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A gorgeous undocumented Chaplin thrust upon an implausible Odyssey
Greek-born, long-time Paris resident filmmaker Costa-Gavras (of the classic political thriller Z) had grand ambitions in making Eden Is West/Eden à l'ouest. He engaged veteran playwright and screenwriter Jean-Claude Grumberg to write the dialogue. He also recruited Italian heartthrob Ricardo Scamarcio, charismatic and appealing as Elias, the mostly silent, Chaplinesque, yet gorgeous lead character, an illegal of no specific nationality (when he briefly speaks his own tongue, it's a made-up language) aiming through thick and thin to get to Paris. A very modern story meant to engage universal sympathies was the aim.
But in the event, Elias' adventures seem little more than a motley series of improvisations, some lurid, some hairy, some comical, unable to form into anything lastingly memorable, touching, or meaningful. Scamarcio shows himself an excellent mime and is sympathetic throughout. Elias is a chameleon whose ability to insert himself into almost every situation he enters borders on the fantastic. When he talks about the film, Costa-Gavras mentions globalization, the exploitation of immigrants, world poverty, the wanderings of Ulysses. But 'Eden Is West' winds up being mostly just the picaresque tale of a young charmer, attractive to men and women, trusted by all, endlessly resilient, surviving on minimal sleep and a diet of hastily grabbed croissants and gulps of coffee, shedding garments and identities with equal alacrity. And that's all very well, but so what? If this is 'Candide,' it's 'Candide' without the enlightenment or the political savvy.
Elias' adventures begin when he jumps off a boat full of illegals as the coast guard approaches, and is one of several young men who lands, alive, on a posh island resort called "Eden" that has nude bathing as one of its entertainments. The film holds our attention and sets the theme: Elias is always in danger of getting found out and hauled away. We hold our breath as he runs just ahead of the cops or security. Awekening the next morning on the island, he strips naked to fit in, turns into a bellboy by donning an "Eden" jacket, get kissed by a gay hotel host, is forced to repair a jammed toilet by an Israeli, and is adopted as a bed-mate by horny German widow Christina (Juliane Koehler) during a spectacular rainstorm. This resort sequence is slickly done, more extended and more emotionally engaging than the precipitous road picture that soon follows. But it also reads as a segment out of a soft-core B picture: in terms of setting tone and focus, it gets things off to an unpromising start. Things are too easy and too random. The first twenty minutes show the flaws of the whole 110-minute film. Costa-Gavras is adept at convincingly establishing his kaleidoscopic sequence of milieus. But not so good at making a logical arc of the adventures.
Elias' ability to fall easily into any role leads him to serve not only as a hotel underling and as Christina's lover, but also as the assistant of the Eden resort's German resident magician, Nick Nickelby (Ulrich Tukur). Later he escapes the resort and finds himself working for a traveling vendor, recruited at a clandestine electronics recycling factory, and donning various disguises to evade the cops. He's a fugitive, cut-rate Felix Krull manqué, and there's the suspicion from the start that all these things are temptations the delay this Ulysses from finding his Ithaka--which may be the Paris nightclub where Nick Nicholby tells him he usually works. Nickelby says, "If you come to Paris, come and see me," and through his travels, Elis keeps struggling to get this sentence in French memorized, and to make it to the Paris nightclub and the magician. Nobody knows his language, and his hold on French is shaky; hence the value of Scamarcio's expressive mouth and big, soulful eyes.
It's hard to see what the point is of the rich, squabbling Greek couple (Ieroklis Mihailidis and Annie Loulou) or the gang of gypsies who at first think him one of theirs, or the louche pair of German truckers (Antoine Monot, Florian Martens) who leave him off at a crossroads between the routes to Hamburg and to Paris. More adventures and narrow escapes follow, and Elias does eventually make it to the City of Light and find the magician.
Apparently Costa-Gavras meant to keep his treatment of an illegal's travails on the way to gainful employment in the European Union lighthearted, but the various episodes just aren't memorable or meaningful enough. This is a great role for Ricardo Scamarcio, or might have been; unfortunately the project seems too ill conceived to have lasting value.
Eden à l'ouest opened in Paris February 11, 2009 to mediocre reviews. It was shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, March 2009. 110 minutes.
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