A Review of Costa-Gavras’ Eden À L’Ouest
Film directors who invent genres gain a particular kind of notoriety, which isn’t really the same thing as celebrity, otherwise the name Pietro Francisci would be bandied about more often by film buffs. Alas, the director of Hercules (1958), a film that inspired countless Sword and Sandal flicks, is all but forgotten.
Not so Costa-Gavras, whose 1969 film Z, and the genre it initiated, have seen something of resurgence. Here was the original suspenseful political thriller-the French call it “cinéma populaire de gauche“-centering on a political assassination and its cover-up, all of it a thinly veiled recreation of actual events, which took place in the director’s native Greece under the rightwing junta. A lot of recent Hollywood films like Syriana, Traffic, and probably Babel, would fit nicely into a taxonomical chart with Z at the top.
The renowned Greek director’s latest contribution to the field, Eden À L’Ouest, takes on the contentious question of illegal immigration in Western Europe. The story’s about a naive young illegal immigrant named Elias (played by the very handsome and green-eyed Riccardo Scamarcio) whom we first encounter in a rusted tanker off the shores of the unspecified middle east. We watch as he and the other passengers destroy their identity papers, and look back at the trail of their lives disappearing into the sea.
There’s something very self-assured about a director willing to let the symbolism in a camera shot speak for itself. And this film really works like a sequence of such set pieces. At times, they can feel a bit artificial, but more often there’s a light ironic touch to it. The most memorable of these happens when Elias jumps ship in the night to elude capture. He swims off into the pitch black, only to awaken the following morning, like Odysseus on Calypso’s shore, at a resort for the rich and the nude called “Eden.” The cops are soon threatening to storm the place, and round up the illegal immigrants hiding on the grounds, but the liberal and right-minded patrons are having none of it. Meanwhile, Elias takes refuge as the boy toy of a German femme d’une certaine age, played by the lovely and sympathetic Juliane Köhler. At first, I was suspicious of the casting of Scamarcio-perhaps this was illegal immigration bowdlerized and easy on the eyes—but Elias’ obvious male beauty turns out to be critical to his survival, an object lesson in what we value in the west.
But looks will only get you so far. Before long, Elias must set out for Paris, encouraged in his vague plans by the offhand remark of a magician he meets at the resort, played by Ulrich Tukur (so wonderful as the boss in The Lives of Others, 2006). Of course, the journey is arduous. Unfortunately, the story relies rather heavily on police chases for propulsion.
What makes this all worthwhile, however, are the glimpses we catch of the other Europe, the anti-Europe-Roma caravans in the woods, soup lines of sans papiers, and the unscrupulous employers eager to exploit them. Neither does the film spare the good Samaritans, who so often prove self-aggrandizing, patting themselves on the back for minor acts of kindness-the waiter at the terrace restaurant nice enough to allow Elias to scarf down the scraps of food at an abandoned table. The grateful young man scurries off, and the camera lingers, as the waiter stands there, pleased with himself.
Then there are the sudden news crews Elias runs across. They materialize out of nowhere, filming a horseback rider in the field or interviewing an intellectual in a café or watching as policemen round up angry youths. I was reminded of what Slavoj Zizek said about Children of Men (2006), that the focus of that film is in the background. Something similar is happening in Eden À L’Ouest—a wealthy society is shown examining itself, and pleased with itself for its self-awareness.
In spite of its moments of alertness, the film ultimately disappoints, settling on an open-ended conclusion as vague as Elias’ aspirations. Costa-Gavras seems stuck on the symbolism of the old left—cops are mean! But the political reality is a muddle—political parties of every stripe are complicit in the western world’s cruel and arbitrary immigration systems. So it’s regrettable when a film, seeking to reach the widest possible audience, mimics the politician, by hanging lofty but vague aspirations upon modest goals. Such is the ploy that enables conservative voters to feel virtuous. If this is what passes for a political thriller these days, I’m sorry to say the cinéma populaire de gauche has moved to the center.