sat 18/05/2024

Farewell | reviews, news & interviews



The spy who came in from reality: a gripping real-life psychological thriller

Emir Kusturica and Guillaume Canet: The men who brought down the Berlin Wall (kind of)

Midway through Farewell, a civilian who is aiding a KGB spy is told by his nervous wife, “I married an engineer. Not James Bond.” In other films, this might be a cheap line, a postmodern quip; here it is spoken in earnest, and reflects the many nuances of a wonderfully retro spy drama.

Farewell is a throwback to the purest of Cold War yarns, notably from the Sixties, in which psychology was more important than action, and characters struggled painfully with loyalty and betrayal in grimy rooms and wintry locales. Goldfinger in 1964 may have excelled with the Martini school of spying, but a year later The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Ipcress File suggested espionage as it might actually be: mundane, and dangerous.

While harking back to those fictions, Christian Carion’s film also carries the kudos of true events. It is loosely based on the book Bonjour Farewell, an investigation by Russian journalist Sergei Kostine of the explosive defection in the early Eighties of a high-ranking KGB agent, Vladimir Vetrov. Having made contact through a French businessman, Vetrov handed thousands of secret documents to the West, exposing his country’s spy network and, some suggest, helping to bring down the Soviet Union.

Moscow, 1981. French engineer Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet) is at the circus with his wife Jessica (Alexandra Maria Lara, pictured below with Canet) and their daughter. Halfway through the performance, he slips out to his car to conduct what he thinks is a one-off favour for his boss. Froment has no idea what he’s getting himself into, and is none too pleased when he finds out. For his part, the man lurking on the back seat, KGB colonel Sergei Gregoriev (Emir Kusturica), thinks he’s being hooked up with a French spy. “They sent me an amateur,” he grumbles. “Typically French.”

But Grigoriev decides that this is a blessing in disguise. Who would suspect the inexperienced Froment, not least when the pair will meet in broad daylight, in parks and at national monuments, for all to see? At first, he doesn’t so much court the Frenchman as impose himself, jumping into Froment’s car at traffic lights, stolen secrets in his hand. Slowly the younger man gets hooked, ostensibly by the promise of promotion, one suspects more by the thrill, and by the magnetism of the newly codenamed “Farewell”, a man who doesn’t want asylum or cash for his troubles, but champagne, French poetry and tapes of Queen.

farewell05smallFrom here on, the story flexes its muscles, moving between Moscow, Paris and Washington, as Grigoriev’s material – revealing the shocking extent to which Russia has infiltrated the West – is passed first to François Mitterrand (Philippe Magnan), then by Mitterrand to Ronald Reagan (Fred Ward), each leader seeing his own leverage in the revelations.

The director’s handling of mode and tone is one reason why this film is so unusual. Carion shifts deftly between the domestic and the political, the droll and the dramatic, sweeping history (Gorbachev also makes an appearance, heralding his perestroika) and the individual tragedy of one man, Grigoriev, ready to sacrifice everything for a country he feels has lost its way. He also shows how the primary mechanism of espionage, deceit, infects all aspects of life. “I live in lies, and solitude,” says Grigoriev, who is not only betraying his country, but cheating on his wife. Pierre has also learned to lie at home, continuing to spy against his wife’s wishes, thus risking his marriage.

The politicians, of course, all lie to each other, friend or foe. It’s a nice touch to have Fred Ward’s very rum Reagan (who was known to watch westerns as a way of mulling over key decisions) show a colleague the keynote scene of Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence – in which we see Wayne, not James Stewart, kill the villain; the actor-turned-president knew very well the importance of “point of view”.

Carion’s previous film, Merry Christmas, was about the Yuletide truce during World War One, when French, German and British soldiers played football in no-man’s-land – like Farewell, a story that would be deemed preposterous were it not, in fact, true. As in that film, Carion has his actors speak the language of their characters – both leads moving with aplomb between French and Russian. This lends much credence to proceedings, and to the performances. The fellow actor-directors Canet and Kusturica are top class, particularly the latter, whose warts-and-all portrayal of a common type – the idealist-philanderer – is complex and unremittingly charismatic.

As Daniel Craig’s Bond and Matt Damon’s Bourne have kept spydom muscular, it’s a brave move to return to the quieter, talkier machinations we have here. And with the remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy later this year, it’s good to see the Cold War warming up again.

Watch the trailer to Farewell

The director’s handling of mode and tone is one reason why this film is so unusual

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