The subtitles for French film Eastern Boys don’t start until ten minutes in, almost leaving the audience to wonder if they’ve been omitted by mistake. The ‘Eastern boys’ – immigrants from Eastern Europe – wander around Paris’ Gare du Nord, slyly communicating with one another in a language that isn’t readily identifiable. We don’t really know what’s going on, but then neither does the film’s protagonist, the middle-aged Frenchman, Daniel Muller (Olivier Rabourdin). After Muller plucks up the courage to speak to young Ukrainian man, Marek (Kirill Emelyanov), they arrange a meeting at Muller’s house the following day. But this meeting doesn’t go the way Muller planned, and the true intentions of the Eastern boys, led by their ‘Boss’ (Daniil Vorobyev), are gradually revealed.
It’s disconcerting being unable to rely on dialogue, but Eastern Boys succeeds in placing its audience firmly in Muller’s pocket. The language barrier is a struggle for both characters and observers alike, with much of the Eastern dialogue remaining un-subtitled for the first two segments of the film. Eastern Boys is presented in four uneven segments (or chapters), with the tone significantly shifting in each one. The last segment, Halt Hotel – Dungeons and Dragons, brings about the most drastic shift; the film seemingly starts off being about one thing, but then becomes something altogether different.
Robin Campillo directs only his second film after horror fantasy piece The Returned, this time delivering another horror of sorts, but one that is grounded in reality. Campillo and co-writer Gilles Marchand explore sexuality, masculinity, fear, trust, and changing relationships, while demonstrating a stark contrast between Muller’s solitary, middle-class lifestyle, and the grittier, crowded hotel where the immigrants dwell. Olivier Rabourdin and Kirill Emelyanov deliver haunting performances as the unlikely pair, but it is Daniil Vorobyev’s Boss who chills to the bone. In a flash he transforms from incredibly attractive and charming to absolutely menacing. His very presence invokes terror, but it’s hard to keep your eyes off him.
A varied soundtrack intensifies events of the film, with one sequence made all the more foreboding due to the trance strains that accompany it. (Surely the trance genre serves no better purpose than making everyone feel depressed and on edge.) Like its soundtrack, Eastern Boys can’t be classified into one single genre, but rather is a mesh of drama, romance, and thriller. Like Muller, you should be wary of initial impressions.
Eastern Boys is in Australian cinemas from 26 February through Palace Films.