Directed by Christian Carion. Starring Emir Kusturica, Guillaume Canet, Alexandra Maria Lara, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Philippe Magnan, Fred Ward, Willem Dafoe, David Soul, Niels Arestrup. (2009, NR, 113 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 20, 2010
This French espionage film, which is loosely based on historic but little-known events, shows us that not all spies are the kind of professionals that dominate our movie images. Rather than choosing their activities, many a spy has had the task thrust upon them by happenstance or chance. They are not Jason Bourne or James Bond or Salt but, instead, average individuals who find themselves in difficult situations. Their lives may not resemble those of the professional lone wolves; there may be spouses and children and complicated lives that interfere with the deft performance of surreptitious activities. Verbal lies on top of the intrinsic deceit of spying may also become necessary. Such is the case in Farewell, which takes place in 1981 and tells a story of the demise of the Cold War between the U.S. and the former USSR. Pierre Froment (Canet), a French businessman based in Moscow, becomes the unlikely courier of secrets to the West provided to him by Sergei Grigoriev (Kusturica), a KGB officer disenchanted with Brezhnev’s desecration of the Communist ideal. Opposites in type and temperament, Froment and Grigoriev nevertheless form a bond based on the exclusively shared knowledge of their duplicity. In a curious bit of casting, both characters are played by film directors (Frenchman Canet directed the multiple-award-winning crime thriller Tell No One, and Serbian Kusturica directed the Cannes Palme d'Or winner Underground). Lanky and owlish, Canet appears in marked contrast to Kusturica’s heavy world-weariness. When Carion (Merry Christmas) keeps the focus on the two men, the film retains a human element that is gripping. However, one suspects that a lot of facts have been watered down along the way as the action switches among centers of power in Moscow, Paris, and Washington, D.C. Certainly, the demise of the Cold War is a more complex event than can be explained by this film’s siphoning out of some too-secret documents. Images of Ronald Reagan (gamely played by Ward) watching The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence are vastly oversimplified, and the back and forth among Reagan, Mitterrand, and Brezhnev weigh the film down. Though the characters are indelible and the theme of the lies one tells for the greater good is compelling, this account of history strains the action when it focuses on the debates held in the highest corridors of power. Yet, if taken merely as a vaguely historical spy thriller, Farewell is a dandy tale.