulary used by the middle-aged men on the outskirts of the performance. The silver-stubbled Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin) is one. He takes a shine to Marek (Kirill Emelyanov), a Ukrainian teenager with a scrawl of black hair and a lupine face: half-Adam Driver, half-Eddie Munster. For €50, Marek says he will do “anything”. Daniel hands over his home address. There is no dramatic music to accompany this scene – the doom-laden chords in your head are deafening enough.

Daniel does receive a visit the next day but it’s fair to say he gets more than he bargained for. In a terrifying home-invasion scene that has echoes of the “Singin’ in the Rain” sequence from A Clockwork Orange, his apartment is overrun with carnivorous young blades. Marek is among them but a different sort of electrifying look passes between them this time, saying: this isn’t over.

Despite some discreetly erotic episodes, Eastern Boys is not really concerned with the carnal. Daniel believes naively that he can divorce his desires from their consequences – that he can use boys such as Marek without considering who they are or how they have suffered (“My name, my family, the war, you don’t care,” Marek complains). Cleaving strongly to the tradition of Fassbinder, the film shows that sex is a political act. The matter of what we do in bed and with whom can be every bit as charged as the provenance of the hummus on our pitta or the vodka in our glass. The gang leader Boss (Daniil Vorobyev) says as much when he flaunts his whippet-thin torso in front of Daniel. “This body is the most important thing God gave us,” he boasts, while his droogs strip the art from the walls.

All of which risks making Eastern Boys sound like Ken Loach gone gay. The effect is more redolent of a Gus Van Sant spin on Oliver Twist, not least because of Jeanne Lapoirie’s dreamy cinematography (warm orange bodies against icy blue backdrops) and Robin Campillo’s lyrical editing. Cam­pillo, also the film’s writer-director, has already shown that he can integrate social commentary and dynamic cinema. Among his previous screenplays is Heading South, which unpicked the politics of desire through a tale of sex tourism in Haiti.

As Daniel becomes more involved in Marek’s life, Campillo guides us fluidly through the nuances of their relationship. Revenge on Daniel’s part gives way to fondness, then paternalism. The closer he gets to Marek, the more he wants to rescue him. But even this apparent generosity repeats patterns of colonialism and ownership: in coming to Marek’s assistance, he risks continuing the commodification that began when he first picked him up at the Gare du Nord as casually as if he were a croque-monsieur.

One of the film’s achievements is to situate these complexities within a tight piece of storytelling. Most thrillers would be undermined instantly if only someone on-screen had the wherewithal to phone the police. Not here, where the arrival of the authorities would bring a different sort of danger – deportation. Nor does Campillo demonise any of his players. Even the intimidating Boss has his share of vulnerability. The one moment that pulls us out of the action is fleeting and specific to UK audiences. It’s unlikely that viewers of other nationalities will find their ears pricking up on hearing, in moments of extreme suspense, a ticking clock remarkably similar to the one used in the cosy afternoon quiz show Countdown

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism