In the wonderfully precise opening to Eastern Boys, a group of teenagers traverse Paris’ Gare du Nord train station as they attempt to seduce the lonely men nearby, while also avoiding the grasp of police. They weave throughout the locale, presenting, yelling to each other in words we can’t quite understand and hoping they’ll catch the eyes of a paying customer before they get caught. We don’t know who these boys are, yet they could be anyone. In Eastern Boys, everyone code-switches—going from threatening gang leader to father trying his best, or con artist to lover. No one is exactly who they seem and no one is just a single dimension.
Well-to-do fortysomething Parisian Daniel—Olivier Rabourdin of the Taken franchise—sees the young Marek (Kirill Emelyanov) and propositions him for his services. The two plan on meeting up the next day at Daniel’s apartment, but when the appointment comes, Daniel’s home is taken over by the members of Marek’s gang, who wreck his place and steal whatever they can of value. Surprisingly, Daniel is less than horrified. He’s almost happy he has someone to share his space with, so lonely is he that he doesn’t mind the intrusive ransacking.
When Daniel finally sees Marek, there’s obvious disappointment because of the deception, but almost more so due to his hope for an honest connection. Marek mentions he wouldn’t mind continuing their original agreement and plans to return for the promised sex. What started as a con quickly blooms into something far more intimate than was planned.
Eastern Boys is told in a four-part structure, shifting from domestic horror film to a romance akin to Andrew Haigh’s Weekend back to a compelling thriller. As each new chapter unravels, so do our preconceived notions of the film’s characters.
Unfortunately, Daniel never gets the deserved amount of depth as do the members of the teenage gang. We glimpse his loneliness early on, and his level of commitment to Marek is touching, but we only get slight looks at what’s made him this way. Rabourdin gives a restrained performance, hinting at the sadness within without ever explaining himself. As young Marek, Emelyanov is also quite good; he balances life as a struggling orphan with that as a teenager, and possibly new love. It’s their combined search for salvation through each other that makes Eastern Boys something special.
Director Robin Campillo (The Returned), who also cowrote The Class and Les Revenants, knows how to add layers to characters who seem horrifying one moment and sympathetic the next. Though it falters near the end, Eastern Boys is a captivating exploration of genres and character deconstruction, one that evolves its story and performers in naturalistic and surprising ways.
Director: Robin Campillo
Writers: Robin Campillo and Gilles Marchand
Starring: Olivier Rabourdin, Kirill Emelyanov, Daniil Vorobyov
Release Date: In select cities Feb. 27, 2015
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.