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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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution