Cold War spy thriller discloses few secrets
Spy movies are usually all about professionalism, but Christian Carion’s “Farewell’’ is a true-life espionage thriller told from the point of view of two amateurs: a KGB officer, code-named “Farewell,’’ who wanted to bring down his own government, and the French electronics engineer who became his handler and friend. It’s a bizarre, provocative story and a moving one, but it doesn’t access the richer levels and themes of the film the publicity campaign obviously wants you to think of: 2006’s “The Lives of Others.’’
Like that Oscar-winning art-house hit, though, Carion’s “Farewell’’ has a compelling and conflicted central figure who questions the repressive government for which he works. As played by Emir Kusturica (normally a director of movies like “When Father Was Away on Business’’), Sergei Gregoriev is a paradox: a flawed idealist, a naive cynic, and a member of Russia’s secret police who gives away his country’s secrets. The year is 1981 and Sergei is disgusted with the corruption and bloat of the Brezhnev era; he wants to blow it all up and get back to the real revolution.
By contrast, Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet, another director stepping in front of the cameras) has no ideology whatsoever. He’s just a nice young Parisian technocrat with a wife (Alexandra Maria Lara) and family who works for Thomson Electronics in Moscow, where his boss has him run minor errands for the French Secret Service. Sergei decides this nobody is the man to trust rather than the professional spooks, and he’s right — Pierre is the one character in “Farewell’’ without a hidden agenda or a reputation to protect.
Espionage in this movie is a mirror game: The KGB documents that Sergei gives to Pierre are the West’s own plans for missile deployment and the like scribbled with Russian notes and commentary. In effect, he’s not giving up secrets so much as saying there are no secrets. Kusturica has a great face for the movies — a big, creased map of disappointment and self-disgust — and he plays the traitor as a flawed saint, unable to connect with his wife (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) and teenage son (Evgenie Kharlanov) but getting a little KGB action (Dina Korzun) on the side.
Pierre, by contrast, remains a cipher both visually (a thick beard and period glasses hide his facial expressions) and emotionally. What’s in it for him? The excitement of playing spy? A chance to change the world? We never learn. “Farewell’’ is nominally about the cost of chronic lying to one’s soul, but we see the price more in Lara’s distraught wife than in the phlegmatic Pierre.
When “Farewell’’ climbs to the top levels of government, it just turns silly, with Philippe Magnan playing French President François Mitterand as a wax figure and Fred Ward’s Ronald Reagan an affable, sonorous cartoon. Carion is aiming for an old-fashioned sociopolitical epic like “Is Paris Burning?’’ or “Z,’’ but it’s the small, intimate moments that stick with you, most of them involving Kusturica’s Sergei.
Late in the going, after a few scenes of rote border-crossing suspense, the true cynicism of the international spy game is made clear by a CIA head played by Willem Dafoe. It’s a shock but not the devastating punch to the gut the film thinks, in part because decades of John Le Carre novels, spy movies, and reality itself have conditioned us to expect the worst. Beware the thriller whose characters are more naive than the audience.