Hard bargain: Rabourdin (left) and Emelyanov in Eastern Boys
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496