Aug 9, 2000 at 12:00 am

Having won a foreign film Oscar for the plodding soap opera Indochine (1991), French director Régis Wargnier once again indulges his taste for set-upon heroines and historical upheavals in East-West, which takes place in the gloomy precincts of Joseph Stalin’s post-WW II Russia. Wargnier seems to be trying to mate what used to be called “women’s pictures” with the kind of epic signified by sumptuous visuals and intrusive music. But despite the pleasing cinematography, the central melodrama remains old-fashioned and heavy-handed.

The film’s story takes place during that period immediately after the war when Russian emigrants were being encouraged to return to their homeland by offers of amnesty and the promise of a place in Stalin’s brave new world. Upon arrival, many of them were whisked away to forced-labor camps or executed for being imperialist spies. Some of those who belonged to the professional classes were more fortunate, such as the young doctor Alexeï Golovine (Oleg Menchikov) who returns with his French wife Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire) and their young son. Alexeï is useful to the authorities — doctors are always useful — but Marie is viewed as a suspicious character and possible spy.

The first part of the film deals with the couple ensconced in their cramped quarters and slowly growing apart as Marie is continually harassed and Alexeï adapts, a little too well. The second part shifts gears and becomes the story of Marie’s attempt to escape the country, reluctantly aided by a French stage actress played by Catherine Deneuve. This injection of mild suspense comes too late and only aroused in this viewer memories of a better film, Hitchcock’s much-maligned Torn Curtain (1966) — another instantly old-fashioned effort, but ingenious and with no pretense to seriousness.

Still, for all its narrative flabbiness — including two adulterous affairs that lead nowhere — the film is well acted, especially by Menchikov as the divided-heart husband. He’s the film’s only nod to emotional ambiguity. Marie is purely distressed and the bad guys are purely evil and it’s all about as subtle as a wartime propaganda flick, mixed with the pulpy scenario of a woman wronged, first by Stalin, then her husband.

It’s a cruel world.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Friday-Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].