Eastern Boys begins at Gare du Nord, the Parisian transit hub where a group of young Eastern European men and boys are shown from surveillance camera angles, hustling and soliciting to any and all passersby who are looking for illicit transactions of a sexual nature.
On the fringes of their throng comes Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin), a fifty-something French professional who likes what he sees in young Ukrainian immigrant Marek. After an initial proposition, Daniel and Marek arrange for a rendezvous at Daniel’s apartment. However, the film takes a dark twist when trouble comes knocking at Daniel’s door instead of Marek.
Eastern Boys is the latest film from French writer and sophomore director Robin Campillo, most famous for his previous film Les Revenants or The Returned en Anglais. The film begins by differentiating itself from every other film made in Paris by shunning the romance and mood the city of light is famous for in favour of stark realism, showing Paris for what it truly is, not a city of light but a city of shades of grey. And it is within these shades of grey that Daniel and Marek begin a relationship, first based around commerce and lust, and later developing into something more meaningful.
The relationship between Daniel and Marek is meant to be the centrepiece of the events that transpire within the film, a kind of organic narrative that balances precariously between lust and fear, but it is marred by the fact that Marek’s youth is highlighted and lingered upon without his age ever being explicitly mentioned.
One of the many complaints I have about Eastern Boys is its ambiguity toward pederasty. Some may cry foul and cluck their tongues about prudishness but the fact remains that I fail to feel sympathy, empathy or any kind of connection with a man who solicits underage boys for sex, everything that stems out of their first encounter is marred by the indecency of Daniel’s proposal.
When the camera is not focused on Daniel or Marek’s flesh it hazily turns to issues of a social and political nature. Some of the ambiguity and difficulty of these issues is well handled by the filmmakers, however; the undercurrent of racial tensions and political discourse surrounding issues of immigration are never fully developed or explored in a film that is unfocused on the bigger issues.
The performances are a mixed bag of consummate and amateurish with Rabourdin giving a convincing performance as outsider Daniel, while the eponymous boys give a mixture from surprisingly heartfelt through to over the top and ridiculous. This is unsurprising given that all but the most prominent boys are first time actors. While the faces lend the film authenticity, their craftsmanship distracts from the work as a whole.
Eastern Boys begins as a promising film that is soon burdened by the weight of its own seriousness, a burden that the film simply cannot bear as it limps into its fourth and final act, whereupon Eastern Boys completely degenerates into a more traditional and tension filled thriller finale that is discordant with its earlier acts.
Eastern Boys is a promising concept that quickly gets bogged down by a ponderous pace, it is an inexplicable film that tries too hard to be important and ends up breaking under its own weight. If you are a Sydney Film Festival completest then you may find something to enjoy in Eastern Boys but if you have a limited budget for the festival then save your money for something else.
Eastern Boys is not part of the official competition of The Sydney Film Festival. Eastern Boys has two showings during the festival; Monday June 9 at 4:45pm and Thursday June 12 at 7pm at George St Cinemas.
By Liam Kinkead