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A Righteous Traitor: "Farewell"

Guillaume Canet and Emir Kusturica.

At the very beginning of Christian Carion’s Farewell, an on-screen message informs us, “This film is based on events which led to the fall of the Soviet Bloc, putting an end to a world dominated by two opposing powers.” This sentence is hedged, but it does convey the film’s ambitious historical and narrative scope. As it happens, Carion (the Academy Award nominated Joyeux Noel) has bitten off something more than his film can digest. Its most resonant success is on a much more intimate scale, in its involving, eventually riveting depiction of an unlikely espionage partnership between two men, one French, the other Russian.

Farewell is ostensibly about the efforts of a Soviet KGB colonel, Sergei Grigoriev (Serbian director Emir Kusturica), who begins passing important Soviet intelligence to a young French engineer, Pierre Froment (French director and actor Guillaume Canet). Froment, while assigned by his employer to Moscow in the early 1980s, is pressed into service as a spy by a superior with personal contacts to a French spy agency.

Grigoriev, a cosmopolitan but idealistic man, is disgusted with the stultifyingly inefficient and sclerotically autocratic leadership elite of his country, and convinced that he can contribute to Russia’s regeneration by aiding the West. He hopes to contribute to his country’s turn to a pursuit of democratic socialist ideals. And he’s annoyed to find that the contact Paris has sent to receive his gift of official secrets is “an amateur.” (“Typically French,” he mutters.) But soon, he can appreciate the advantages of this unusual arrangement. “You’re becoming a perfect little spy,” he tells Pierre jocularly.

Grigoriev isn’t the only one pleased with the results. The French government, all the way up to President Francois Mitterand (Philippe Magnan), is excited. Mitterand savors the opportunity to one-up Ronald Reagan (Fred Ward) and deflect the US president’s complaints about Communists in the French government. The Russians, Reagan is embarrassed and dismayed to learn, have not only mapped American military radar, but know the schedules of White House caterers. (Farewell has Reagan interrupting security discussions with his puzzled aides to play a video of John Ford’s sententiously sentimental western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a favorite of French cineastes, and deemed “a masterpiece” by Reagan.)

Pierre, meanwhile, is getting hooked on the exotic craft and the frisson of spying, even as he lies to his wife (Alexandra Maria Lara) about having refused any more assignments. “We all love our wives, in our way,” Grigoriev tells him. And these two are, inevitably, bonding, Pierre developing a grudging affection for this seemingly cynical, worldly man who will accept no payment (except for French wine and brandy, and a Walkman and Queen recordings, for his adolescent son). Grigoriev thinks he has a chance to “change the world,” even if he has to become a martyr to the cause.

The character is a fictionalized stand-in for the actual Farewell (his French code name), and Pierre is a heavily embroidered composite of at least two Frenchmen. The film is based, in part, on Sergey Kostine’s novel, Bonjour Farewell. The factual provenance and the historical importance it claims for its narrative about the undermining of the Soviet empire are dubious, but as a picture of the texture and growing dissatisfactions of early 1980s Soviet life, Farewell is insightful and well observed. (Its scene-setting and production values are impressive.)

Carion’s writing and direction are adroit and witty, and in Farewell’s second half, he achieves a sensitivity and sharp poignance. If his film starts out with a slight tonal similarity to Carol Reed and Graham Greene’s spoofy Our Man in Havana, it ends with a touch of Arthur Koestler’s grim novel, Darkness at Noon. But here the Western allies, particularly the Americans, are deeply complicit in the evil consequences.

In the end, the naïve, slightly nebbishy young Pierre is forced to contemplate the awful stakes of what he’s been involved in, and the brutal amorality of governments.

Farewell must be unique, or nearly so, in having two prominent directors as its two leads, a distinction that’s validated by their excellent work. Canet, who actually has a much longer resume as an actor than a director, makes Pierre a believably intelligent but innocent recruit to a secret, danger-ridden world. Kusturica’s performance is one of the most emotionally sensitive, dynamic and ultimately moving in recent memory. (That the director of When Father Was Away on Business and Time of the Gypsies is an equally fine actor will not surprise those who remember hs performance in another French film, Patrice Leconte’s The Widow of Saint-Pierre.)

The film’s ultimate irony may be what’s happened in post-Soviet Russia. If Grigoriev (or his real-life counterpart, Vladimir Vertrov) could experience the present-day corruptly authoritarian Putin-Medvedev regime, he’d be outraged, or heartsick.

Watch the trailer for Farewell

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