After World War II, Stalin began a propaganda campaign welcoming Russians who had emigrated to come back and help rebuild their homeland. Thousands accepted the invitation, only to find themselves the objects of Stalin's cruel revenge, being executed or to enduring lives of hell.
East-West explores this period of history by following the fictitious lives of Alexei (Oleg Menchikov), a Russian physician practicing in France, his French wife Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire) and their son who decide to return. Moments after their opulent ship docks on Russian soil, they realize their monumental mistake. With fellow passengers herded into groups and one shot when he attempts to flee, all that saves Alexei is the state's dire need for doctors. Marie is not as lucky. Only able to speak French, she is physically punished and accused of being a spy.
Alexei begs to keep his wife, but must pay a price. Assigned to operate an infirmary for a textile factory in Kiev, he and his family live in a tiny communal flat with prying neighbors, all of whom could be police informants. Alexei seems able to cope with the situation, but Marie's constant and vocal yearning for freedom puts them all at risk. Eventually this stress, and Alexei's decision to please the political powers (i.e. his female boss and the apartment supervisor) with sexual favors in an attempt to protect his wife, whom he claims to dearly love, breaks the marriage apart.
Marie, still looking for any way out, finds hope when she provides lodging to a 17-year-old swimmer named Sacha (Serguei Bodrov Jr.) who has the opportunity to participate in a competition in Vienna -- possibly allowing both of them to "swim" to freedom.
Aside from a short intimate scene without nudity between Marie and Sacha, none of the couple's sexual exploits are detailed visually in this dark and drab subtitled movie (the dialogue is mainly French). Nor does East-West focus on physical torture except for those mentioned in the opening scenes. Instead the story builds suspense by plunging into the uncertain intentions of the characters, rarely giving the adult audience a chance to take a breath, although teen viewers may not find this approach very engaging.
With noted European cast members (including Catherine Deneuve playing a French actress on tour in Russia) there is no lack of talent on the screen. And any accusations that writer/director Regis Wargnier is being too melodramatic because of his black hat and trench coat attired "bad commies" and imposing Cold War musical score, would be overshadowed by the cold truth of Stalin's manipulation tactics.