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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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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